The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), of which I am Chairman, released its 2014 Annual Report on April 30. As in previous years, the report analyzed the condition of religious freedom in numerous countries, highlighting abuses of religious freedom and offering recommendations to President Obama, the U.S. State Department, and Congress on how best to respond to such violations. However, this year’s report comes with an added element: an analysis of the United States’ policy on religious freedom over the past fifteen years and how to improve it in the future. Based on this broader analysis, the report concluded that, as a nation and society, the United States must do more to promote freedom of religion or belief overseas. Such promotion is crucial today since, by any measure, religious freedom is under serious and sustained pressure across much of the globe. According to the most recent Pew study on the subject, more than three-quarters of the world’s population lives in countries in which religion is restricted in significant ways, either by the government or by societal actors.
Behind this statistic is the reality of deep human suffering. When religious freedom is abridged, real people—as well as their families, communities, and countries—pay a price, losing their liberty and, sometimes, their lives. Whether their names are etched on gravestones or their faces stare at us from behind prison bars, we must never forget these people.
A positive step forward in advancing religious freedom abroad would be to reaffirm what this right actually entails by answering the question, “What is freedom of religion?”
Simply stated, religious freedom is a broad, inclusive right, sweeping in scope, which embraces the full range of thought, belief, and behavior; it is as deep as it is broad, honoring and upholding the claims of conscience. Religious freedom means the right of all human beings to think as they please, to believe or not believe as their conscience leads, and to live out their beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. When it comes to the peaceful practice of religion or belief, no government, group, or individual has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or prevent them from answering its call.
How broad and inclusive is religious freedom as a human right? Religious freedom applies to the holders of all religious beliefs. Thus, USCIRF advocates for the rights of members of every religious group in the world to practice their faith peacefully.
Broader still, the right to religious freedom extends to those who reject religious beliefs altogether. It upholds the right to embrace any belief, including one that excludes religion. When atheists or agnostics are targeted for expressing their convictions, they too are victims of religious persecution and merit USCIRF’s advocacy.
Besides protecting every belief, freedom of religion is, in itself, a conviction that is unbounded by geography or nation. Rather than being the exclusive preserve of any one country, it is a universal value endorsed by a majority of countries in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the global community overwhelmingly adopted in 1948, as well as in subsequent agreements. Like every other human right, religious freedom is the birthright of humanity.
Finally, religious freedom is broad and deep enough to merit a seat at the table with economic and security concerns when any nation is conducting its affairs with the world. Human rights, including considerations of religious freedom, should be among the central concerns of our foreign policy. The reason for this is clear: a country’s interests cannot be readily separated from its values. Since its values reflect its identity, such separation is hard to achieve, let alone desirable to pursue. Moreover, we should not assume that there is an automatic tradeoff between religious freedom and other human rights, economic interests, or security concerns; in reality, all of these are deeply interrelated.
Support for religious freedom means opposition to every form of coercion or restraint on people’s ability to choose and practice their beliefs peacefully. Rather than imposing beliefs, supporting religious freedom is about protecting people’s right to remain true to their deepest convictions.
Equipped with this understanding of the breadth and depth of religious freedom, we can see just how much is at stake when countries and cultures perpetrate or tolerate violations of that liberty. To violate this precious right is to betray human nature and well-being; to affirm it is to affirm our very humanity and its continued prosperity. It is an indispensable freedom that merits our firm and dedicated support abroad wherever it is threatened.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. In addition, he is Of Counsel to the law firm of Robinson & McElwee in Charleston, West Virginia. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, Professor George earned a doctorate in philosophy of law from Oxford University. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Swarthmore, and received a Knox Fellowship from Harvard for graduate study in law and philosophy at Oxford. Professor George currently serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics. From 1993- 98, he served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He is a former Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the 1990 Justice Tom C. Clark Award.