Burke Olsen · June 8, 2009
The 13th annual education conference at Southern Virginia University began Friday in Buena Vista, Va., with the theme: Let Freedom Ring. Hundreds of Latter-day Saints gathered to hear from some of the foremost thinkers on freedom along with men and women who have fought on the front lines of wars and in the halls of government.
The first day included a keynote address by Elder Robert S. Wood of the Second Quorum of the Seventy. Other speakers included Kathleen Knight, who has organized the conference for all of its 13 years; Caitlin Robison, a Southern Virginia University student who won $500 for her essay on the conference’s theme; Carl W. and Carolyn Bacon, the former president and matron of the Provo Utah Temple; Jeff Benedict, a best-selling author and distinguished professor of English at Southern Virginia University; and Paul S. Edwards, Southern Virginia’s executive vice president and provost.
Knight, whose husband, Glade, serves as chair of the board at Southern Virginia University, said that supreme freedom comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Quoting from the book of John she said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
Elder Wood continued on the theme of freedom with his keynote address, “The Cost of Liberty: The Moral Foundations of American Freedom.” He described a two-fold mandate Latter-day Saints have received from the Lord—the call to walk in holiness and the call to maintain freedom and establish justice.
Speaking to the relationship between holiness and political and religious freedom, Elder Wood quoted President Boyd K. Packer who said, “Strength that comes from decency, from morality, is the one, the essential ingredient required for the preservation of freedom, indeed for the preservation of humankind.”
A political scientist with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, Elder Wood explained that the stability of every state or country is dependent not only on a constitution, but also on certain antecedent principles. Speaking of the United States he said that some things are more important than the Constitution, without which the Constitution will not endure. The founders of the United States saw faith and virtue, family, and education as the pre-conditions for a decent society and a free government, he said. “Remove them and both stability and liberty are in jeopardy.”
Elder Wood also presented a stirring defense of the Church’s involvement in the successful effort to pass Proposition 8 in California, which changed California’s constitution to say, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Speaking of the role of prophets and their God-given power of foresight and their responsibility to warn the people about issues regarding marriage and the family, he said that prophets are called to speak against both private and public wrongs.
Latter-day Saints “have been called to raise the standard of holiness to all nations,” Elder Wood said. “And to teach the principle that liberty itself can only be preserved if we ground it in the holiness, which the Lord has commanded.”
Jeff Benedict spoke about his recent book “Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage,” about the most controversial Supreme Court decision since Roe v. Wade.
The book tells the story of a woman who fought to save her house from being seized and demolished by the government to improve an area near a pharmaceutical company’s new headquarters. Suzette Kelo fought her battle all the way to the Supreme Court in the controversial case Kelo vs. New London, Conn.
Kelo lost and the Supreme Court sided with the city of New London in a 5-4 decision that set legal precedent for municipalities to take land not only for public use, but also for private use if the amount of tax derived is larger.
Benedict and Kelo have been traveling all over the country this year on a book tour, and have received standing ovations time after time. Benedict knows it’s not because of him, but it’s because one person stood up and did the right thing for the right reason. People see Kelo as a terrific heroine, he said.
Even though she lost her case at the Supreme Court, 43 states have rejected the decision as law. And not one state supreme court has upheld the Kelo decision, Benedict said.
Benedict, who teaches courses in advanced writing and contemporary issues at Southern Virginia, explained why he loves being a writer.
“I get to climb into people’s lives, sometimes for six months, sometimes for three years,” he said. “I get to learn about issues that shape our country and our society and our norms and values.”
Paul Edwards spoke about a seemingly little but vitally important piece of religious freedom history related to the Restoration of the Church that is not widely known by Church members.
“The legal freedom that cultivated the soil for the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days was the freedom of religious organizations to freely incorporate,” he said. “A relatively obscure act of the New York state legislature to provide for the incorporation of religious societies was far more consequential for the restoration of the gospel than the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The first peacetime act of the New York legislature, passed on April 6, 1784, created the administrative process for churches to incorporate in New York. This was the first time in legal history that the power to incorporate was made a general right. Up until that time corporate charters were only available one-at-a-time through special legislation.
Later the statute was amended to require that three to nine people be trustees in order for a church to receive legal recognition by the state. When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, with six original members, it met that requirement and at least one more. The law stipulated that a new church was to have at least two elders to oversee it. Thus Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s early titles and roles as the first and second elders of the Church also fulfilled a legal mandate.
The impact of New York’s legislation was at least twofold, Edwards said. First, it proliferated church charters in New York, creating the competition for church members that figures so prominently in Joseph Smith’s history, and, second, it paved the way for the free or general incorporation of churches and other associations throughout the early American republic.
In light of this little-known piece of religious freedom history, Edwards quoted Doctrine & Covenants 44:4-5.
“And many shall be converted, insomuch that ye shall obtain power to organize yourselves according to the laws of man; That your enemies may not have power over you; that you may be preserved in all things; that you may be enabled to keep my laws; that every bond may be broken wherewith the enemy seeketh to destroy my people.”
“It is not just those people who met in Philadelphia in 1776, or 1787, that we owe tremendous thanks to for religious freedom and heritage, but to New York state legislators who were thoughtful enough and open enough to inspiration to pave this way for us,” he said.
Carolyn Bacon, a former matron of the Provo Utah Temple. Mission of the Freedom Festival at Provo.
Talked about the establishment of colonies in the Americas and the conditions that led to the American Revolution.
“We have always prevailed, because we have always had heroes,” she said. “They were not perfect, but they rose to the occasion.”
Carl Bacon, a longtime member of the executive committee for America’s Freedom Festival in Provo, focused his remarks on the need to remember the past.
Bacon grew up in Hollywood during World War II. With threats coming from across the Atlantic and the Pacific, it was a scary time, he said.
He recounted some of the wartime practices to which people in his community were subjected and mentioned things like war propaganda, searchlights, air sirens and bomb drills. He also showed photographs of the elaborate camouflage built by Hollywood movie set designers to hide California airports in case there was an invasion from bombers intent to destroy airports and airstrips.
In his ward, the bishop would announce every week the number of ward members who were injured, killed or missing in action. The hardest to experience for him was when he learned that his brother, a pilot, had been shot down and was missing in action. He was a returned missionary and had a six-month-old baby.
“I never told him that I loved him,” he said.
Bacon has sought every occasion in his life since then to share his love and appreciation with family members and also those who have served in the military.
Of his 35 years of involvement with the Freedom Festival he said, “I wanted to be sure I did something to never forget those who gave their lives for us.”