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Many presidents have touted the benefits of international religious liberty, but few have made it a genuine national and international priority. Nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in a religiously restricted environment. Moreover, increasing data suggest that the problem is worsening: government restrictions and social hostilities on religious freedom have increased over the past decade.

Last year, the Trump administration suggested conditioning foreign aid on meeting certain standards of religious liberty. Moreover, for the first time ever, President Donald Trump focused on religious liberty for all faiths as the basis of his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, arguing that the international community can, and should, do better.

However, some critics of the Trump administration have argued that these priorities are a form of cheap talk—nothing short of appealing to the administration’s base.  Others have even argued that the administration’s stance on religious liberty marginalizes non-Christian groups and is code for discrimination against minorities.

Whether the fight for religious liberty is a political ploy or a genuine defense of a worthy cause is ultimately an empirical question. If countries with more religious pluralism—defined both by fewer restrictions and social hostilities—also exhibit stronger institutions, greater economic productivity, and more civil liberties, then there’s a serious secular case, as well as a moral one, for making it a priority.

Evidence to date, largely through the leadership of Brian Grim, President of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, shows that countries with greater religious freedom also have greater economic activity and lower persecution of minorities for everyone, including religious minorities.

However, the conventional thinking among many social scientists is that cross-country productivity and economic development differences simply reflect other unobserved institutional characteristics of a country. For example, MIT professor Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written about the importance of property rights and the rule of law for economic growth and innovation. In this sense, one possibility is that countries with greater religious liberty simply have other positive institutional features going for them.

Using the most comprehensive data available spanning more than 150 countries between 2006 and 2018 from Gallup’s World Poll, I quantitatively investigate the relationship between religious liberty and human flourishing. By observing the same country over time, I can uncover how changes in that country’s religious liberty relate with their changes in human flourishing, while simultaneously controlling for an array of other factors, such as GDP growth and economic freedom as measured by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Even after controlling for these factors, a strong link between religious liberty and various dimensions of subjective well-being remains.

Importantly, the positive effects of improvements in religious liberty on well-being are concentrated among exactly the groups you’d expect: religious minorities. I also find that religious liberty affects well-being primarily through its positive effects on civil liberties and freedom of expression. Particularly in countries that traditionally restrict women, gains in religious liberty also lead to greater female empowerment, access to justice within the legal system, and lower corruption.

Perhaps these results are not too surprising. Indeed, if citizens aren’t trusted enough to hold their own autonomous worldview, then it’s not surprising that they are also unable to express themselves freely in other areas, whether in the marketplace or political sphere. Countries that restrict free expression do so at their own peril: they squash their citizens’ agency and incentives to innovate. That’s at least one of the reasons why so many people flock to the United States each year.

But for those who think that the Trump administration has a sinister objective behind its promotion of religious liberty, perhaps these results will allay some of those fears: the case for religious liberty is deeply rooted in data, in addition to legal and moral arguments.

If religious liberty is tightly linked with dimensions of human flourishing and democratic governance, then why do we give foreign aid to countries that are such flagrant offenders? The pragmatic argument is that sometimes the United States has to business with countries that have different values.

But there’s a difference between doing business with a country that’s open to reform and doing business with a country that systematically rejects democratic values and the rule of law. It’s these latter cases that the Trump administration argues we should think twice about before sending them more taxpayer dollars. Moreover, a significant challenge in the provision of foreign aid is ensuring that the transfers are used appropriately; much aid is either wasted or misused. Conditioning aid not only is fairly standard by international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but also can generate better outcomes through greater accountability.

If the United States is going to prioritize religious liberty both at home and abroad, then a prerequisite is an appropriate measurement so that we can benchmark a country’s performance over time. Indeed, some critics argue that such measurement is not possible. But measuring violations to religious liberty is not just possible, it is already happening through a variety of methods, ranging from survey evidence to expert elicitation. Moreover, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has already developed a list of different tiers of offending countries.

These results are particularly timely given the competition of values between the United States and China where, for example, religious minorities in China are actively persecuted and sent to re-education camps. To the extent that China wants to engage the international community and be treated as a respected democratic partner, it needs to reform its practices surrounding religious liberty, which is ultimately a question of human rights. Doing so will be good for them in the long-run by opening the doors to economic and human flourishing.


Christos A. Makridis (Ph.D., Stanford University) serves as a (Research) Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, a Digital Fellow at the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Cyber Security Initiative, a non-resident fellow at the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, and a senior adviser to Gallup.

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