Neal A. Maxwell is on my list of Top Five Favorite General Authorities. He was an intelligent, witty and spiritual man, and when he spoke, he would go straight to the heart of the subject. This weekend I came across a talk he gave at BYU in 1978 entitled, “Meeting the Challenges of Today.” A portion of the address really stuck out for me– the irony 30 years later is unmistakable. Here is an excerpt:
Discipleship includes good citizenship; and in this connection, if you are careful students of the statements of the modern prophets, you will have noticed that with rare exceptions–especially when the First Presidency has spoken out–the concerns expressed have been over moral issues, not issues between political parties. The declarations are about principles, not people, and causes, not candidates. On occasions, at other levels in the Church, a few have not been so discreet, so wise, or so inspired.
But make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; in the months and years ahead, events will require of each member that he or she decide whether or not he or she will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions (see 1 Kings 18:21).
President Marion G. Romney said, many years ago, that he had “never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional, or political life” (CR, April 1941, p. 123). This is a hard doctrine, but it is a particularly vital doctrine in a society which is becoming more wicked. In short, brothers and sisters, not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes not being ashamed of the prophets of Jesus Christ.
We are now entering a period of incredible ironies. Let us cite but one of these ironies which is yet in its subtle stages: we shall see in our time a maximum if indirect effort made to establish irreligion as the state religion. It is actually a new form of paganism that uses the carefully preserved and cultivated freedoms of Western civilization to shrink freedom even as it rejects the value essence of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage.
M. J. Sobran wrote recently:
The Framers of the Constitution . . . forbade the Congress to make any law “respecting” the establishment of religion, thus leaving the states free to do so (as several of them did); and they explicitly forbade the Congress to abridge “the free exercise” of religion, thus giving actual religious observance a rhetorical emphasis that fully accords with the special concern we know they had for religion. It takes a special ingenuity to wring out of this a governmental indifference to religion, let alone an aggressive secularism. Yet there are those who insist that the First Amendment actually proscribes governmental partiality not only to any single religion, but to religion as such; so that tax exemption for churches is now thought to be unconstitutional. It is startling [she continues] to consider that a clause clearly protecting religion can be construed as requiring that it be denied a status routinely granted to educational and charitable enterprises, which have no overt constitutional protection. Far from equalizing unbelief, secularism has succeeded in virtually establishing it.
What the secularists are increasingly demanding, in their disingenuous way, is that religious people, when they act politically, act only on secularist grounds. They are trying to equate acting on religion with establishing religion. And–I repeat–the consequence of such logic is really to establish secularism. It is in fact, to force the religious to internalize the major premise of secularism: that religion has no proper bearing on public affairs. [Human Life Review, Summer 1978, pp. 51–52, 60–61]
Brothers and sisters, irreligion as the state religion would be the worst of all combinations. Its orthodoxy would be insistent and its inquisitors inevitable. Its paid ministry would be numerous beyond belief. Its Caesars would be insufferably condescending. Its majorities–when faced with clear alternatives–would make the Barabbas choice, as did a mob centuries ago when Pilate confronted them with the need to decide.
Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted. M. J. Sobran also observed, “A religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the secular bus, and not to get uppity about it” (Human Life Review, Summer 1978, p. 58). This new irreligious imperialism seeks to disallow certain of people’s opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions. Resistance to abortion will soon be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened.
In its mildest form, irreligion will merely be condescending toward those who hold to traditional Judeo-Christian values. In its more harsh forms, as is always the case with those whose dogmatism is blinding, the secular church will do what it can to reduce the influence of those who still worry over standards such as those in the Ten Commandments. It is always such an easy step from dogmatism to unfair play–especially so when the dogmatists believe themselves to be dealing with primitive people who do not know what is best for them. It is the secular bureaucrat’s burden, you see.
Am I saying that the voting rights of the people of religion are in danger? Of course not! Am I saying, “It’s back to the catacombs?” No! But there is occurring a discounting of religiously-based opinions. There may even be a covert and subtle disqualification of some for certain offices in some situations, in an ironic “irreligious test” for office.
However, if people are not permitted to advocate, to assert, and to bring to bear, in every legitimate way, the opinions and views they hold that grow out of their religious convictions, what manner of men and women would they be, anyway? Our founding fathers did not wish to have a state church established nor to have a particular religion favored by government. They wanted religion to be free to make its own way. But neither did they intend to have irreligion made into a favored state church. Notice the terrible irony if this trend were to continue. When the secular church goes after its heretics, where are the sanctuaries? To what landfalls and Plymouth Rocks can future pilgrims go?
If we let come into being a secular church shorn of traditional and divine values, where shall we go for inspiration in the crises of tomorrow? Can we appeal to the rightness of a specific regulation to sustain us in our hours of need? Will we be able to seek shelter under a First Amendment which by then may have been twisted to favor irreligion? Will we be able to rely for counterforce on value education in school systems that are increasingly secularized? And if our governments and schools were to fail us, would we be able to fall back upon the institution of the family, when so many secular movements seek to shred it?
It may well be, as our time comes to “suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41), that some of this special stress will grow out of that portion of discipleship which involves citizenship. Remember that, as Nephi and Jacob said, we must learn to endure “the crosses of the world” (2 Nephi 9:18) and yet to despise “the shame of [it]” (Jacob 1:8). To go on clinging to the iron rod in spite of the mockery and scorn that flow at us from the multitudes in that great and spacious building seen by Father Lehi, which is the “pride of the world,” is to disregard the shame of the world (1 Nephi 8:26–27, 33; 11:35–36). Parenthetically, why–really why–do the disbelievers who line that spacious building watch so intently what the believers are doing? Surely there must be other things for the scorners to do–unless, deep within their seeming disinterest, there is interest.
If the challenge of the secular church becomes very real, let us, as in all other human relationships, be principled but pleasant. Let us be perceptive without being pompous. Let us have integrity and not write checks with our tongues which our conduct cannot cash.
Before the ultimate victory of the forces of righteousness, some skirmishes will be lost. Even these, however, must leave a record so that the choices before the people are clear and let others do as they will in the face of prophetic counsel. There will also be times, happily, when a minor defeat seems probable, that others will step forward, having been rallied to righteousness by what we do. We will know the joy, on occasion, of having awakened a slumbering majority of the decent people of all races and creeds–a majority which was, till then, unconscious of itself.