Respect for Other People’s Beliefs
By Gerald E. Jones
Gerald E. Jones, “Respect for Other People’s Beliefs,” Ensign, Oct 1977,
Almost every religion has some truths. Let those points of agreement draw nonmembers to the gospel.
Persecution is a constant theme throughout the early history of the Church in these latter days. Mob violence in Missouri; betrayal in Illinois; laws aimed at breaking up the Church during the Utah Territory period—Latter-day Saints know all about hardships because of religious intolerance!
But sometimes, knowing as we do that a living prophet guides us and that the Lord has given great light to the Saints, we forget to extend the same courtesy to believers in other faiths that we expect them to extend to us. Of course we would not think of persecuting anyone for disagreeing with us. But there are ways in which we sometimes hurt the feelings of nonmembers of the Church—and not only does this give them a bad feeling toward Latter-day Saints, but also it hurts us, for in those instances we are not fully living the commandment to love our neighbors.
Such an offense might come from a thoughtless youth who is critical of a nonmember friend’s crucifix, saying, “We believe Christ was resurrected; how come you always picture him dying?” Maybe he even thinks he’s helping by introducing his friend to a gospel principle. But what if the situation were reversed? Suppose the nonmember child ridiculed temple garments, or made mocking reference to polygamy in the early Church? How would his young Latter-day Saint friend feel?
Or an offense might come from a Latter-day Saint adult who brusquely pushes past a Hare Krishna representative in the airport with a remark like, “You people call that religion?” One needn’t necessarily stop and listen to a sermon, for in a sense it is true that we are “not sent forth to be taught, but to teach.” (D&C 43:15.) But don’t we appreciate kindness and civility, and don’t our own missionaries depend upon good will at least, even when others disagree with or are not interested in what they have to say? We must take Christ’s admonition literally: If we would not want someone to do it to us, we shouldn’t do it to them! (Matt. 7:12.)
We may also offend in discussions with our good friends and neighbors, when we only half listen to their half of the conversation, all the time preparing what we’re going to say when it’s our turn. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30), and we really aren’t looking for the word of the Lord from other sources than the prophet, other General Authorities, the scriptures, and the Holy Spirit. But really listening to another’s beliefs is hardly a waste of our time, because we very seldom convert with a one-way, me-to-you monologue.
Conversion is usually a mixed process of acceptance of some new ideas and rejection of some old ideas—and that takes dialogue. And in order to have honest dialogue, we need to have respect for other people’s beliefs for the good that is in them—“them” referring to both the people and their beliefs.
I believe that we owe respect to all churches and organizations that lead men to act more righteously than they otherwise might, even if they don’t hold the keys of salvation and even if there is much error in their teachings. Latter-day Saints should not look on other churches as totally false. Quite a number of our Church presidents have counseled us on this point. For example, President Wilford Woodruff said, “I feel to thank the Lord for any good moral principles which have been taught to me in my [Presbyterian] childhood. I am satisfied there have been thousands of the human family since Jesus Christ and the ancient apostles … who have acted up to the best light they had. They have had moral principles among them, and they have lived up to their religion, millions of them, according to the best light they had, and they will have their reward for so doing.” (Journal of Discourses, 11:60–61.)
As Elder B. H. Roberts once put it, the religions among the various races of mankind through the ages did not have “the effulgent brightness of an all-glorious day,” but at least they had “something of twilight which dispelled some of the murkiness of the night in which [they] had walked; and how much better it is than darkness.” (Joseph Smith: The Prophet-Teacher, pp. 22–23.)
I think we need to remember that progress at any level, and truth wherever it may be found, is valuable. In this context, the Savior’s comment is insightful: “He that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:50.)
But even more important than respecting other churches for the good work they do, we should respect our fellow human beings—not in spite of their beliefs, but because of them! A man or woman who carefully obeys all the laws and teachings of the Catholic or Buddhist or Shinto or Lutheran religion is obviously striving to do right. We should not condemn their beliefs, but rejoice in their righteous desires—for they will be just that much readier to have the Holy Ghost come to them to bear witness of even greater truths than they had previously known. I myself, and many of my friends in the Church, were once active members of other churches, and we can testify to that!
It is our obligation to bring the gospel to everyone we meet. We can hardly extend the hand of fellowship to someone we view askance because of his creed. In order to love our neighbor we must respect him for all the good that is in him, and help him learn the gospel as he comes to trust us—a trust that comes from genuine respect.
How can we show respect to members of other churches?
1. We can treat things that are sacred to them with respect. The yarmulka of an orthodox Jew, the crucifix or rosary of a Catholic, the icon of a Greek Orthodox, the shrines and temples and sacred places of other faiths—we can treat all these things with the tolerance of heart we desire people to have for our way of life. This does not mean that we need to adopt their religious practices: but it does mean that we should not treat lightly these things or their use of them.
2. So far as it does not offend our own religious understanding, we can observe the customs of other people when we are their guests. That means that a Latter-day Saint who enters a Catholic cathedral can take off his hat, if he is a man, or cover her head, if she is a woman. That means that a shrine that believers approach only after removing their shoes can be shown the same respect by Latter-day Saint visitors. These things show courtesy to the people who believe—no one will suppose that we are worshipping. They will only appreciate our politeness.
3. We must never ridicule another person’s manner of worship. Many of our practices may seem strange to him, too! Though we may disagree with another person’s form of worship, we ought not to make light of it or criticize him for it. For these things represent other people’s sincere efforts to worship God, and though we may make every reasonable effort to give them a fuller understanding in the appropriate setting, these methods of worship are still the outgrowth of the individual’s sincere faith.
4. We can avoid arguing and quarreling over religious ideas. I can’t remember many times when a person has changed his mind in a heated argument—and even when evidence is so overwhelming that it can’t be denied, the defeated person feels like a loser, and resents being beaten down. Latter-day Saints have an obligation to enlighten, not debate! If we expect others to listen to our beliefs respectfully, we must also listen to theirs in the same way. Too many times, even in friendly gospel discussions, Latter-day Saints seem to be listening to the other person only in order to think of some way to refute what he is saying. Actually, however, understanding what another person thinks is essential to helping him see something differently. We must not be too quick to contradict, or we will not be listened to, either!
President George Albert Smith, a man of unusual warmth and compassion, expressed very cogently the attitude we ought to take into a conversation with nonmembers: “We have come not to take away from you the truth and virtue you possess. We have come not to find fault with you nor to criticize you. We have not come to berate you because of things you have not done; but we have come here as your brethren. … We are asking [you] to keep all the glorious truths that you have acquired in your churches, that you have absorbed from your scriptures. … Then let us sit down and share with you some of the things that have not yet come into your lives that have enriched our lives and made us happy.” (Sharing the Gospel with Others, pp. 12–13, 217–19.)
5. We can be kind to representatives of other religions. Whether it is a Jehovah’s Witness at our door or a Hare Krishna at the airport or someone asking for donations on the street at Christmastime, we can think first, “If this were one of our Latter-day Saint missionaries, how would I want him to be treated?” Even if we refuse to listen to their message or donate to their cause, we can do so kindly and courteously. It may take us a few minutes more, but the result in happiness—both for us and for them—will be well worth the time.
6. Above all, in our dealings with nonmembers of the Church we can remember that they are no less children of our Father in heaven than we are. If we are to be judged according to how well we love our neighbor, we need to review who our neighbor is. In the Savior’s parable, it was not the priest or the Levite who was a true neighbor to the wounded Jew—it was the Samaritan, a member of a much-despised sect that did not believe the way the Jews did!
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the Universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; he views them as his offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men. … He will judge them, ‘not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,’ those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have law, will be judged by that law … [by] their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 218.)
We Latter-day Saints, who have felt the pains of intolerance and persecution, have a great responsibility and opportunity to show to others our love and tolerance and respect to those who believe in other faiths. This attitude makes friends out of strangers, and it is among such friends that we find those who will embrace the gospel and join us on the road to eternal life.
Gerald E. Jones, director of the Institute of Religion, University of California at Berkeley, is a Sunday School teacher in the Pleasant Hill First Ward, Walnut Creek California Stake.