The Establishment of Religion & Elder Christofferson

Jamie TrwthCulture, doubt, First Amendment, General Conference, Government, inter-faith, LDS, Mormon, news, politics, religion 23 Comments

At the recent press conference (April 6th 2008) celebrating Elder Christofferson’s Apostleship, he was asked to comment about a local issue by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jessica Ravitz. The question was about a situation that centered around a local group’s wishes to erect a monument displaying their, 10 commandments style, ‘Seven Aphorisms of Summum‘. The group wishes to erect their monument next to an established monument of the ten commandments which is located in a public city park. Jessica asked Elder Christofferson if he had anything to say regarding their wishes.

Jessica Ravitz: As an attorney who was born in Pleasant Grove who has done a lot of inter-faith work, and who practiced law in our Nations Capital, I wonder what your reaction is to this?

I was interested by this question and wanted to know what group wanted to display their list of beliefs (since the name of the Church wasn’t made available at the conference). I wanted to know if it was a group that opposed the church’s teaching. I was interested in the question up until the point where he answered the question. As he answered the question I was shocked by what I was hearing. I asked myself . . . Did he just say what I thought he said? I picked up my remote and backed it up a bit. I was correct in what I heard. The newly appointed Elders response was:

Elder Christofferson: . . . . I don’t know the specifics of the case you’re mentioning. Obviously. And the Supreme Court hasn’t seen fit to ask my opinion as yet. But in general principles my experience is . . . that there is generally . . . room for a great deal of diversity and variety in our societies in our cultures to coexist. And I leave the matters of establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the hands of the Supreme Court. . . .

The Government of The United States of America was established because the we were trying to not become a Government who establishes it own religion. The First Amendment of our United States Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What I thought Elder Christofferson was going to say kinda goes like this:

. . . I will leave the matters of establishment of religion to the specific religions in this country and I hope the Supreme Court will treat all religions, not just our own, on a level playing field and that way freedom of religion, which is protected to under the law, will be upheld by the laws of this country. .

The U.S. Government was set up so the Government wouldn’t meddle in Church matters. Now either I have a warped understanding of the laws of our country and the First Amendment, or Elder Christofferson misspoke on this subject. I have looked around on the news sites and I might have missed anyone else reporting on this one. I even looked on The Salt Lake Tribune’s news site and the story that Jessica wrote were of the questions other reporters asked.

Did anyone else catch this. Read below for the entire interview. Follow this link (Press Conference Audio) for the audio portion of Jessica’s question and Elder Christofferson answer.

Jessica Ravitz: Hi Elder Christofferson my name is Jessica Ravitz I’m with the Salt Lake Tribune. And what you just said is a perfect segway into what I wanted to ask you. Um. Elder Wirthlin spoke this morning about having compassion for those who are different. And just this week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from pleasant grove. The place were you grew up . . .or were born. . . .

Elder Christofferson: (Jokingly) Don’t blame it on me.

Jessica Ravitz: Which would like to ban a small religious group here in Salt Lake (one that is obviously very different than your own) um from displaying a monument in a public park that would list their principles and be featured next to a monument listing the 10 commandments, that is already standing there. So as an attorney who was born in pleasant grove who has done a lot of inter-faith work, and who practiced law in our nations capital, I wonder what your reaction is to this? To this whole idea of religious displays in public space.

Elder Christofferson: I really set myself up didn’t I? (Laughter) I don’t know the specifics of the case you’re mentioning, obviously and the Supreme Court hasn’t seen fit to ask my opinion as yet. But in general principles my experience is that there is generally room for a great deal of diversity and variety in our societies in our cultures to coexist. And I leave the matters of establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the hands of the Supreme Court and I am happy to say that I used to be a lawyer and am not. But I agree with Elder Wirthlin and with the Brethren of the 12 and the first presidency generally. And it really is our desire to be good neighbors and to be seen as good neighbors and to be helpful and to allow others to do the same.

Jamie Trwth

Comments 23

  1. It is true that the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” etc., however, should laws be established which violate the Constitution on this point “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison. To say that one leaves matters of establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the hands of the Supreme Court, is not to say that the Supreme Court should establish religion, but rather, it is to acknowledge that the judiciary is the branch of government which says what the law is where matters of establishment of religion are concerned. Thus, to say that one leaves judicial review to the hands of the judiciary is not only appropriate, but it the law.

  2. I’ve generally understood that the Supreme Court’s role is to interpret the constitution, and since the constitution does indeed deal with the issues of church and state / freedom of religion, I don’t see why it would be inappropriate for the Supreme Court to continually be charged with dealing with these issues.

    The constitution was established so the government wouldn’t be “establishing its own religion,” so it seems that the supreme court has the duty to fend off and fight those who would…
    Am I singing the wrong verse here? Is there some greater issue thats floating over my head?

  3. I agree with aquinas; the statement seems appropriate.

    Or maybe it’s just realistic: our own opinions of the Constitution don’t mean much when all the political alternatives lead to closing those doors.

  4. My perspective is that the US Government shouldn’t respect anestablishment of religion — a certain denomination and state religion. In other words, a particular world-view. In my view the establishment of secularism or an anti-religious atmosphere is the establishment of a single world-view, and, on principle, the same as if it were a religion. A heritage of the American Republic, IMO, is a strong multicultural ideal. In other words, to act according to its motto E Pluribus Unum.

    In my perspective, judges should be healthy, mature humans, which is that they come to the bench informed by their own world-view. But that they should also tirelessly work to preserve a tolerant and supportive atmosphere for peoples of all faiths, including “non-faith” secularists. Judicial impartiality is sometimes interpreted that they should be objective, amoral (or anti-moral) robotic automatons with no personal world-view.

    Since America strives to be a representational democracy, I think it is natural if religious expression vis-a-vis governmental efforts would be predominantly Judeo-Christian. Nevertheless, there is also the balancing ideal to give expression and/or acknowledgment to minority voices. An easier balancing act said than done, to be sure. But that’s no reason to not fight the good fight, to consent to a non-religious environment as the least common denominator. I think with this perspective of the Establishment Clause I think I agree with Elder Christofferson’s perspective.

  5. For all intents and purposes, the Supreme Court is the one that decides what is law nowadays by determining what is constitutional and it certainly did so during the Polygamy stuff in the late 1800’s. It doesn’t matter what idealistic things anybody says, because he who has the guns and the gold makes the rules (Murphy’s golden rule). And they force those rules on us by the point of a gun. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks anymore. The constitution is gone and we are ruled by the whims of the rulers.

  6. The portion of the First Amendment dealing with religion is usually referred to as the “Establishment Clause” (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .”) and the “Free Exercise Clause” (” . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). As the highest judicial body that interprets the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court decides matters dealing with alleged violations of the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause. Here, the court case referred to by the reporter will inevitably require a judicial interpretation of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise clause. That would be within the Supreme Court’s province of authority.

    I see no misstatement in Elder Christofferson’s comments; they seem quite accurate.

  7. I suggest that the meaning implied is clarified with the following additions:

    And (regarding the issue of whether public displays representing a specific religious denomination represent “establishment” of religion or “freedom” of religion) I leave the matters of (or interpretation of) establishment of religion and freedom of religion in the hands of the Supreme Court

  8. Post

    8# What I am getting at is . . . that is not what was said. Just as we read ‘In order to form a more perfect union’. We know what they meant but that is not what was said.

  9. Rigel is right. I’m sure he just meant “It is the role of the supreme court to determine the exact meaning and application of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment.” He understandably did not want to get into some debate about constitutional jurisprudence at this press conference.

    Nothing to see here, move along.

  10. Jamie, I think the consensus is that you heard him correctly, but you didn’t interpret him correctly. Sounds like General Conference for many. *grin*

  11. Jamie,
    Whatever you thought he was going to say, Elder Christofferson was on the money as a constitutional matter. That is, where there is conflict over whether something (in this case, a monument) is an unconstitutional establishment of religion (essentially what the proponents of Summum are saying about the 10 Commandments monument, unless they get to put up their own), and the parties can’t resolve it on their own, it is up to the courts to determine whether the monument represents an establishment of religion by the state. He’s saying it’s not up to him to decide; in this case, he’s being quite literal, as the Supreme Court has (IIRC) agreed to hear the case.

    That is, he’s making a descriptive, rather than a normative, statement.

  12. Post

    #11. Ray

    But if we are to take the things our leaders say on a literal basis . . . . we must take them ‘line by line’.

    If we are accept what Pres. Hinckley about racists not being worthy of the Priesthood, then we are to understand that:

    A) There are racists in the Church.
    B) The problem is such that the current Prophet expressed the problem to the world.
    C) 1) The Following days would see men and women flowing into their Bishop’s offices to have their recommends revoked or
    2) People would accept the teachings of the President and become Un-Racist.

    Even though the Prophet spoke exactly what he meant, we as a church, interpreted it differently than what he spoke.
    (My Bishop once told me: ‘We can tell racist people not to speak their racist remarks but we cannot control what they think.”)

    When Elder Christofferson speaks in the position of a Prophet, Seer and Revelator. We are not to interpret his words. Do we speak God? Did someone in the correct the Elder with love and swiftness? We are to take what are leaders say ‘line by line’ unless another leader corrects the other leaders words.

    I know this to be true or . . . . I am compleatly incorrect . . . I think. . . but don’t hold me to it.

    Jamie Trwth

  13. Sorry, Jamie, but I’m not sure I understand what you are saying – and why you think I disagree. I agree with Pres. Hinckley completely – 100%; I agree with what you say should happen with racists in the Church; I agree with your bishop’s words (JUST the words themselves, that we can’t control others’ thoughts); I don’t agree that someone who is racist but doesn’t say anything should exercise the Priesthood and attend the temple – if that is what your bishop meant. If the bishop knows the person is racist, he should take Pres. Hinkcley’s words seriously and act accordingly. I think that’s what you are saying, and I agree.

    My only “critique” is about something that I’m not sure you are saying. I don’t think Elder C was speaking “as a prophet, seer and revelator” during the press conference. I think he was speaking outside his calling, simply as a man, and not through the Spirit as an apostle.

    Also, and this is a very nit-picky thing, so please forgive me, but the only capital letter “Prophet, Seer and Revelator” in the church’s official lexicon is the President. The other apostles are prophets, seers and revelators. I don’t know if you’ve seen the official questions in the temple recommend interview instructions in writing, but that distinction is made in the question addressing acceptance of the Q12 and the President. (“The Prophet, Seer and Revelator” vs. “prophets, seers and revelators”)

    The General Conference reference was half joking and half serious – that many people hear the same words but interpret them differently, some of them in amazingly twisted ways and some of them in completely understandable ways. Fwiw, I think yours was completely understandable – especially the way you worded it.

    Does that help clarify my comment?

  14. Post

    # 15 Ray

    Thank you for clearing up the Capital Letter mix up. I didn’t know that. And yes people hear what they want to hear and not the words that are coming out of peoples mouths. Snap judgments are either correct or they cover up what we think is true but innately we know isn’t true. This takes place by rationalizations to justify the reasoning behind irrational decisions.

    Thnak’s Ray.

  15. I agree with #8.
    I think he meant that he was leaving “THE DEFINITION of establishment of religion in the hands of the Supreme Court” since that is their job, not his. Maybe his use of “THE MATTER of establishment of religion” was meant to convey that…..maybe it is legal speak to use “the matter” in this way? Any lawyers?

  16. As an attorney with a special interest in constitutional law, I guess I never blinked when I heard Elder Christofferson’s words, and actually thought it was an excellent response to a tough question. In legalspeak, what Elder Christofferson said has a clear meaning, which appears to have been understood by most of the commenters here. However, I think you bring up a good point, Jaimie, that not everyone is familiar with legalspeak or constitutional law, and perhaps could have misunderstood Elder Christofferson’s point.

  17. I have not really weighed in here because I guess I don’t understand what the issue at stake is. Do some of us WANT Elder Christofferson to come down on one side or the other of this issue? I thought his response was entirely to be expected from someone who should be neutral. What am I missing?

  18. Post

    #19. JT

    The reason for this post was to enlighten understanding on this subject. If I took this to mean (A) and others took it to mean (B). Should we not use legal speak to people who have been to journalism school? I am still not clear on the subject matter he was speaking of.

    To interpret the law is one thing but to interpret what someone else is interpreting about the law is muddy.

    #20. John Nilsson

    I know he would be neutral in his wording of religion and state. But what I am saying is he mixed his words. If no one else sees this then I must be the crazy one. Even though he probably meant one thing, he spoke another.

    If one misspoke or interpreted something incorrectly one must correct what was said. . . as with the Introduction to the Book of Mormon . . . . so with this.

    Jamie Trwth

  19. Jamie, We need to be careful about making a GA (or anyone) into an “offender for a word”, such as where he said “matters of” instead of saying “interpretation of” which would have been clearer to more people.

    However, many of us already know that that is what the Supreme court does, interpret and decide such cases when they are brought before the court. They are the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a situation that meets the conditions laid out in the constitution and Bill of Rights. It goes without saying.

    I once took something that Elder Monson said in a general conference as an absolute, and it made my life very difficult for many years until I came to a better understanding. The problems that it caused led me to leave the church over it, and it took a long time for me to come back.

    Elder Nelson and Elder Oaks have given talks about “rules and exceptions”. Basically: The Brethren teach “the rules”, and then “the exceptions” are left to each individual to work out with the Lord.

    Whenever someone makes a public statement, or gives a talk, they can’t cover every aspect of the issue, nor cover every exception, nor cover all the various ways of wording it so that everyone of all backgrounds can understand.

    We should not go “looking for evil” or looking for faults. They’re too easy to find. There are no perfect people in this church, and that includes the leadership. “Looking for evil” (and pointing out others’ missteps) eventually leads to leaving the church. I know that from personal experience.

    Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught that fault-finding, and especially fault-finding with the Brethren (first presidency and quorum of the 12), leads to apostasy. I have to concur, because that played a part with me leaving the church too.

    Life is messy. Humans are messy. As long as people are imperfect, the church is imperfect. Please don’t expect perfection in the church or for everything to run smoothly. It doesn’t. And it won’t, probably until the end of the Millennium.

    I’m not saying we should “explain away” the GA’s words. But we do have to figure out how to apply them, and how they apply to us individually.

    I had problems when I tried to be a perfectionist, expected others to be perfectionists, and took what the GAs said as absolute with no exceptions.

    I’ve followed your Latte blog off and on, and I think you might be going through some misunderstandings that are common to recent converts. Here’s a suggestion: before making critical comments (especially in public), discuss the matter in private with someone you trust and respect. That way, you can learn how others see the situation, and get an additional perspective to temper your own.

    From reading your blog and various comments you’ve made in the ‘nacle, I’ve read how you resolved some concerns with the “messy situations” that occurred throughout church history before you were baptized. Well, we all need to use the same consideration, patience, forbearing, forgiveness, and humility to resolve the “messy” things that are done or said in the church today.

    I’m in the same boat too. I’ve done plenty of things that offended others, and I’ve taken offense when none was intended, and I’ve complained too much, and written/said things that I wish I could take back or erase.

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