The Magazine

Religious Freedom Under the Gun

The Obama administration neglects a key foreign policy issue.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By THOMAS F. FARR
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The State Department recently announced that it was dropping coverage of religious freedom from its annual Human Rights Report. The declared reason: to avoid duplicating coverage available in the annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

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A church in Indonesia torched by anti-Christian rioters

Newscom

There may be other reasons. Given the Obama administration’s consistent downgrading of religious freedom at home and in foreign policy, this move may be part of a larger reprioritization in human rights policy in favor of the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

Whatever one thinks of that initiative, however, the failure to promote religious freedom abroad is likely to have significant humanitarian and strategic consequences for the United States. 

We are today in the midst of a global crisis in religious liberty. In two exhaustive studies, the Pew Research Center recently concluded that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted, by either governments or private actors. And the problem is getting worse. The second report, in 2011, found that between mid-2006 and mid-2009 the situation deteriorated in twice as many countries as it improved. 

Overall, many of the roughly 70 nations with the highest restrictions on religious freedom are non-Western, Muslim-majority nations. Of all the religious groups subject to persecution, Christians came out on top: They are harassed in 130 countries, Muslims are harassed in 117.

However, historically Christian Europe is the region with the largest proportion of nations where hostility toward religion is rising. Social hostility in the United Kingdom has increased so much that that country now stands with Iran and Saudi Arabia in the category of “high” social hostility to religion. French government restrictions have increased, too, moving it ahead of Cuba in that category. 

On balance, it is fair to say that religious freedom is not faring well in the lands where it was first articulated. This should be a warning for Americans. Of course, what is happening in Europe does not approach the levels of violent religious extremism and persecution seen elsewhere—torture, rape, murder, unjust imprisonment, or unjust execution. 

And yet, the root cause is quite similar: a belief that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods. Such views are not new. Modern tyrants from Stalin, Hitler, and Mao to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have sought either to eliminate religion altogether, or to control and suppress it in order to keep their regimes in power. Historically, religious freedom has been the bane of tyrants.

What is new, and profoundly troubling, is that religious freedom is being rejected by democratic majorities as well as authoritarian regimes. The reasons vary. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim majority is loath to permit Christian Copts full equality because that means much more than the right not to be persecuted or the right to be tolerated. It means the right of Copts to run for president, to make Christian arguments in political life, to criticize Islam publicly, or even to invite Muslims to become Christians. 

In Western Europe and Canada, by contrast, the problem is an aggressive secularist majority that refuses to permit religiously informed moral arguments into public life. Recently Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project held a major conference in Oxford on the rising tensions between religious liberty and assertions of homosexual equality. In his keynote address, Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic bishop of Paisley, Scotland, noted that one of his priests had expressed fear after watching a popular audience-based television program. The consensus was ominous: Once same-sex marriage is legalized in the United Kingdom, the audience agreed, dissenters should be “pursued by the law.”

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