In their efforts to thwart the spread of a virus that has killed more than a million people, world leaders should not override religious freedom, Latter-day Saint apostle David A. Bednar told a global gathering of scholars and officials from diverse faith traditions Wednesday.
“The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated that some government officials fail to understand how and why religion is fundamental to the lives of billions of people,” Bednar, one of the top leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said at a virtual meeting of the G-20 Interfaith Forum. “COVID-19 regulations have often distinguished between ‘essential’ and ‘nonessential’ activities and then treated religious activities as ‘nonessential.’”
To do so, “completely misconceives how vital religion is to people’s lives,” Bednar said, echoing themes he addressed in a June speech during a conference sponsored by LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.
Governments obviously have “a crucial role to play in protecting people from the coronavirus,” the apostle said, given that “no one has a right to spread a dangerous virus.”
The question is how they do it, he said, and whether they recognize the “centrality of faith to human dignity.”
Severing people from their religious communities, he warned the assembled leaders Wednesday, “threatens people’s spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health. Experts are documenting the rise in depression, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and other tragedies during times of social lockdown and isolation.”
Bednar called for “respect, accommodation and cooperation — for creative solutions that mitigate the threat of COVID-19 while not cutting people off from an essential part of their lives.”
Instead of governments seeing religion as opposing efforts to solve the crisis, he said, it “can be a powerful font of legitimacy and practical assistance in a time of crisis.”
Such an alliance only works, the Latter-day Saint apostle said at a meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia, a country known for religious repression, “if officials acknowledge that for believers and their faith communities religion is essential to their identity and very being.”
The Utah-based faith has urged its members around the world to be “good citizens” during the pandemic and heed public health advice and government guidelines. Latter-day Saint leaders halted all worship services and temple operations around the world for long stretches and now have begun slowly resuming their meetings and reopening their chapels and temples.
“As with secular activities, religious activities should be carefully limited when truly necessary to keep people safe,” Bednar said. “But that is not the end of the matter. How secular officials understand religion and religious people deeply influences how they treat religious institutions and believers in a time of crisis. The deeper and more respectful the understanding, the more legitimate and effective public policy responses can be.”
The 68-year-old church leader blamed at least part of the “crisis of legitimacy in the response to COVID-19” on policymakers' failure to recognize the central role faith plays in the lives of believers.
Bednar also pointed out that religious institutions can be a powerful and influential ally in the battle against the pandemic.
“Misinformation is a major obstacle in a health crisis,” he said. “Faith communities can debunk rumors, calm fears and facilitate accurate information.”
Bednar became the fourth high-ranking Latter-day Saint leader to participate in a G-20 Interfaith Forum. Fellow apostles D. Todd Christofferson and Gerrit W. Gong spoke there in 2018 and 2019, respectively. (The 66-year-old Gong, the church reported, has been recovering at home from COVID-19.)