Burke Olsen · June 9, 2009
Speaking to Latter-day Saints on the second day of Southern Virginia University’s annual education conference, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Robert A. Seiple told attendees, “If we don’t talk about religion and politics and their intersection it is to our peril.”
General sessions inspired by the conference’s theme, “Let Freedom Ring,” also featured Douglas E. Brinley, retired BYU religion professor; W. Cole Durham, Jr., BYU law professor and an expert in international religious freedom law; Rodney K. Smith, president of Southern Virginia University; and Wendell L. Irby, a senior program analyst at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a retired colonel in the United States Air Force.
Ambassador Seiple’s talk, “Faith-based Freedom Authenticated Through Responsibility,” focused on the need for individuals to make a difference in the world and for neighbors to respect the beliefs of others.
Seiple, an evangelical Christian, spoke in terms that resonated with Latter-day Saints. “The true cost of freedom is the sacrifice of Jesus,” he said.
He encouraged the audience to “know enough about your neighbor’s faith to show it respect.” It leads us to be less concerned about that which offends us, he said. “When we learn to listen and to respect, our own faith becomes that much more attractive.”
Seiple also talked about the responsibility we all have to find ways to improve conditions for people all around the world who suffer, especially children.
“We have a social obligation beyond the plan of redemption,” he said. Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Seiple encouraged members of the audience to avoid stereotyping others, and asked, “How do we handle today’s Jericho Road? What can we do to change conditions and provide options [for those who need our help]?”
Seiple acknowledged that despite all our individual efforts and those of organizations like World Vision, which he used to head, there still will be starving children somewhere. But he finds reasons to hope.
“Someone once asked Mother Teresa how she judged success,” he said.
“God hasn’t called me to be successful, God has only called me to be faithful,” she replied.
Seiple said he has hope today for a better tomorrow because when he wakes up “God is still sovereign [and] the [Savior’s] grave is still empty.”
Cole Durham spoke about global challenges in advancing religious freedom. He shared a status report on religious freedom worldwide and highlighted countries in which people lack the ability to publically worship as they wish.
“Partly because of the war in Iraq, but for many reasons, Christians are fleeing the Middle East,” he said. “It is interesting to note that there is a great reluctance on the part of other countries to accept refugees or those seeking asylum.”
Durham described that there is a rebirth of fear around religious freedom in Russia and other countries. In particular, the number of countries with anti-conversion laws is increasing. In some predominantly Muslim nations, for instance, conversion is equated with apostasy and is a capital offense, he said.
Durham highlighted the importance of precedent set by international law and the rulings of international courts.
“The European court is dealing with seven cases of religious employment, including one involving a member of the Church,” he said. And the Church found out about the case almost by accident. “These cases are phenomenally significant for religious communities.”
Most countries have non-discrimination laws, which is a good thing, Durham said. “The problem is that people don’t think about what this means for religious employers.”
It is unclear how the court’s decisions could affect employment laws for churches, charities, church-owned media outlets, and religious-based schools. Durham said that it could become complicated for the Church, for instance, if the law dictated temple worthiness could not be a precondition for employment.
Douglas E. Brinley, whose book credits include “America’s Hope: Why Every Other Civilization Has Failed and What We Can Do to Save This One,” focused his remarks on a concept from an Old Testament verse: Righteousness exalteth a nation (Prov. 14:34).
He outlined the four groups who have lived on the American continent, which is a land of promise:
1. The Antediluvians, or all those who lived before the time of Noah,
2. The Jaredites,
3. The Lehites/Mulekites, and
4. Gentiles/Latter-day Christians
The Lord’s stipulations for this land can be reduced to this, he said: serve God or be swept off.
“For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off” (Ether 2:10).
Citing scriptures from the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants that foretell destruction if the inhabitants of this land do not repent and if they cast the righteous out from among them, Brinley said that Latter-day Saints have a responsibility to know what is going on in politics and in the government and to stand up for what is right.
He quoted President Ezra Taft Benson, who said, “This nation will, in a measure at least, fulfill its mission even though it may face serious and troublesome days. The degree to which it achieves its full mission depends upon the righteousness of its people.”
“We know that the final dispensation will not end in defeat,” Brinley said. “We must be great students of the Book of Mormon that we may be Latter-day Saints.”
Rodney K. Smith spoke about James Madison’s unequaled role in the founding and establishment of the United States. Madison’s part in the “temporal restoration” is comparable to Joseph Smith’s role in the spiritual restoration, Smith said.
Considered the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison was born in Virginia in 1751 and died 85 years later. He was only 5 feet four inches tall and weighed only about 100 pounds, was frail and often had poor health. Those who knew him called him Jimmy.
Smith emphasized the importance of the Constitution by quoting Elder Dallin H. Oaks who said, “The United States Constitution was the first written constitution in the world. It has served Americans well, enhancing freedom and prosperity during the changed conditions of more than two hundred years. Frequently copied, it has become the United States’ most important export.”
Madison, who ultimately served as secretary of state and for two terms as president of the United States attended the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton, where he received a liberal arts education, Smith said.
Though Madison believed strongly in freedom of religion and that the multiplicity of sects helped to stave off the domination of one faith over another, he initially opposed the U.S. Bill of Rights, in part for the way early drafts dealt with religious freedom.
Smith, a former dean of several law schools and a Constitution scholar, recounted a trip he made to a conference Poland in the early 1990s to present a paper on equality. His Polish friends seemed interested only in talking about the rule of law, which helped him better appreciate its importance.
Madison saw the rule of law not only as a means to secure liberty, but also as a method for allowing multiple sects and religious freedom, Smith said.
Wendell L. Irby recalls playing solider as a young boy in the 1940s. He grew up thinking about the sacrifice of those who served at the battlefront and the character traits that make them great.
In his address, “Freedom Is Not Free,” he said he felt that most Americans have short memories and have forgotten many of the sacrifices made by Americans who lost their lives in 38 terrorist attacks between 1961 and 2001.
Irby recounted the events of September 11, 2001, and showed a slide indicating the location of his Pentagon office just weeks before the attack. Having been reassigned to a different location at the Pentagon, he choked back tears as he described that his old office was in the area struck by the nose of the plane that crashed there on 9/11. He said that words cannot begin express the gratitude he feels to the Lord for sparing his life.
Advocating the need for good men and women to rise up when liberty is threatened, Irby quoted Benjamin Franklin who said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
“The soldier is that well armed lamb,” Irby said.