New Research Shows Religious Liberty Drives Human Flourishing – And Why This Matters Now More Than Ever

New Research Shows Religious Liberty Drives Human Flourishing – And Why This Matters Now More Than Ever
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The Trump Administration has prioritized the advancement of religious liberty for all faiths arguably more than any president in United States history. For example, at the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump remarked, “These evil attacks are a wound on all humanity ... We must all work together to protect communities of every faith,” committing an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics.

Tragically, roughly 80% of the world lives in a religiously restricted environment. Even with all the billions of dollars invested in development by the World Bank and other multilateral institutions, many countries around the world maintain repressive regimes that persecute religious minorities.

My recently-published research in PLOS ONE investigated the importance of religious liberty quantitatively. First, contrary to public opinion, the median country experienced a 13% decline in religious liberty between 2006 and 2018. Moreover, these declines were concentrated among countries with stronger property rights – for example, Western Democracies. This is important to take note of, especially for the United States, because it underscores that religious liberty can deteriorate anywhere. In fact, it has declined by 35% in America between 1980 and 2018.

Second, drawing on a sample of over 150 countries surveyed between 2006 and 2018, I found that increases in religious liberty lead to improvements in human flourishing – an effect concentrated among religious minorities. The ability to compare the same country over time is important for identifying the causal effect of religious liberty over other potentially spurious factors. Moreover, controlling for measures of economic freedom (e.g., property rights) from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom and other measures of economic activity strengthens the results.

To understand why religious liberty matters so much – even more than economic freedom – for predicting human flourishing, I gathered more characteristics about every country over time and included them in the statistical model. I found that religious liberty is an integral prerequisite for democratic governance, aiding the process for civic engagement and women’s empowerment and reducing the potential for public and political corruption. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: limiting the freedom to choose and arrive at even the most basic judgments about one’s identity stifles creativity and increases the potential for corruption by overly zealous and powerful bureaucrats.

Although the United States still ranks at the top in terms of religious liberty, we’ve seen a decline over the past two decades. If it weren’t for the Trump Administration, that decline would have arguably been accelerated. Particularly with the ongoing pandemic, many states and local governments have enacted restrictions that have either outright stopped faith-based institutions from gathering or penalizing them after the fact, despite some exemptions. And yet, other entities, including violent protests, have been allowed and in many cases promoted by local officials.

We’re also seeing a renewed viciousness and series of personal attacks against Amy Comey Barrett, Trump’s new nominee for the Supreme Court, and her Christian faith. If we care about religious liberty as a nation, then we need to be consistent in how we treat one another. Let these results be a reminder that religious liberty isn’t just fluff – there’s strong quantitative evidence supporting the view that it has a causal effect on human flourishing.


Christos A. Makridis is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, a non-resident fellow at Baylor University, and a senior adviser at Gallup. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @camakridis.

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