Twenty-five years ago, without really knowing it, I had my first experience with religious freedom. Looking back, this shouldn’t surprise me, given the religious uniqueness of my hometown: mostly Catholic, a strong contingent of atheists, and a smattering of other faiths. But as a senior in high school, when I began to explore my own spirituality in an overt way, exposing myself to both ridicule and opposition, religious liberty was a friend and constant companion for which I am only now beginning to show proper gratitude and reverence.
I won’t lie: to the outside world, I was nothing more than an athlete during my high school years. In my home town in New Mexico, I was considered tall (I would later learn by humiliating experience that in other places, my height really isn’t that impressive), and that led me to play basketball. It was how people defined me. What no one knew—including my family—was how I spent my evenings. By my junior year, I had realized our place in the universe had to have greater significance than sports and parties and school. So, I found myself in the library checking out religious texts. Late at night, after everyone in my home had long been asleep, I would sit in a dark room and study them under a solitary desk lamp, like traveling through a neverending cave with nothing but a candle and no guide. I told no one what I was doing, but I studied Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Taoism, Atheism, Agnosticism, and many other belief systems.
I had come into the world without religion, you might say—in limbo. My mom had no involvement, and her spirituality remained a mystery to me. My dad was a lapsed Catholic, and every year it seemed his orbit spiraled just a sliver more away from the religion of his birth. That’s not really unusual. In our day and age, many people seem to grow distant from God as they progress along life’s journey. That was not my case. I don’t know that I can explain why. As a tiny child, a yearning, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me by hands unknown and left to sprout. By my senior year of high school, it had blossomed into a powerful desire. I felt somewhat at home in each faith tradition I studied, but more like a visitor welcomed by a warm seat at the table yet never fully belonging. I appreciated the beauty and the truths that washed over me from the pages of their sacred texts, yet none felt like my path.
In the fall of 1996, I had grown frustrated. In all my searching, I had failed to find what I felt was the true purpose of my existence. In desperation (and perhaps the hubris of youth), I started to craft my own belief system. For hours, I would write in my journal the tenets by which I wanted to live my life.
For reasons I still can’t explain, I never drank or tried drugs in high school. It was quite common among my friends, and I certainly had plenty of opportunities. Then, as now, the county where I was raised had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States—a statistic like that doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s the product of a certain lifestyle that was prevalent in my high school. But it never sat right with me. At parties or even when hanging out with friends, I sat or felt alone. When the opportunities came, I talked about the deeper purposes of life with those who cared to discuss such things. Not surprisingly, most didn’t. So I scratched into my journal the standards by which I would live my life, and I continued my search for meaning.
One day, I sat at a table in our school library. At the time, a sophomore girl had entered my circle of friends. Across the table she asked me, “Hey, do you want to come to church with me this Sunday? I’m giving a talk and would love for you to hear it.” I wasn’t the only one she invited—our entire group could come.
She didn’t know it—couldn’t have—but I had been watching her and her brothers with curiosity for some time. They were different than anyone I knew or had ever known. I didn’t know anything about the “Mormons.” They were scarce. Of the few who were in my school, some were actively involved in their faith; others were not. The chances of running into and becoming a good friend to one were slim at my best. But my spiritual yearning was as poignant as ever.
“I thought you’d never ask,” I said.
In my hometown, the size of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is reflected in the church house where the members meet. Every Sunday, in a small white brick building set back from the road, a hodgepodge group of members huddled in the tiny chapel for worship. It was a building remarkably unrevealing of what I would feel when I entered it, with plain white walls, very little artwork, a tiny unadorned chapel, and a congregation smaller than I might find at any local restaurant on a weekend night. The entire youth program was likely no more than a dozen kids—half of whom were barely involved. The same man had served as bishop or branch president at least three times. The vast majority of people in the town had no clue who met in the building or what faith it represented.
On a sunny, Sunday morning, I stepped into the chapel for the first time. In contrast to all the other journeys I had taken through various faith traditions, this act would stir up feelings I had never experienced before, and it would awaken opposition that, to that point, I hadn’t known existed.
Religious freedom is a complex topic, made even more confusing because different states and countries provide varying methods and degrees of protection for it. Much of the confusion stems from our society’s tendency to take it for granted—we enjoy it at a level unprecedented in human history without even realizing how much we benefit from it. Some of the confusion also comes from different people giving it different definitions, often self-serving ones—people often want religious freedom for themselves, but no one else. Still, once all of the confusion is stripped away, religious freedom is relatively straightforward. It is embodied in two important principles that work together:
Anti-Establishment: The idea that government shall not establish a state-sponsored religion or place any one religious belief or practice above another;
Free Exercise: The idea that government’s power to burden anyone’s free exercise of religion may be used in pursuit of only the most compelling interests, and sometimes not at all.
Different countries have applied these principles in varying ways (or not at all), but the principles themselves show what religious freedom can and should be. Working together, they protect every person in a society where true religious freedom reigns. It isn’t a coincidence that those countries who protect the freedom of religion for all have blossomed into the most religiously diverse nations in human history, with people of very different—and even opposite—beliefs coexisting in relative peace. In those lands of Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, Atheists and Theists, believers and skeptics, Orthodox and Reformed, people of differing beliefs may not control government and use it to promote their religion over others. Instead, they win converts and promote their beliefs through testimony, proselytizing, service, example, the power of their doctrines, the spirit they bring to conversations, and the way they make people feel. It takes a deep conviction and confidence to stand up to the government when it infringes on the exercise of your beliefs; but it also takes the same conviction to know you don’t need the mighty hand of government to persuade others that what you believe is true.
My first time in church, I came upon the chapel. It was simple: a small array of benches with green fabric, a podium, a few chairs behind it, natural light setting the sacrament table aglow. The congregants were sparse, a smattering of moms and dads and kids and elderly and young. The girl who had invited us to hear her talk spoke about something I can’t remember today. The featureless walls, the paucity of the congregation, the lack of a choir, the lay speakers—all of it should have been forgettable. Yet I was arrested. My memory—though I know it can’t be true—is of a choir as grand and majestic as any ever assembled. The feelings of its music snuck into my heart and electrified me. I was moved.
I walked away with one resolve: to learn more. Within days, I had obtained copies of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I inquired and studied. I even tried prayer, a relatively new experience for me—at least of the kind where the expectation was that God would answer me back. During all of this, other friends and loved ones—and they were acting as friends and loved ones—sought to steer me away from this religion I had found. They offered me anti–Latter-day Saint videos, pamphlets, and books. I watched, studied, and read them all. I found and scoured books on my own. I dug into the Church’s history, both the troubling and the miraculous aspects. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Friends of all religious stripes tried to persuade me.
Much of the dialogue occurred at school, a public one, I should emphasize. There, the teachers and administrators allowed us the freedom to talk and argue and proselytize and study—all without placing their weighty influence on the scale in favor of one belief system over another. That is an important point. In our modern society, government, including as it manifests itself in the form of public high school teachers, has tremendous sway. In some respects, it is far more powerful than any of us realize, and certainly far more influential than the Founders of our nation ever imagined. In a regime of true religious freedom, an entity with that much weight cannot be allowed to tip the scales in favor of one religious claim over another. So it was that our teachers remained silent as we had these debates, sometimes watching with a smile.
In that milieu, I was given the freedom to explore all of these claims to truth on an equal playing field. The power of the state did not have sway.
After nine months, my journey reached a culmination. The missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had challenged me to fast—something I had never done before. For 24 hours, I abstained from food and water and focused my thoughts on the spiritual questions before me: whether God was real and whether the message I was hearing was His.
When the time ended, I ate. I drank. I spent time with friends. If any answer was supposed to come immediately, it didn’t. Two days later, I pondered what I had learned. It was evening. I sat in my dimly lit living room. My best friend, a Catholic, was with me. I don’t remember our conversation. We were sharing words, but I was quiet inside, my mind on things of eternity. In that moment, I saw a glimpse, for just a moment, of my future. I would never be so bold as to call it a vision. It was just something I saw in my mind’s eye. I have no doubt that skeptics will dismiss it as nothing more than my imagination—it has been my experience that there is always a skeptical explanation for matters of faith. Everything comes down to which explanation we choose to believe. But what I saw was as real and as powerful to me as anything I had ever experienced in the physical world.
This is what lay before me: what my life would be like if I joined the Church of Jesus Christ, and what it would be like if I did not. If I joined, my life successes would be in family, the loving embrace of warm relationships, the joy of eternal families and loving bonds, a joyful marriage and children, service, and a lifetime of growing into what God intended me to be. If I didn’t join and instead walked away from what I had learned, I saw temporal success: academic, financial, career. But my life was cold, with tense relationships, a struggling family life, and the chilled existence that comes from the self-centered pursuit of prestige above all else.
What I saw was personal to me. The two competing paths of my life are where I would have gone, with my personality and unique circumstances, with and without the Church of Jesus Christ. I don’t suggest those trails would necessarily apply to anyone else.
The next day, I announced to my family and friends that I would be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some were happy; some continued their opposition. I followed through with my commitment, and it has set the course of my life for nearly a quarter of a century.
What I appreciate now, what I couldn’t have known then, was that I enjoyed a freedom to make that choice that too few in this world ever receive. My friends and others enjoyed the same freedom to challenge me on it. To this day, all of us benefit from the freedom to live by our personal religious decisions, without fear of government retribution or influence. That is religious freedom. And it is worth cherishing, for all of us. Always.
Steven T. Collis is the chair of the nationwide religious institutions and First Amendment practice group at Holland & Hart LLP. This summer, he will join Stanford Law School, where he will be a research fellow and executive director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center. Steven’s book Deep Conviction: True Stories of Ordinary Americans Fighting for the Freedom to Live Their Beliefs is now available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.