America Must Lead the Way on Religious Freedom

America Must Lead the Way on Religious Freedom
Vinde Wells/Sauk Valley Media via AP
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The United States has for years been at the forefront of promoting religious freedom throughout the world. At a recent summit of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, many champions of international religious freedom came together to urge the United States to continue its critical leadership.  

As Villanova University Professor and current USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark put it in his opening remarks:  

Religious freedom stands for the ultimate bulwark against totalitarianism. No matter how much control the government has, no matter the regime, religious freedom testifies that there is a source of authority beyond the state.

This truth was codified in the free exercise guarantee of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and, more recently, in the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

IRFA passed in 1998 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Rep. Frank Wolfe — a 17-term former member of the House who was affectionately referred to by colleagues as the “conscience of the Congress” — was the driving force behind infusing America's first freedom into U.S. foreign policy.  

Leonard Leo, a former USCIRF commissioner who was at the summit, identified places in the world where state actors continue to persecute their people with impunity. Such recent instances of religious violence are “shocking in their severity and breadth.” Leo also noted that less visible, creeping violations are happening in our own backyard. He warned: “How can we lecture states on repealing their blasphemy laws when we give authorities broad tools to prevent religious speech that fails to conform to the official view of what it means to be a good citizen?” Robert George, another former USCIRF commissioner and a professor at Princeton University, highlighted the importance of cooperation among leaders of various religions and governments to transform civil society. He pointed to the adoption of the “Marrakesh declaration,” which recognizes the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, as a recent and important example of such cooperative efforts.   

George, like Leo, warned of growing secularism in West, which often functions as a religion. While the rights of secularists should most certainly be recognized, George insisted, we need a “fair playing field” on which comprehensive world views can compete and interact. If any particular worldview, be it secularist or religious, declares itself to be “umpire” and not a “contestant,” it very likely will “call balls and strikes” in a way that is favorable to itself. 

Former Congressman Frank Wolfe didn’t mince words, pointing out that effective work abroad on behalf of the persecuted is threatened by our own complacency here at home. According to Wolfe, Christians in the United States used to be very active about religious religion, but have become less concerned about the plight of those persecuted because of their faith. Wolfe also expressed concern over waning bipartisan support for international religious freedom as well as profit-driven American law firms who represent bad state actors. He ended not with a despondent attitude but a renewed call to action.

In his closing remarks, USCIRF Chairman Mark suggested this call to action requires, first, that the United States use all tools at its disposal to send the right message to bad actors — whether governments, non-governmental actors, or individuals. Second, religious freedom must continue to be treated as a non-partisan issue in our own country. And, finally, he called on all people of faith to pray, educate themselves, and educate others about the benefits of promoting religious freedom throughout the world.

Panel discussions at the summit focused on individuals who are or have been persecuted because of their religion. Putting a face to the persecuted is an important reminder that the struggle for worldwide religious freedom is taken up on behalf of real persons and communities. For their sake, let’s hope the next 20 years yields even greater success in promoting America’s first freedom across the globe.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.

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