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

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