Respect for religious freedom is waning as more Americans abandon organized churches, and the only way to bring it back is through systematic education.
Those were the conclusions of LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks in his address Thursday in New York City to more than 600 people, including religious leaders of numerous faiths.
The event was an annual award ceremony sponsored by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest organization "dedicated to protecting free expression of religious traditions," according to a release on the LDS Church website.
At the dinner, Oaks was awarded the prestigious Canterbury Medal "for his lifetime of service in promoting the cause of religious freedom," the release said. "The medal recognizes individuals who demonstrate courage in the defense of religious freedom and is named for Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket stood in defense of religious freedom against King Henry II."
In his acceptance speech, Oaks noted that "the vitality of religious freedom must rely on public understanding and support."
Believers should worry that "the population least concerned about religious liberty in America are adults under 30, only 20 percent of whom believe that restrictions on religious freedom will increase in the next five years," Oaks said. "Religious freedom must not be seen as something serving only the interests of churches and synagogues. It must be understood as a protection for religious people, whether or not their beliefs involve membership or behavior."
Those who care about religious freedom should "give greater attention to the education of the rising generation," Oaks said. "If the foundation of religious liberty is weakening, it must be because the role of religion and the contribution of religious organizations and religiously motivated people in our nation is not sufficiently understood."
Such education must go beyond "preaching, lobbying and litigating," the apostle said. "We must employ education to broaden the base of citizens who understand and are committed to defending religious freedom. This will require better information for our religious believers and also the enlistment of other groups."
Oaks is a former Utah Supreme Court justice and was president of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University from 1971 to 1980.
In giving Oaks the award, Cardinal Francis George, Catholic archbishop of Chicago, praised the alliance between Catholics and Mormons in defending "life and dignity," according to the release.
George said seeing men such as Oaks helped him "remain hopeful with you for the future of religious liberty in America."
Princeton professor Robert P. George, who serves on the Becket Fund Board of Directors, said Oaks was "not only an LDS leader but an American leader," who has set an example for others not only for his "excellent judgment and leadership as a lawyer, but also for his great love of God and the great witness he gives as a man of God."
Peggy Fletcher Stack
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