January 16th, 2014
09:17 AM ET

Why religious freedom matters

By Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett serve as chairman and vice chairwoman, respectively, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are their own.

National Religious Freedom Day, being marked today in the United States, reminds us that freedom of religion or belief is a pivotal human right, central to this country’s history and heritage. It is also recognized as such by the United Nations and other international bodies. Yet the issue frequently sparks debates that too often generate more heat than light.

That the mere mention of religious freedom triggers such powerful emotions, in the United States and overseas, helps explain why this critical right has not been accorded the centrality and respect it deserves, especially as a component of U.S. foreign policy. But whatever the reason, the United States must still look closely at the issue – and why it is key to successful U.S. foreign policy.

Back in 1948, the United Nations affirmed religious freedom as a core right in Article 18 of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Further affirming this right, the governments of 156 nations in 1966 signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The ICCRP, which the U.S. ratified in 1992, includes language similar to Article 18.

Yet supporting religious freedom or belief abroad is not just a legal or moral duty, but a practical necessity that is crucial to the security of the United States – and the world – as it builds a foundation for progress and stability.

Research confirms that religious freedom in countries that honor and protect this right is generally associated with vibrant political democracy, rising economic and social well-being, and diminished tension and violence. In contrast, nations that trample on religious freedom are more likely to be mired in poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical extremism.

A recent Pew study found that three-fourths of the world's population lives in nations that seriously restrict this freedom. In these countries, many of which top the U.S. foreign policy agenda, religion constitutes their core narrative – and violations of religious freedom are the catalyst for growing divisions and problems.

Freedom of religion or belief is also intimately bound up with other freedoms, including expression, association and assembly. As it is often the first right taken away, religious freedom serves as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning us that denial of other liberties almost surely will follow.

With the signing into law in 1998 of the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the commission on which we serve, the United States signaled its intent to strengthen its overseas championing of this freedom. The U.S. government – the White House, State Department and Congress – has since then taken steps (though not nearly enough) to prioritize this right.

Given the compelling case for supporting religious freedom abroad, why is it still so often given short shrift?

Simply stated, powerful concerns and emotions and differing world views are in play.  For example, some people erroneously believe that democratic governance requires the exclusion or marginalization of any public dialogue, debate or policy that includes religion. Others view religion and related issues as exclusively personal and thus belonging solely in private life. Still others worry that, when connected to an issue, religion generates needless and/or unresolvable tensions and controversies and thus is best left alone, perhaps recalling some of history's worst excesses in religion's name. Some are uncomfortable specifically with "organized religion" and may prefer to frame issues in terms of general spirituality. And some who have an exclusively secular approach and a non-theistic perspective may think that promoting religious freedom infringes on their right not to believe.

What all of these concerns share is the view that religion and religious freedom should be off the radar and divorced from foreign policy.

The answer to such concerns is that advocating for freedom of religion overseas is not about supporting a privileged position for religion, but the right to follow one's conscience. It is about insisting that advocating for religious freedom abroad be viewed in the same way as advocating for other essential rights guaranteed under international law. And, contrary to popular myth, this view encompasses not just the freedom to practice peacefully any religion and all that is associated with it, but the freedom not to believe – the right to reject any and all religion, publicly and privately.

While religious freedom cannot be separated from religion, it is actually less about religion per se than affirming a bedrock, internationally-recognized human right, one that has proven time and again to be a foundational freedom for other freedoms.

Addressing these concerns is critical to elevating religious freedom abroad to its rightful place. By responding openly and straightforwardly, and acknowledging the powerful emotions that accompany this unique right as well as the opportunities inherent in its promotion, we hope to take the first step toward creating a solid, lasting consensus on the need to make religious freedom a key element of how America relates to the world.

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Topics: Religion • United States

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    Religious freedom was the very foundation that was used to start the founding of the USA by our forefathers. And for that very reason the citizens of the US must respect others religions even if they don't agree with them!!

    January 16, 2014 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • thecatwhispererblog

      Even when said religions abuse other people?

      I believe in the right to religious freedom, but when it involves force or abuse of women or children or dogs, forget it. If I'm not going to stand by and watch someone beat or kill a dog or a child or a woman, I'm not going to offer them the free space to do it either. So, religions that believe it is right and just to "discipline one's wife" imply in even the verbage that women's lives are somehow subjective to men's, then they need to stay away – live in the countries that condone that sort of thing. This is not one of those gray areas in life.

      January 22, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  2. THORN

    To be clear I'd prefer the term faith to religion. Religion is a power structure, faith isn't. Jesus built his church not on Peter but on Peters' faith. Render unto Caesar, render unto God, as you define him/her.

    January 16, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  3. chrissy

    Agree @ THORN, im not fond of organised religion either. But i do respect others right to believe however they wish.

    January 16, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  4. Jon Kraft

    Maybe the U.S. should clean up its own house before it tells other nations what to do. We like to say that we have freedom of religion. I suppose we do, as long as our faith does not interfere with Administration policy. But when a U.S. Government mandate conflicts with a matter of conscience of an employer, does the Government back off? No way!

    The U.S. Government is no better than Red China in matters of religion. Let those religious people do what they want as long as their beliefs and practices don't conflict with Government policy.

    January 16, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  5. Zapp

    The brainwashing, dumbing down and mental slavery of our species is negative even if it has some positive outcomes. Humans do NOT have to respect religion, religion must respect humans as the law. One can believe in any religious brainwashing mumbo jumbo they wish, but forcing such ridiculous beliefs on others should not be tolerated.

    January 18, 2014 at 3:26 am | Reply
    • ekklesiarobb

      "Brainwashing, dumbing down and mental slavery of our species is negative even if it has some positive outcomes." Agreed. Even though most of our goods and raw materials come from communist countries, the fact that the basic human right to believe as one so chooses is being denied is unacceptable.

      "Humans do NOT have to respect religion, religion must respect humans as the law." Last I heard, religion was a human concept, not a person or a subservient object, and people can choose to adhere or not to, and accept the consequences of said choice.

      "One can believe in any religious brainwashing mumbo jumbo they wish, but forcing such ridiculous beliefs on others should not be tolerated." But forcing people to renounce religion should?

      January 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Reply
      • BigBankTheory

        Religion is fraud, as normal reasoning skills tell us, and dumb, uneducated upeople should not be misled or lied to. No government should tolerate any form of fraud on its people.

        January 20, 2014 at 11:55 am |
    • BigBankTheory

      I agree 100%!

      January 20, 2014 at 11:52 am | Reply
  6. NIazuddin M Khan

    The foreign policy of USA will be put to test,if and when Modi becomes the Prime Minister of India and seeks visa to visit North America.While the current PM of India said recently that Modi's election as PM would be a disaster for the country,the same PM did not hesitate to criticise US Government for denying visa, when Modi attempted to obtain it some time in the past.The courts in Gujrat could not hold Modi guilty for his acts of commission or omission in riots, due to communal and cowardly investigating agency.One should remember that Modi requires American technology and expertise more than America requires Modi.Modi cannot meet the deluge of expectations without American co-operation and business, even if USA continues to deny him visa in future.

    January 18, 2014 at 6:22 am | Reply
    • Sam, Canada

      I do not agree that US does not need India. It seems you were in Coma for last 10 years. India is becoming favored nation by lot of western countries and Gujarat is a favored state in India thanks to good governance by Modi. Visa issue is not for ethics and morals especially when it refers to US because US was the country supporting Pak when they were slaturing their own citizens in 1971 in, now a country called Bangladesh. Were you sleeping when they slatured >3000 sikhs in 1984, when muslim terrorists raged 1000 temples in Kashmirs driving Kashmiri pundits out of valley. So it is better for you to keep shut.

      January 20, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • xyz

      here is an Islamic fanatic.

      January 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  7. gdicm

    Religious freedom is not an option.

    January 18, 2014 at 7:24 am | Reply
  8. Brent

    One only has freedom of religion in America only as long as it is a religious organization pre recognized and approved by the government (look up religous objections to Obama care and it will become evident), . One does not have the freedom to believe as one might be inspired or enlightened to spiritually however, . . of course unless it is pre approved, . . this so called new understanding of the freedom, is in direct contrast to what our for fathers first believed, . the new freedom must first be a pre approved organization recognized by the pre approval of the government

    January 18, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  9. dudley

    We are beyond the tipping point in the US. That the word "tolerance" is used is the key. When people "tolerate" the views of others, they imply that by their leave a person may think their own thoughts.

    America no longer protects free speech but finds ways to limit it socially. These probelms are not governmental, but social. Limiting the thoughts of others by not listening, dismissing, or being all Generation X, Y or Z – which means too self centered and uneducated to have a discussion or allow a differing opinion – is how folks respond now.

    Everything goes back to parenting, doesn't it?

    January 18, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  10. Brent

    I religiously am opposed to both the united states census taking, and the medical requirements and personal participation in Obama care, Yet I will go to prison in the U.S.for standing up with those beliefs and refusing to participate. . . curious about how they define freedom of religion here, . no different than any other country, . . no freedom of spiritual belief free from persecution, .

    January 18, 2014 at 10:17 pm | Reply
    • Eddie Vanmmer

      I was religiously opposed to my money being used to go to war in Iraq under false pretenses, can I get a refund please?

      January 20, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  11. Brent

    total BS

    January 18, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  12. Brent

    Even the moderator here opposes non violent freedom of religious ideals by deleting a view he may not religiously agree with, . . there is no freedom here, . just the illusion as long as it is within others pushed upon self motivated ideals

    January 18, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  13. sandy

    In god we trust

    January 19, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  14. Rick McDaniel

    Tell it to Islam........they aren't buying.

    January 19, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  15. Grafted Olive Branch

    I have said many times in debates on these blogs about Islam and democracy – democracy will not work with out freedom of religion.

    January 20, 2014 at 6:57 am | Reply
  16. BigBankTheory

    Religion is fraud, as normal reasoning skills tell us, and dumb, uneducated people should not be misled or lied to. No government should tolerate any form of fraud on its people.

    January 20, 2014 at 11:56 am | Reply
  17. GOD of ALL GOD'S - yes even that one

    I am starting a new religion.
    no church, no praying, no preacher
    it is called life

    January 20, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  18. jimbob

    The USA is a secular democratic republic that has religious freedom as a core tenet of government.

    In God We Trust,
    One nation under God,

    ....just a minute?

    January 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  19. Austin

    Amazing, a 700+ word column on the benefits of religion that never once mentions "God."

    January 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • SeekerofTruth

      And thank god for that. Two different things. Religions exist.

      January 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  20. Wisdomforlife

    “We are free,” wrote David B. Hart, “not merely because we can choose, but only when we choose well. For to choose poorly, through folly or malice, in a way that thwarts our nature and distorts our proper form, is to enslave ourselves to the transitory, the irrational, the purposeless, the (to be precise) subhuman.” http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/category/freedom/page/2/

    January 20, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  21. Yuck

    This nation is based on lies,and MALICE...the enemy(Edomites) is there too cheat,lie and steal.

    January 21, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  22. SeekerofTruth

    Religion is a business. "Religious Freedom" is simply the freedom to start a church where you are charged a fee in return for "salvation of your soul". Obviously, nobody can make that promise, yet there is no shortage of people willing to pay for it. Wouldn't it be a better world if people unclasped their hands, got up off their knees and built a hospital or a school? You have freedom of Faith- freedom to turn your back on the logical, to ignore fact and common sense. What a waste of time. What a waste of your beautiful, precious life. God, heaven, hell...how about just enjoying your life?

    January 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  23. mike roark

    I dispute that we have religious freedom in the US. We are an appearance-only culture that has elevated perception above reality time and time again. We do the flavor-of-the-month on most issues, including religion. I can be catholic and avoid harassment at church but if I utter a catholic sentiment I am currently thrown under the hater bus. SeekerofTruth seems ready and willing to claim there are absolutes with the capital T in Truth. Enjoying life is exactly how and why most Americans have abdicated all personal responsibility in favor of joy, why anything not abundantly positive has been vilified, and why we are so consistently screwed up.

    January 23, 2014 at 11:48 am | Reply
  24. jenholm25

    Even though by law we have religious freedom, Christians are incredibly INTOLERANT. We still need much more separation of church and state. We need to get "In God We Trust" off our money and "Under God" out of our Pledge of Allegiance. I can't tell you how many times I was told "It's Merry f***ing Christmas! And if you don't like it, you can leave the country!" WAY too many people think that the US is a "Christian nation" – and we're NOT. One in four people you meet are NOT christian. I'm getting VERY tired of christians thinking that they "own" this country.

    January 23, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  25. Tom Bukowski

    Religious freedom is all fine and good. But, when religious following becomes the invasive premise for legislation, and intrudes on government, it has gone to far. The "religious freedom" crowd wants it both ways.

    January 27, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Reply

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