Religious Values and Public Policy

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave this address in Washington, D.C., on February 29, 1992. It was entered into the Senate record on March 18, 1992.

Last April my Church duties took me to Albania. Elder Hans B. Ringger and I were some of the first Western visitors to that newly opened country. We conferred with government officials about the reception our Church’s missionaries would receive in Albania, which had banned all churches in 1967. They told us the government regretted its actions against religion, and that it now welcomed back churches to Albania. One explained, “We need the help of churches to rebuild the moral base of our country, which was destroyed by communism.” During the past 12 months I have heard this same reaction during discussions with government and other leaders in Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

In contrast, consider what we hear about religion from some prominent persons in the United States. Some question the legitimacy of religious-based values in public policy debates. Some question the appropriateness of churches or religious leaders taking any public position on political issues.

Provoked by that contrast, I will use this occasion to speak about the role of religious-based values and religious leaders in public policy debates. As you are aware, I have some experience in law, public life, and church leadership. What I say is my personal opinion, and is not a statement in behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Fundamental to the role of religion in public policy is this most important question: Are there moral absolutes? Speaking to our BYU students last month, President Rex E. Lee said:

I cannot think of anything more important than for each of you to build a firm, personal testimony that there are in this life some absolutes, things that never change, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. They are eternal truths, eternal principles and, as Paul tells us, they are and will be the same yesterday, today and forever.

Unfortunately, other educators deny the existence of God or deem God irrelevant to the human condition. Persons who accept this view deny the existence of moral absolutes. They maintain that right and wrong are relative concepts, and morality is merely a matter of personal choice or expediency. For example, a university professor reported that her students lacked what she called “moral common sense.” She said they believed that “there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments.” In that view, even the most fundamental moral questions have at least two sides, and every assertion of right or wrong is open to debate.

I believe that these contrasting approaches underlie the whole discussion of religious values in public policy. Many differences of opinion over the role of religion in public life simply mirror a difference of opinion over whether there are moral absolutes. But this underlying difference is rarely made explicit. It is as if those who assume that all values are relative have established their assumption by law or tradition and have rendered illegitimate the fundamental belief of those who hold that some values are absolute.

One of the consequences of shifting from moral absolutes to moral relativism in public policy is that this produces a corresponding shift of emphasis from responsibilities to rights. Responsibilities originate in moral absolutes. In contrast, rights find their origin in legal principles, which are easily manipulated by moral relativism. Sooner or later the substance of rights must depend on either the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities or the legal enforcement of duties. When our laws or our public leaders question the existence of absolute moral values they undercut the basis for the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities, which is economical, and compel our society to rely more and more on the legal enforcement of rights, which is expensive.

Some moral absolutes or convictions must be at the foundation of any system of law. This does not mean that all laws are so based. Many laws and administrative actions are simply a matter of wisdom or expediency. I suppose the important decisions of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Open Market Committee are largely of this character. Many other examples could be cited. If most of us believe that it is wrong to kill or steal or lie, our laws will include punishment of those acts. If most of us believe that it is right to care for the poor and needy, our laws will accomplish or facilitate those activities. Society continually legislates morality. The only question is whose morality and what legislation.

In the United States, the moral absolutes are the ones derived from what we refer to as the Judeo-Christian tradition, as set forth in the Bible–Old Testament and New Testament. For example, under that tradition adultery is wrong. The continuing force of that moral absolute was affirmed in a recent poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. They found that 75% of Americans believe that adultery is always morally wrong. There may be–and are–differences of opinion over the wisdom of using the criminal law or the divorce law to enforce that moral absolute, but there can be no question about what a large majority of our citizens believe on that subject.

Despite ample evidence of majority adherence to moral absolutes, some still question the legitimacy of a moral foundation for our laws and public policy. To avoid any suggestion of adopting or contradicting any particular religious absolute, some secularists argue that our laws must be entirely neutral, with no discernible relation to any particular religious tradition. Such proposed neutrality is unrealistic, unless we are willing to cut away the entire idea that there are moral absolutes.

Of course, not all moral absolutes are based on traditional religion. A substantial segment of society has subscribed to the environmental movement, which Robert Nisbet, a distinguished American sociologist, has characterized as a “national religion,” with a “universalized social, economic, and political agenda.” So far as I am aware, there has been no responsible public challenge to the legitimacy of laws based on the environmentalists’ set of values. I don’t think there should be. My point is that religious values are just as legitimate as those based on any other comprehensive set of beliefs.


Let us apply these thoughts to the role of religions, churches, and church leaders in the public sector.

Some reject the infusion of religious-based values in public policy by urging that much of the violence and social divisiveness of the modern world is attributable to religious controversies. Our world is not without such examples, as we are reminded by Iran and Ireland. But all should remember that the most horrible moral atrocities of the twentieth century in terms of death and human misery have been committed by regimes that are unambiguously secular, not religious. I challenge anyone to think of any modern religious regime whose moral excesses can compare with Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Even though we cannot reject religious values in law-making on the basis of their bad record by comparison with other values, there are ample examples of hostility to religious values in the public sector. For example, less than a decade ago, the United States Department of Justice challenged a federal judge’s right to sit on a case involving the Equal Rights Amendment on the ground that his religious views would prejudice him. The judge was Marion Callister. The religious views were LDS. In that same decade, the American Civil Liberties Union took the position that any pro-life abortion law was illegitimate because it must necessarily be founded on religious belief.

A few years ago some Protestant and Jewish clergymen challenged a federally financed program to promote abstinence from sexual activity among teenage youngsters. The grant recipients included BYU and some Catholic charities in Virginia and Michigan. The ACLU attorney who filed this challenge declared that “the ‘chastity law’ is unconstitutional because it violates the requirement for separation of church and state” because taxpayer dollars “are going to religious institutions, which use the funds to teach religious doctrines opposing teen-age sex and abortion.” In the meantime, the “value” judgments that permit public schools to distribute birth control devices to teenagers supposedly violate no constitutional prohibition because the doctrine that opposes chastity is secular.

During this same period, Professor Henry Steele Commager criticized the Moral Majority and the Roman Catholic Church for “inject[ing] religion into politics more wantonly than at any time since the Know-Nothing crusade of the 1850’s.” Writing in a New York Times column, this distinguished scholar asserted that “what the Framers [of our Constitution] had in mind was more than separating church and state: it was separating religion from politics.” While conceding that no one could question the right to preach “morality and religion,” Commager argued that churchmen of all denominations crossed an impermissible line “when they connect morality with a particular brand of religious faith and this, in turn, with political policies.”

Apparently churchmen can preach morality and religion as long as they do not suggest that their particular brand of religion has any connection with morality or that the resulting morality has any connection with political policies. Stated otherwise, religious preaching is okay as long as it has no practical impact on the listeners’ day-to-day behavior, especially any behavior that has anything to do with political activity or public policy.

That is such a curious position for a man as respected as Professor Commager, I wonder if I have misunderstood him. Perhaps his point is a deeper one. As we know, the idea that there is an absolute right and wrong comes from religion and the absolute values that have influenced law and public policy are most commonly rooted in religion. In contrast, the values that generally prevail in today’s academic community are relative values. Perhaps Commager is not denying the legitimacy of churchmen preaching on political questions as much as he is simply challenging the appropriateness of bringing to public policy debates the kind of absolute values many of them preach.

It is significant that not all challenges to religious values in public policy come from the academic community or from the political left. A few years ago Senator Barry Goldwater rejected what he described as an attempt by “religious factions” to “control” his vote on particular issues. In doing so he declared that these “decent people” should “recognize that religion has no place in public policy.” Similarly, the promoters of a nationwide poll a few years ago asserted that 53 percent of Americans feel that “religious leaders should stay out of politics entirely even if they feel strongly about certain political issues.”

I have read serious academic arguments to the effect that religious people can participate in public debate only if they conceal the religious origin of their values by translating them into secular dialect. In a nation committed to pluralism, this kind of hostility to religion should be legally illegitimate and morally unacceptable. It is also irrational and unworkable, for reasons explained by BYU law professor Frederick Mark Gedicks:

[S]ecularism has not solved the problem posed by religion in public life so much as it has buried it. By placing religion on the far side of the boundary marking the limit of the real world, secularism prevents public life from taking religion seriously. Secularism does not reach us to live with those who are religious; rather, it demands that we ignore them and their views. Such a “solution” can remain stable only so long as those who are ignored acquiesce in their social situation. The last two decades suggest that [religious] acquiescence in a secularized public life… is vanishing, if it has not already disappeared.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has never held that citizens could not join together to translate their moral beliefs into laws or public policies even when those beliefs are derived from religious doctrine. Indeed, there are many sophisticated and articulate spokesmen for the proposition that the separation of church and state never intended to exclude religiously grounded values form the public square. For example, I offer the words of Richard John Neuhaus:

In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being “religious” than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb. There is no legal or constitutional question about the admission of religion to the public square; there is only a question about the free and equal participation of citizens in our public business. Religion is not a reified “thing” that threatens to intrude upon our common life. Religion in public is but the pubic opinion of those citizens who are religious.

As with individual citizens, so also with the associations that citizens form to advance their opinions. Religious institutions may understand themselves to be brought into being by God, but for the purposes of this democratic polity they are free associations of citizens. As such, they are guaranteed the same access to the public square as are the citizens who comprise them.

No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those values into the public square. Religious persons need to be skillful in how they do so, but they need not yield to an adversary’s assumption that the whole effort is illegitimate. We should remind others of the important instances in which the efforts of churches an clergy in the political arena have influenced American public policies in great historical controversies whose outcome in virtually unquestioned today. The slavery controversy was seen as a great moral issue and became the major political issue of the nineteenth century because of the preaching of clergy and the political action of churches. A century later, churches played an indispensable role in the Civil Rights movement, and, a decade later, clergymen and churches of various denominations were an influential part of the anti-war movement that contributed to the end of the war in Vietnam.

Many sincere religious people believe there should be no limitations on religious arguments on political issues so long as the speaker genuinely believes those issues can be resolved as a matter of right or wrong. That is the position Abraham Lincoln applied in his debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas. While Douglas claimed that he regarded slavery as wrong, he said the national government should allow a majority of territorial voters to decide whether slavery would be allowed in a particular territory. Lincoln rejected that argument because slavery was a matter of right or wrong. He declared:

When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do a wrong.

Like Lincoln, I believe that questions of right and wrong, whether based on religious principles or any other source of values, are legitimate in any debate over laws or public policy. Is there anything more important to debate than what is right or wrong? And those arguments should be open across the entire political spectrum. There is no logical way to contend that religious arguments or lobbying are legitimate on the question of abstinence from nuclear war by nations but not on the question of abstinence from sexual relations by teenagers.


What limitations should church and their leaders observe when they choose to participate in public debate on political issues?

This subject was widely discussed about 8 years ago because of the convergence of several extraordinary events. A committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released its pastoral letter, “Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” New York Governor Mario Cuomo, moved by the issue of abortion, made a celebrated statement about the significance of Catholic teaching for a public official who is a Roman Catholic. And Senator Edward M. Kennedy made his celebrated address to the students of Liberty Baptist College. The pot boiled vigorously then, but the heat was not translated into much light, at least not the kind that illuminates a consensus. I propose to revisit this subject with a few comments of my own.

I emphasize at the outset that I am discussing limits to guide all churches across a broad spectrum of circumstances. I am not seeking to define or defend a Mormon position. As a matter of prudence, our Church has confined its own political participation within a far smaller range than is required by the law or the constitution. Other churches have chosen to assert the full latitude of their constitutional privileges and, in the opinion of some, have even exceeded them.

Where should we draw the line between what is and is not permissible for church and church-leader participation in public policy making?

At one extreme, we hear shrill complaints about political participation by any persons whose political views are attributable to religious beliefs or the teachings of their church. The words “blind obedience” are usually included in such complaints. Complaints there are, but I am now aware of any serious and rational position that would ban religious believers from participation in the political process. The serious challenges concern the participation of churches and church leaders.

Perhaps the root fear of those who object to official church participation in political debates is power: They fear that believers will choose to follow the directions or counsel of their religious leaders. Those who have this fear should remember the celebrated maxim of Jefferson “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Some may believe that reason is not free when religious leaders have spoken, but I doubt that any religious leader in twentieth century America has such a grip on followers that they cannot make a reasoned choice in the privacy of the voting booth. In fact, I have a hard time believing that the teachings of religions or churches deprive their adherents of any more autonomy in exerting the rights of citizenship than the teachings and practices of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmental organizations, political parties, or any other membership group in our society.

In his celebrated address to the students of Liberty Baptist College, Edward Kennedy maintained that churches have a right to speak out on “questions that are inherently public in nature,” like the issue of nuclear war and racial segregation. However, he argued, churches should not try to persuade government to “tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives.” “In such cases–cases like prohibition and abortion–” the Senator declared, “the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual not the coercive power of the state.” This proposed distinction between issues that are “inherently public” and those that are “uniquely personal” is very convenient, especially for one side of the political spectrum. As Senator Kennedy explained it, his distinction apparently justifies churches in making their influence felt on nuclear freeze and the Vietnam War, but it excludes them from the debate on abortion or decriminalization of drug laws.

In my view, the Senator’s distinction is unsound and unworkable. At root, every action is “uniquely personal,” and in its manifestation every act is at least potentially “public.” For example, I suppose that Southern slave owners believed that their ownership of slaves was uniquely personal, and some eighteen-year-olds probably believed the same thing about their decisions not to register for the draft during the Vietnam War. Yet, it is clear that each of these so-called uniquely personal decisions had an inherently public effect.

If a distinction between personal issues and public issues is not a sensible guide to when a church or its leaders can participate in public debate, what is? Surely it is not religious (or moral) issues versus political issues, since those labels describe a conclusion rather than assisting us to reach it.

I submit that religious leaders should have at least as many privileges as any other leaders, and that churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other corporation when they enter the public square to participate in public policy debates. The precious constitutional right of petition does not exclude any individual or any group. The same is true of freedom of speech and the press. When religion has a special constitutional right to its free exercise, religious leaders and churches should have more freedom than other persons and organizations, not less.

If churches and church leaders should have full rights to participate in public policy debates, should there be any limits on such participation?

Of course there are limits that apply specially to churches and church officials, as manifest in the United States Constitution’s prohibition against Congress making any law respecting an establishment of religion. Some linkages between churches and governments are obviously illegitimate. It would clearly violate this prohibition if a church or church official were to exercise government power or dictate government policies or direct the action of government officials independent of legal procedures or political processes.

Upon this same basis–the principle of anti-establishment–I believe it would be inappropriate for a church to discipline one of its members who holds public office for declining to follow church direction or failing to adhere to a church position on a decision made in the exercise of public responsibilities. This fairly obvious point had to be established by the Catholic church in order for John F. Kennedy to be elected President of the United States.

We have applied that limit in our Church. In a celebrated talk given in 1989, Governor Calvin L. Rampton of Utah said:

I am not aware of any time that the Church has taken any official sanction against a Mormon holding public office for things done in such officer’s official capacity. This is true even though the Church may have taken a position on the issue on the moral issue theory. For example, when part way through my tenure of office I vetoed a Sunday closing bill which had been favored by the Church, while my judgement was roundly criticized by the editorial writers of the Deseret News, no question was raised that by such act I had impaired my Church membership nor did it impair my cordial relationship with Church leaders on other subjects.

Governor Cuomo voiced that principle in his celebrated talk at Notre Dame University. “Roman Catholics in public office are bound by the church’s moral dogma,” he declared, “but are free to decide the applicability of these teachings to civil law.” He elaborated in these words:

While we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

I would say it this way. If churches or church officials believe that one of their members has violated church doctrine or policy by acts committed in his or her public office, the remedy should be at the next election, not in a church court. Unfortunately, churches are barred from this election remedy. Under federal law they lose their tax exemption if they “participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.” In contrast to lobbying for particular legislation, which is permissible so long as it is not a “substantial part” of the activities of the church, any political activity involving a candidate can invoke the dreaded loss of tax exemption.

I have grave doubts about the constitutionality or wisdom of this law, which effectively denies to churches a privilege that is available to other organizations that participate in public policy debates. If a labor union or an environmental organization can urge its members to vote against a candidate who has violated the principles of the organization, I submit that a church should be able to do the same, if it chooses to do so. A church should not apply church discipline for political behavior, but it should be free to participate in the imposition of political discipline.

In his Notre Dame Talk Governor Cuomo suggested another limitation on churches’ participation in the public sector, which is tied to a supposed distinction between religious doctrine and political implementation. I quote:

The parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic response to those wrongs. Church teaching on slavery and abortion is clear. But in the application of those teachings–the exact way we translate them into action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek–there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.

In other words, Governor Cuomo contends that when churches and church leaders enter the public arena, they should concentrate on moral principles and stay away from legislative implementation.

If Governor Cuomo was advocating what is prudent for churches as a general rule, I agree with his statement, which describes the general practice of our Church. We teach general principles that should motivate government action, but we rarely take a position on a specific legislative proposal.

If Governor Cuomo’s statement was intended to describe the limits of what is legitimate for church participation in public policy debates, I disagree. As a technical matter, the distinction between a moral “principle” and its legislative “implementation” is often impossible to apply. For example, if a church is against gambling as a moral evil–as our Church is–that church cannot avoid being against a bill that would legalize a particular form of gambling. In that instance, moral principle and legislative implementation are indistinguishable.

More fundamentally, I submit that there is no persuasive objection in law or principle to a church or a church leader taking a position on any legislative matter, if it or he or she chooses to do so.

And now, my final suggestion on church participation in public debate. When churches or church leaders choose to enter the public sector to engage in debate on a matter of public policy they should be admitted to the debate and they should expect to participate in it on the same basis as all other participants. In other words, if churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits.

By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conveniently applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments. As James E. Wood observed, “While denunciations of injustice, racism, sexism, and nationalism may be clearly rooted in one’s religious faith, their political applications to legislative remedy and public policy are by no means always clear.”

Finally, if church leaders were also to exhibit openness and tolerance of opposing views, they would help to overcome the suspicion and resentment sometimes directed toward church or church-leader participation in public debate.

In summary, I have pointed out that many laws are based on the absolute moral values most Americans affirm, and I have suggested that it cannot be otherwise. I have contended that religious-based values are just as legitimate a basis for political action as any other values. And I have argued that churches and church leaders should be able to participate in public policy debates on the same basis as other persons and organizations, favoring or opposing specific legislative proposals or candidates if they choose to do so. I have suggested that it would be inappropriate for churches to impose church discipline on their members for failing to follow church doctrine or direction in the exercise of their public responsibilities.

I will conclude this discussion of Church participation in the political process by stressing the obvious. Politics and religion have different goals and different methods. Each can be corrupted by too much association with the other.

Governments or their leaders can be corrupted by surrendering to a church, and churches or their leaders can be corrupted by excessive involvement with politics or the state. Some lesser manifestations of such corruption are sometimes seen in our day.

Politicians sometimes seek to use religion for political purposes, and they sometimes even seek to manipulate churches or church leaders. Ultimately this is always self-defeating. Whenever a church or a church leader becomes a pawn or servant of government or a political leader, it loses its status and the credibility it needs to perform its religious mission.

Churches or their leaders can also be the aggressors in the pursuit of intimacy with government. The probable results of this excess has been ably described as “the seduction of the churches to political arrogance and political innocence or even the politicizing of moral absolutes.”

The relationship between church and state and between church leaders and politicians should be respectful and distant, as befits two parties who need one another but share the realization that a relationship too close can deprive a pluralistic government of its legitimacy and a divine Church of its spiritual mission.

Despite that desirable distance, government need not be hostile to religion or pretend to ignore God. In contrast to the vocal minority who demand that governments ignore the God most of their citizens worship, I long for a return to the dignified religiosity embodied in this proclamation by a President of the United States:

We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand that preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us. And we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

That was Abraham Lincoln, 1863. His words remain appropriate for our day. I pray that we and our fellow citizens will take them to heart.


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