Religious freedom is under sustained pressure today around the world. In some places, it is fair to say that religious freedom is under siege. Although scant attention is paid by governments, the academy, or the media, the implications of this crisis—and we contend that it is a crisis—are quite serious. A worldwide erosion of religious freedom is causing large-scale human suffering, grave injustice, and significant threats to international peace and security.

Outside the West, tens of millions of human beings are subject to violent persecution because of their religious beliefs, or those of their tormentors. Scores of millions more are subject to serious restrictions on their religious freedom.

In the West itself, including the United States, religious freedom is also under various pressures. Where intellectual and political leaders treat religious freedom with skepticism or indifference, it is not surprising to find encroaching threats to the conscience rights and the public witness of religious persons, communities, and institutions—and a failure to perceive the high importance of religious freedom in our relations with the rest of the world.

For the last three years, the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom examined the various dimensions of the challenge faced by religious freedom, and deliberated on the most effective policy responses that can be undertaken by the United States government, and by other governments around the world. In May 2011, the Witherspoon Institute convened an unprecedented interdisciplinary meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, of more than thirty experts on the subject, from the fields of psychology, sociology, law, philosophy, theology, political science, and international relations. They included academics, policy analysts, and journalists, as well as advocates and adherents from a variety of religious traditions. The result was a focused discussion over two days of the basis of religious freedom, its present condition, and the prospects for its future.

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The resulting monograph, Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, is the Task Force’s considered statement on these matters. It is informed by insights from all these academic disciplines and religious traditions. In Religious Freedom: Why Now? the reader will encounter the following arguments:

  • Religion is the effort of individuals and communities to understand, to express, and to seek harmony with a transcendent reality of such importance that they feel compelled to organize their lives around their understanding of it, to be guided by it in their moral conduct, and to communicate their devotion to others.
  • The evidence of recent anthropological and psychological research suggests that the capacity for religious belief is natural; that belief appears early and easily in the lives of individuals; that it appeared full-blown at the dawn of human civilization; and that the suppression of religious belief, expression, and practice therefore runs against the grain of human nature and experience.
  • Religious freedom “in full,” we argue, has a variety of interlocking dimensions: intellectual and spiritual; personal, moral, and practical; expressive and social; and legal and political. While no religious persons or communities have a legitimate claim to absolute freedom from responsibility to the polities in which they find themselves, all human beings have a right not to be coerced into abandoning their own religious convictions or adopting those of others.
  • Freedom of religious faith and practice is a vital part of a “bundle” of freedoms and other social, economic, and political goods that together undergird and enable free, just, and stable societies. The protection of religious liberty is significantly and positively correlated with freedom of speech and press, civil liberties more generally, the equality of women, and economic freedom.
  • Religious freedom contributes to stable political order, to social peace and the reduction of violence, and to the endurance of democratic institutions. While the introduction of protections for religious freedom, where they had not previously existed, can be “destabilizing” in the short run, there are reliable payoffs for freedom and order in the long run. By contrast, the repression of religious freedom is virtually certain to produce political instability, to stunt the growth of healthy civil society, and to cripple democratic development.
  • Religious freedom is not merely the legacy of a particular culture or cultures, Western or otherwise. It is, rather, a universal principle of justice regarding the human experience as such. Religious freedom is essential to human dignity and integrity, a reflection of every human being’s duty to form his conscience rightly, in accordance with his best judgment about ultimate truths. For each of us, it is essential to our ability to live justly—to do justice to the truth, to ourselves, to other human beings, and to our communities.
  • The freedom of religion has both private and public dimensions. It is the freedom to pray, to worship, to commune with one’s fellows of like mind and heart in the private practices of faith. But it is also the freedom to bear witness to one’s beliefs and commitments, to be visibly religious in public life, to associate freely on the basis of religion and peacefully to encounter others with differing views on a basis of equality. It is the freedom to organize and act politically, to vote, to make arguments about public policy, and to legislate, on the basis of one’s religious beliefs, consistent with principles of universal justice toward others.
  • Religious freedom is not merely the counsel of secular reason. Some who hold this view argue as though the right to believe in and to act on religious principles only finds support from a vantage point independent of religion, or even thoroughly skeptical of it. To the contrary, we contend that religion can and does supply its own ground for the freedom of religion. It is a principle close to the heart of many religious traditions that belief and practice are not authentic if they are not freely undertaken by free persons.
  • In particular, we argue that the three great Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—contain the internal resources to make the case for the religious freedom of all human beings to attach themselves to any faith or none at all. Preeminent scholars in all three traditions contribute brief statements, in Religious Freedom: Why Now?—making a Jewish case, a Christian case, and a Muslim case for religious freedom.
  • The centrality of religious belief and practice in the common experience of human beings throughout history, and the justice of the case for religious freedom, account for the prominent place given to religious freedom in legal traditions, statutes, constitutions, and international covenants in modern times. It is the hallmark of free constitutional democracy in particular to make religious freedom the “first freedom” in importance. Hence its singular place in the American constitutional tradition. Hence also its importance as a vital principle in international law, as witnessed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and various covenants. It is the patrimony of the leading democracies in the world, and the aspiration of peoples in developing nations.
  • Nonetheless the establishment of a place for religious freedom in legal codes, constitutions, and treaties is a mere “parchment barrier” to oppression. Civil society itself, as well as governments and international organizations, must take an active interest in the defense and advancement of this universal human right. No nations, no peoples, can take religious freedom for granted as permanently secure on the basis of stated legal principles alone.
  • America, the West, and the world at large have a vested interest in the advancement of religious freedom as a universal norm in all nations. Religious freedom is just in itself, and productive of other goods: peace and order; stable international relations and the defeat of terrorism and extremism; democratic development and the goods of equal citizenship. Leadership in international relations that recognizes these principles is the beginning of wisdom.
  • The challenge of advancing religious freedom internationally is vitally important for two other reasons. The first is the resurgence of religion worldwide in recent years, putting paid to the “secularization thesis,” the once widely held view that religious belief and practice would wane with the rise of modernity. The second is the widespread experience of the suppression of religious freedom, by governments both secular and theocratic. Hundreds of millions of human beings are, to one extent or another, the victims of such repression.
  • Those two facts—of resurgent religion and of pervasive repression—are closely connected in the world’s experience of religious conflict, violence, and terrorism in recent years. Islamist terrorism in particular, of paramount concern in contemporary international affairs, is the product of radical religious ideology that has incubated in fundamentally unfree societies in the Muslim world. Where religious freedom takes root, on the other hand, democracy finds support and the ideologies of terrorism are undermined.
  • Deliberate steps in the formation and execution of foreign policy, therefore, should be undertaken in pursuit of global religious freedom. In the United States, recognition of religious freedom’s strategic centrality came in the enactment of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. In Religious Freedom: Why Now? we make specific recommendations to American policymakers, to leaders of other nations and of international organizations, and to civil societies regarding the intentional and vigorous pursuit of religious freedom as a universal principle of justice, to be honored in all nations and in all dealings among nations.

Religious freedom is a large subject, and Religious Freedom: Why Now? is a small book. But our effort in the monograph is to distill to their essence, and yet still do some justice to, the arguments sketched in the points above. Readers who pick it up will find, in Part One, five brief chapters on “The Ground of Religious Freedom,” drawing on sources as old as faith and philosophy themselves and as new as the latest findings in psychology, sociology, and political science. And in Part Two, they will find two chapters on “Religious Freedom and International Affairs,” turning directly to the practical strategic and political problems confronting policymakers who seek to protect and advance the freedom of religious belief and practice.

We hope that our readers will come to believe, as do the members of our Task Force, that attacks on religious liberty constitute a substantial and serious assault on human personhood, political communities, social goods, and global security. We hope they will join us in saying that to defend religious freedom is to advance the twin causes of human dignity and international peace.

Men and women in a great many countries are struggling to replace tyranny with stable self-government. Religious freedom is a linchpin of the freedoms that limit the powers of the state, plant firm roots for democracy, and enable it to last. It is in our vital national interest to encourage the embrace of religious liberty, as part and parcel of rejecting and, ultimately, defeating the scourges of religious extremism and terrorism. It is emphatically in the interest of movements—especially religiously grounded ones—that are attempting to break free of their nations’ authoritarian histories, to see that their own future success turns upon their willingness to recognize the universal claim of all human beings to religious freedom.

It also behooves Americans, and citizens of other nations with a history of honoring religious freedom, not to become complacent about its preservation in our own midst. We are, alas, more than capable of generating our own forms of repression of the universal right to believe, practice, and witness to religious faith freely. While we look outward to the fate of freedom in the world, we must also be mindful of looking inward, and keeping our own house in order. We owe it to ourselves, to our ancestors who worked so hard to provide us with this inheritance, and to a posterity that deserves that inheritance intact. Vigilance on behalf of religious liberty, at home where our duty is nearest and abroad wherever we can encourage it, is a just response to what is highest and noblest in human experience—mankind’s relation to something higher and nobler than itself.