News and discussion about COVID-19 has come to overshadow every other topic lately. Thus it is that the annual BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review conference held (virtually) last week at the BYU Law School was titled “Religion and Religious Freedom in the COVID-19 Era: Finding Community and Hope.” Elder Bednar of the Twelve gave the introductory talk for the conference, which is summarized at the Newsroom with the title “COVID-19 Crisis: A Wake-Up Call for Religious Freedom.” There’s a link in that post to the video of Elder Bednar’s talk. Let’s talk about the talk. Maybe you like it. Maybe you don’t.
Note: I’m not sure the summary at the Newsroom really did the talk justice. If you have the time, watch the 30-minute talk as well as reading the Newsroom piece.
What Elder Bednar Said
If you don’t like what Elder Bednar said, what you probably don’t like is his frustration with the idea that some governments have limited or temporarily abrogated the ability of religious communities to meet in large groups. He obviously does not object that such temporary limits were unwarranted — the Church imposed its own suspension of Sunday church meetings about the same time government measures started going into effect and the Church did so worldwide. His central point seems to be unhappiness that this episode has set a precedent whereby the government can exercise that power and limit church gatherings and events, not that governments have abused that power in the current COVID-19 situation. He claimed:
COVID-19 has alerted us to the importance of defending the borders between personal liberty, constitutional rights, and governmental authority. COVID-19 has alerted us to many attacks on the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly.
I’m not sure his suggestion that recent government action has improperly infringed on personal liberty or constitutional rights (much less suggesting there have been recent attacks on religion) really makes sense. State and local governments have broad power to institute laws and regulations to protect citizens, often to protect them from themselves. They may be standing regulations or they may be temporary measures due to a short-term crisis, like evacuation orders for certain areas if a hurricane is approaching. Health and safety laws and regulations are just part of life, and few people object to that power on principle. You have to wear a seat belt and obey speed limits; if you don’t, you may be cited and have to pay a fine or face other sanctions. You may want to go 55 in a 35, but that puts other citizens at risk. You may want to have a religious revival with 500 people or a Sunday meeting with 200 people in the midst of the pandemic, but that puts those attending and other citizens (who would be exposed to those who get infected at the religious gathering) at risk. Religious freedom as a general principle and a constitutional norm does not give religious communities a blanket exemption from particular government safety regulations, whether building codes, fire codes, or health orders of the kind we have experienced lately.
Now I should note that governments cannot enact and enforce regulations that target religious practice or a particular denomination’s practice; it’s only general laws and regulations that can properly be applied to religious communities. In his talk, Elder Bednar stated that some governments “banned communal worship” as part of their COVID response. That is misleading and inaccurate. Governments could likely not ban religious meetings in particular while allowing other large gatherings (that is, courts would likely deem unconstitutional and void a law that targeted only religious gatherings while allowing other similar secular gatherings, even in the face of a crisis like COVID). What governments did was ban large gatherings of all kinds. The impact on religious gatherings was an incidental burden, not a specific measure directed at religion, so it is proper.
It’s more likely that what Elder Bednar is really upset about is the idea that pet stores and liquor stores and your local cannabis shop were sometimes deemed “essential services” while religious gatherings, apparently not so essential, were required to be suspended. He referred to this in his talk. He described the various governmental responses, however reasonable and well-intentioned in the circumstances, as “a profound devaluing of religion.” I think if pet stores sponsored a weekly gathering of 200 dog owners (who sing songs to each other and pass a group snack around that everyone touches and breathes on), that risk would outweigh getting fancy dog food for Fido and or kitty treats for Cuddles, and pet stores would be closed, too.
I’m sure LDS leaders don’t like the idea that church services are unessential enough that life goes on fairly well without weekly church meetings. I’m sure LDS leaders *really* don’t like the fact that lots of mainstream Latter-day Saints are making the surprising discovery that life goes on fairly well, even better, without weekly church meetings. Honestly, do you know anyone who really misses Sunday meetings? Imagine a meeting of the Big 15 where the LDS Social Media Monitor puts up a slide with some Facebook quotes from a few Molly and Peter types with comments like, “Wow, Sundays are a lot more relaxing without church meetings.” Or, “It wasn’t until the lockdown that I realized how much I didn’t like going to church.” You get the idea. No wonder Elder Bednar is upset.
Maybe you like the video that is part of Elder Bednar’s talk. It was sort of a riff on The Lorax, expressing hope that the COVID crisis will somehow lead to environmental renewal and everybody being kind to one another. Hey, at least it made traffic in Seattle better. Maybe it will make people nicer, too.
I wonder if a modified form of this address might become Elder Bednar’s talk at the next General Conference.
What Elder Bednar Didn’t Say
There is a parallel set of issues that Elder Bednar did not address: the conflict between personal liberty and the institutional right or duty of the Church to protect its membership. Will the Church (or a local congregation) require masks? Or allow individual members to exercise their “personal liberty” to not wear a mask?
Another issue: Will the Church (or a local congregation) require members to disclose a positive COVID test to their bishop? If so, will that bishop let other ward members know so they can make an informed decision about whether to attend Sunday meetings? Or will individual members be allowed to keep private their own medical and health conditions? This one is a tough issue, putting one’s personal right to keep medical information confidential into conflict with everyone else’s interest in knowing that someone in the congregation who chooses to attend Sunday services tested positive and might be contagious. And this also raises the related question of the duty of the Church (or a local congregation) to protect attending members from known risks. Will any local units institute temperature checks at the door and bar those whose temp is over 100?
Another issue: Will the Church continue giving broad discretion to local areas, stakes, and wards regarding how they structure resumed meetings and what measures they require, recommend, or prohibit? There is going to be a couple of months where various stakes and wards try out a wide variety of plans and procedures. I’m thinking that at some point the Church is going to recognize that some plans and procedures work better than others, and send out a set of guidelines or requirements that tighten up what local units can or should do.
The bottom line: I don’t think the COVID crisis has raised any new constitutional issues for freedom of religion. If anything, it has confirmed the wisdom of the standing constitutional doctrine, announced in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), that valid, neutral, and generally applicable laws extend to religious organizations as well as secular ones. I think the conflicts that are going to arise between personal liberty and institutional duty are going to be at the congregational level between members and the congregation or between the members and the bishop.
Like you said, the COJCOLDS was not treated any differently than other religions so we can’t claim the Church was discriminated against. And religious groups were not treated any differently than the rest of society (all large gatherings were banned) so we can’t claim religion was targeted either. I don’t see any basis for complaint.
It’s a little ironic that we use the categorical description “essential services” to describe the entities that were allowed to stay open. Ironic because elder Bednar probably considers the 2-hour bloc “essential” but many members have discovered that schedule is anything but essential.
This is a good post . A couple of things occur to me:
1. I think your sense of things is pretty spot on. The whole “religious freedom” thing has been consistently used as a dog whistle of late by the LDS church and others to make the argument that it’s okay to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. So essentially, religious freedom is the freedom to discriminate in a supposedly lawful, legitimate way. Because of that, I’m immediately skeptical when any religious leader employs the term in order to make a point about how their religious “freedom” is being curtailed. I agree with you that religious rights haven’t compromised in this situation. The LDS Church, like many other religious institutions is guilty of a kind of institutional hubris that reveals itself in cases like this. When there is a public health concern like our current one that could lead to hundreds of thousands of more deaths, public health and safety become more important than worshiping a deity that may or may not exist. But churches don’t like it when practical matters clearly outweigh spiritual ones in importance, in part because such a circumstance validates people’s “worldly” concerns like, you know, life and death and health and family. So it’s understandable (though reprehensible) that the current situation would cause the church some consternation.
2. I think you’re also absolutely right about the lack of meetings and the concern about people really enjoying not attending church. One thing I’ve discovered is how little two hours of Sunday virtue signaling really did for me. I’m sure other folks get more out of the meetings than I do, and that’s great; I’ve just realized that other than seeing a few friends on a weekly basis, I’ve not missed a thing. I know there’s already talk of concern about how many people may return. At some point, I hope that church realizes that if they came up with a better “product”, folks might be more inclined to stick around.
3. Re: another angle on the religious freedom thing. I’ve heard countless times at church that Mormonism emphasizes personal liberty and choice and that therefore that’s the reason why many Mormons think socialism (and taxes) are evil and mistrust the government, who they often see as an entity that’s more invested in controlling/oppressing people than in helping them. Such views are perhaps understandable, given Mormonism’s history with the government, etc. However, this whole “it’s Satan’s plan to force people to be good” thing is a bit wearing at times and I see that a bit in Bednar’s talk as well in terms of how he’s thinking about the government mandating public safety rules. I’ve often heard in my ward people saying something like, “yes, Jesus wants us to share our wealth and goods with others, but it’s evil to be FORCED to do so.” I mean, I guess so, but that really makes us sound like pouty five year olds who know what the right thing to do is and are more resentful of being “forced” to do that right thing than we are eager to actually DO what Jesus says we should do. That kind of thinking seems to enable self-righteous pushback against things that we know are the right things to do, thus giving us an excuse not to do them .
I think what Elder Bednar did was misuse the meaning of “non-essential” and by so doing, was making a calculated effort to rile up members into another religious persecution crisis when none existed. Let’s remember that the first orders, not just in the US but in many countries around the world, were to Shelter In Place. The suggestions during this order were not to make unnecessary visits to places. In case you HAD to do an activity outside your “shelter”, governments evaluated which activities were the least risky (meaning low contact and could be done with a low risk of spreading the virus) to the most risky. Activities were not, however, labeled “low risk” to “high risk” but “essential” to “non-essential”. (You illustrated this point with your Pet Store example. ) No one was saying religion was “non-essential” but Bednar implied that strongly in his statement about church versus gasoline. Gasoline was the less-risky ( essential) while in-person church gatherings (BTW there was never any prohibition to teaching the gospel online or gathering by teleconferencing and many institutions and businesses had to adapt in the same way The Church did.) were “non-essential” or “greater/high risk”. There is no religious freedom crisis here but Bednar seemed to want to create one.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
josh h, I think government use of the general word “essential” made lots of people and businesses feel dissed at being labelled “non-essential,” equating it with unimportant or second-class. They should have used a softer term, maybe.
Brother Sky, thanks. The Church has been quite proactive in suspending its own services around the world, and also careful to direct local units to abide by state and local directives on holding or not holding meetings. So the Church hasn’t really raised the “forced to do this or that” complaint. I guess some members might take umbrage at the government “forcing” them to do certain things in the name of public safety. But that’s a strange reaction for a Mormon, given how much the Church tells members to do this or that. People who don’t like being told what to do generally don’t stay Mormon very long.
Jan, yes it sort of does seem like Elder Bednar was stirring things up that aren’t really a problem to start with. Maybe leadership thinks they need to get the membership riled up from time to time, especially when there are no church meetings at the moment.
Bednar is 100% correct when he says that some governments “banned communal worship”. They did ban communal worship, along with other large gatherings. Y’all are suggesting that Bednar was somehow trying to mislead by implying/suggesting that other communal meetings weren’t banned, but religious ones were. He didn’t so such a thing, and I think you’re projecting your biased stereotype of conservative Mormons on him.
You are ignoring the governments (usually local) that even outlawed religious meetings outside where the congregants would stay in their cars, or where congregants would adhere to the same social distancing measures that were required at grocery stores.
Also, you are ignoring the numerous, large, communal gatherings that weren’t banned, but were encouraged and even attended by many politicians, who at the same time were banning religious gatherings in their own states. Care to guess which gatherings I’m referring to?
I suppose if a church claimed that their meetings were actually peaceful protests in favor of social justice, wokeness, and defunding the police, then they would be allowed.
Elder Bednar is trying to create an issue where there isn’t one. If the Church was really invested in religious freedom, it would be talking about what is happening to Buddhists in Tibetan China and the Muslims in western China. The P3 would have met with the Dali Lama on his most recent visit to SLC. But no, instead the leadership is tilting at windmills in the United States. Our silence on China is deafening.
I guess we are ignoring the real ignominy, so we can brag that we are going to build a temple in mainland China. We are paying too high a price. We are either for religious freedom or we are not. The Colorado cake case doesn’t qualify us as true defenders of religious freedom.
Agree with rogerdhansen about the price for a temple in China being too high if it means silence on issues where other religious groups face oppression due to their religious practice.
BYU doesn’t seem to worry about restricting the religious freedom of BYU students who undergo a faith transition away from the church during their college years. This is deeply concerning and at odds with all that we believe.
While it has felt good for many to be labeled as “essential workers,” the practice may have contributed to some of the push back we are seeing among those who attend coronavirus protest rallys and who refuse to wear masks.
We might want to search for a different term.
Also, as I worry about certain family members of mine who are “essential workers,” it occurs to me that in some ways society/the government might actually be seeing them as “expendable workers.” Especially as so many are being expected to work without adequate and appropriate protective gear.
Arnold: I’ve seen the false equivalence of Church and BLM protests from a ward member as well, so let’s unbox that, shall we? Political protests occurred outdoors, and the majority of participants wore masks. Government actors, chiefly police officers in riot gear, introduced unsafe measures like teargas. Contrast that with Church services which are held indoors, using central air systems that move air in a direction within the building. Some portion of Church members refuse to wear masks on the grounds that they are a pain and they don’t want to. There are MANY known cases that originated in Church services. They were deemed one of the highest risk activities, on par with gyms, partly because of the nature of bringing people from many different social groups into one confined indoor space, having people singing and hugging, and occasional emotional scenes that include taking deeper breaths of each other’s shared air.
Someone in my current ward commented on social media that she would march to be able to attend Church, that THAT would be something worth marching for, implying that black lives matter is an unworthy cause to risk lives over. For those who care about the aims of the black lives matter movement, marching was an acceptable risk. That doesn’t mean that attending Church indoors is an equivalent risk to attending a masked march outdoors. But the real question I had when I saw her comment was “Against whom are you proposing to march? The Church? Because THAT’s who made the rules here! Why would you protest the Church’s rules so that you could attend the Church that they’ve closed for safety reasons?” It honestly made zero sense to me. It was just an opportunity for her to take a swipe at Black Lives Matters protesters, which is IMO far more revealing of what her sense of Christianity is than her desire to return to Church.
There have been a few veiled references to religious freedom in the Come Follow Me questions this year.
A while back I attended the WORST Sat Eve stake conference session ever – I think my local leaders were following a directive to show some Church videos about religious freedom. My leaders also know that locally we have LGBTQ members and youth in our midst, so the program was to watch videos AND hear from some of these families. It was terrible because it should have been two distinct meetings but it seems like the leaders wanted to tread lightly on the subject. I would have preferred hearing just from these families.
One of the things that was explained to me by an ICU nurse is that EtOH detox takes up so many resources and is so difficult on caregivers. So while I understand E Bednar’s concern on religion vs alcohol, even though keeping alcohol stores open seems counter intuitive, from an acute/short term medical resource allocation standpoint, NOT flooding ERs with detox patients is a good idea in a pandemic.
Nothing prevented the church from providing limited services by zoom and, after a point, by “takeout” with the same types of precautions that restaurants, businesses, and other churches used. Shutting completely down was definitely the church’s own choice. It was less the government’s and more the GA’s judgement that church services during a pandemic are non-essential.
Thanks for the post. I frankly found Elder Bednar’s remarks to be shockingly tone deaf. The Church itself pulled the plug on its services, and deserved substantial props for doing so. Getting hung up on the semantics of “essential”? Really? The only thing that makes sense to me is anxiety over people realizing that life without Sunday church is actually pretty sweet. He is well within his rights to worry about that, because the longer this thing goes on the easier it will be for people simply not to come back. But his little temper tantrum was hardly helpful on that front.
Fear mongering. Bednar is or ought to be smart enough to know he’s twisting things.
100% agree that the church has turned religious freedom into “freedom to discriminate” so I have completely lost interest in its work here, even though I used to be quite involved. A pity.
Brother Sky said: “One thing I’ve discovered is how little two hours of Sunday virtue signaling really did for me.”
I would go further: one thing I’ve discovered is how much two hours of Sunday meetings wrecked my whole day. It’s only two hours, but it’s also the getting kids and self ready, and the fact that you don’t get to pick which two hours, and it can really eat up the day and make it impossible to do much before or after. That doesn’t mean I won’t go back but I’m definitely going to try to minimize the disruptiveness of the whole production to the rest of the day.
When I saw this reported, to much support, on a conservative church blog, I was disgusted.
He is playing to his base. But discrediting the church.
What is the alternative he is advocating? No closures, just ignore the pandemic like the president? Stop testing so the problem goes away?
I note October conference is already closed. Self preservation for the elderly? Has Bedinar been seen at church? Also note the photo of bedinar on LDS news version of this story is 20 years younger than reality. Misleading, vanity?
The virus is showing up problems with conservative belief, like opposition to universal healthcare, and religious freedom, and the culture of indivual over the community, and the economy over citizen wellbeing. And now racism. Instead of addressing these, he tries this.
Utah should still be in shutdown
Tests 2750/day 8274 active cases, 400/600 new cases a day 163 deaths, 5 in last 24 hours 3m pop
Qld 6000 tests/day 2 active cases, no new cases for a week, total 6 deaths, population 5 million.
Restrictions are starting to lift here, restraunts open with social distancing, no mention of church opening up yet here. No inter state, or international visitors. Are encouraging tourism within the state. A lot of our economy is tourism. No talk of religious freedom, or rebellion against controls.
I am amazed Americans are not up in arms about 123,000 unnecessary deaths,( more than 9/11, iraq, afganistan, and vietnam war , and ww1 together) because of ideology like Bedinars and more importantly the president. If it is 200,000 by November will that cause conservatives to question their ideology? Hopefully enough Americans will want progress.
Is this about moral judgemen as taught by the church. Bedinars moral judgement is that his religious freedom is more important than 120,000 lives of his fellow americans. Though many of those dying are poor(worried about the bill if they seek medical attention), and non whites are more likely too, so perhaps, less valuable.
Moral judgement, and ideology over christianity.
From what I understand of the speech, not having read the whole thing, and from what I understand of the conference, it would seem that Elder Bednar was faced with an assignment to try to make Covid-19 relevant to religious freedom. That’s a daunting task. But then since Elder Oaks’ public emphasis on religious freedom and the religious freedom conference at BYU both seem to have been a response to the Church’s losing its war on same-sex families, and since Elder Bednar has long shown little care about his or other Church leaders’ overblown rhetoric and an eagerness to mimic the rhetoric of Church leaders more senior to him, he may have been the perfect man for the job.
Do we enjoy the freedom to live long and relatively healthy lives? Not all of us, but far more off us than was the case in the past. That freedom is owed to a strong public health administration and a general trust in it.
I totally agree with Marrissa here- Bednar complains about the goverments that have banned communal gathering, and talks about how if we don’t gather, the members will scatter. And yet, our governor has encouraged churches to continue to meet virtually during the pandemic to ensure spiritual support while we can’t meet in person. Our ward started having regular virtual gatherings, but these “essential gatherings” were forbidden- not by the government, but by our area leadership. Don’t blame this choice on someone else; we were the ones who prohibited gathering- even virtual gathering- in our area. And Elder Bednar is right- if we don’t have the chance to gather, we will start to scatter, as so many of us have learned that life is better without regular church meetings.
A side note, and possibly not very relevant, but the use of the phrase, “the silence was deafening,” or any variation of it needs to end. Employ some originality.
This is about meeting in larges group of people because that’s how this pandemic spreads and keeps killing people. Schools, restaurants , concerts, social large gatherings. It isn’t some attack on religious freedom. If we’re not alive here on earth to do the Lord’s work, how would that help??
We listen to church authorities, police authorities, medical authorities and governing authorities for our own good. Why does Elder Bednar mind heeding our medical authorities?
This is new territory for everyone. Mistakes will be made here and there but on the side of safety, thankfully. So one governor decides not to let a Catholic priest suit up in PPE to give a parishioner
the last rites? He was probably being more cautious than necessary but that doesn’t mean he did so because he’s against religion. All authorities are doing the best they can with no prior pandemic experience. I know Jews and Christians meeting over Zoom. Churches are using freedom to meet safely. We can too. Think the best of your fellowman. Chances are you’ll be right to do so.
This is about large groups of people gathering because that’s how the virus spreads fast ,killing more people. Schools, restaurants, concerts, etc. It is not an attack on religion. We listen to church authorities, police authorities, medical authorities and government authorities. Why does Elder Bednar have a problem listening to medical authority on this? He expects us to listen to him. If we aren’t alive on earth to do the Lord’s work, how does that help ? Authorities feel responsibility for the public welfare. They are doing the best they can with no prior pandemic experience. So one governor decides against letting a Catholic priest suit up in PPE to administer the last rites to a parishioner? He’s erring on the side of safety if he’s erring. Maybe he’s very cautious by nature. It doesn’t mean he’s against religion.
Why think the worst of him before asking him why? I know Jews and Christian churches having meetings online through Zoom. No government official is telling us not to do that. Synagogues, mosques, churches are using freedom we have to meet safely online.
Years ago when my husband was sick in ICU, the hospital had a rule of only one person allowed in his room at a time. That meant two elders couldn’t bless him and I couldn’t be right there. Fine. One blessed him and I stood outside. I assume they have rules for a reason so I did not object and throw a fit that my religious freedom was being jeopardized. In fact, it never occurred to me . I assumed they were being cautious for reasons they may know that I don’t. Everyone had my husband’s best interest at heart. Think the best of your fellowmen as you’re likely to be right.
Where are you so lucky to live that you are able to claim “That freedom [health, long life] is owed to a strong public health administration and a general trust in it.“? I see too many inequities in health administration to suppose you meant the U.S. Truly a shame for such a wealthy nation.
Last week I heard a loving grandmother directly compare two friends’ wait times for a lumpectomy in the U.S. with same in England. It was 4 times longer in England. But the logic of concluding the system in the U.S. is superior is wanting. I am supposing that access to a lumpectomy in England is near universal. Not so in the States, where a solid (40?)% of women needing a lumpectomy would not be able to obtain it unless they could pay for it themselves. So a solid 39% would go without.
Shortcomings in universal healthcare require systemic changes – the system is in place, and can be tweaked and improved.
I’d also give credit for relatively long and healthy lives to clean air and clean water – also not a given in the U.S. Last year I read a study that since President Trump had been elected, and double majorities in Congress had given Republicans carte blanche to repeal regulations on corporations, air quality was already 14% worse. Logically, water quality would be similarly worse.
Many more factors contribute to good health and long life, including income and skin color.
When I look at the many negative consequences the Republican brings us in its sacrifices to their corporate gods, I’m stunned at our church leaders’ and members’ devotion to it.
I don’t appreciate Elder Bednar’s tone deafness on a global crisis, nor do I approve of his use of conservative dog whistles like “religious freedom”–I would rather he and other leaders of the Church stay out of partisan politics and culture wars.
Because of his age and seniority, there is a high likelihood that Elder Bednar will one day rise to become president of the Church. Let that sink in for a minute.
Most likely, Elder Bednar is running scared, and this speech is coming from a place of fear. Church leaders are legitimately afraid that a not insignificant number of members will deem Sunday church meetings “non-essential” even after they resume, and inactivity rates will skyrocket. In the midst of a public health crisis, many people are coming to the realization that organized religion is a lot more expendable than they previously imagined. In some cases, churches are doing more harm than good, such as these church gatherings across the country that are becoming super-spreader events. People are noticing, and they will vote with their feet.
Also, as we are having a moment of reckoning with racism, many Americans are coming to terms with the fact that religion has been a major driving force in systemic racism for generations. And our church (LDS) is no exception. And it doesn’t appear that the Church is doing anything consequential to be a part of that solution either.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Arnold, everyone gets their opinion.
rogerdhansen, maybe it’s more accurate to say the Church supports selective religious freedom, not universal religious freedom.
Anon, great point about BYU. Religious freedom for me, but not for thee.
Kevin Barney, yeah I just don’t get how often LDS leaders seem to be “tone deaf” in their remarks these days. Maybe we got spoiled under Pres. Hinckley, who had lots of experience with public relations and did such a nice job saying the right thing pretty much all the time.
Geoff-Aus, I always enjoy your view from down under. Yes, the whole pandemic and mismanagement thereof is going to be front and center during this election season. It’s going to get very ugly.
Wondering, that’s a nice point — “talk about religious freedom and Covid” is a tough speaking assignment. Still, …
TC, I like your thinking. Keep on truckin’.
Jack Hughes, if we survived President Benson, we’ll survive President Bednar.
Dave B., thanks.
There is the kernel of a good message in Elder Bednar’s speech. That message is something like this: Whenever an exceptional situation leads to the extraordinary use of government power to constrict our activities, we should take the opportunity to reflect on the rights and responsibilities that we most need to preserve. Religious freedom is one of those most valuable things, and we should take care not to let it be devalued in these extraordinary times.
This better version of the message is circumspect, not splashy. It’s the kind of message that is fitting for an international academic conference on religious freedom. Unfortunately, in my opinion, general authorities no longer seem inclined to be circumspect when they talk about religious freedom. They can’t talk about it without “ringing the alarm,” as Elder Bednar put it–even when there’s not really a reason to ring it.
Elder Bednar endorses two helpful principles: “religion should not be treated less favorably than analogous secular activities,” and “policy makers, even in a crisis, should limit the exercise of religion only when it truly is necessary to preserve public health and safety.” He goes off the rails, though, when he speaks as if these principles have been rampantly ignored: “Never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential. Never again must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.” As Kevin Barney put it in his comment above, this is a case of getting hung up on the semantics of “essential.” Elder Bednar is smart enough to know that this complaint is pretty silly. The only reason to say such a thing is that Elder Bednar thinks he has to “ring the alarm,” no matter what. At least in the United States, there simply hasn’t been a widespread practice of treating religion less favorably because of the pandemic, and it’s not helpful to speak as if there has been.
Sorry for the double post occurring.
The danger is that the nuanced view largely being taken here will not be taken by members at large, who will hear this as a dog whistle for defiance against a secular and democratic state, increasing the divisions in society and between members. I can see this stuff being parroted on our ward facebook page within the week, running out many members of the ward at a time of vulnerability and crisis.
No doubt there are many who will see this as a sheep and goats situation.