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Dust off your thinking. Religious freedom is not just a history issue. We need 21st century voices in suppport of liberty for all humanity. I attended a Religion and Foreign Policy workshop recently in New York, sponsored by The US Council on Foreign Relations. A look at the status of religious freedom was provided by Paul Marshall* and an insightful reflection by Richard Sieple** chronicled both success and failures of promoting religious freedom worldwide. Today, religious freedom and religious persecution affect all religious groups – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism as well as small religious groups like Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witness or Judaism.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but religious freedom is not an exclusively western achievement. Religious freedom can be found on every continent. Estonia and Hungary are among the freest countries in the world. In Marshall’s survey Japan, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Botswana, Mali, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa score better than do Belgium, France, Germany and Greece.
Violations of religious freedom, likewise, happen worldwide. The most egregious persecuting states tend to be either communist (North Korea, China), nationalist (Burma, Eritrea) or radical Islamist (Iran, Saudi Arabia). In many cases restrictions on religion come from people who are members of the same general religious group, but who are a part of different subgroups. Those suffering restrictions include non-Orthodox Christians in Russia, Greece, and Armenia or Shiite Muslims in Pakistan & Saudi Arabia. These patterns reflect restrictions on minority faith expressions by the majority group in most cases. Atheists and agnostics also suffer persecution, especially in Saudi Arabia.
As you might expect, religious freedom is very compatible with other civil and human rights. As Marshall points out, “ the overlap is not simply a methodological artifact, but rather reflects the simple reality that religious freedom is necessarily a component of civil rights in general.” Religion is not only a transcendent endeavor, but an integral part of the realm of human freedom.
How does religious freedom make gains? In an exemplary reflection by Richard Sieple,** first US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Sieple looks towards strategies that actually “move the human rights needle” in the right direction. He sees only a very selective environment that responds to the use of punishment where religious freedom violations are present. Success however does result when the promotion of religious freedom is coupled with a salient analysis of vested self interest. For example, religious freedom and security can develop as two sides of the same coin if a government sees that it will benefit by a more stable populace when religious freedom is an incentive for loyalty to the government. Also, Sieple found success in providing trade and economic officials with experiences highlighting positive effects of religious pluralism, human freedoms and vital (American) religious culture. He gave an example of officials who made a trade trip that included experiences with religious pluralism. Upon return to their country, they visited prisons where 37 Christians were incarcerated because of faith issues and soon 34 of the 37 were subsequently released.
The inclusion of religious leaders in to the discussion of foreign policy is providing fertile ground for productive discussions and creative thinking towards inspiring and providing this essential freedom to the world. Many of you find yourselves as citizens of the world, in business, medicine, government, trade, missions, ministry and pastoral service. Your voice is needed to reflect and speak about the importance of religious liberty for all humanity. Religious liberty is a critical but fragile freedom. The Council on Foreign Relations has an initiative to engage religious leaders in this and other foreign policy issues. You are invited to join this vital work by contacting Marjorie Branch at email@example.com.
*Author, Religious Freedom in the World, Rowan & Littlefield 2008
** Founder, Institute for Global Engagement. Author, Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations, Rowan & Littlefield, 2004.
One of the most contentious religious liberty issues in the past several years has been government aid to religious entities that provide social services. The most noticeable effort to promote such aid has been through the president’s Faith-Based Initiative. For many, government funds for religious-based social services put two heartfelt desires at odds; to promote ministering to the least of these among us, and to uphold the value of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. While religious charities have received government grants for years, the recent Faith-Based Initiative has sought to change some essential rules governing the cooperation.
Over the last decade or so, Congress has debated many aspects of the issue. Of particular focus for some religious liberty advocates has been the right of religious entities to hire or fire employees on the basis of religion whose positions are funded by tax dollars. Religious entities and churches have the right to hire only those who share their beliefs when using their own funds such as tithes and offerings. Changes called for under the Faith-Based Initiative raises the question as to if that right is extended to service positions funded by government grants?
In July, a group of organizations working together as the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, sent a description of their concerns regarding the implementation of the Faith-Based Initiatives to both Senator McCain and Senator Obama. Their summary recites a short history of cooperation between the government and religious social service providers. The letter then addresses some problems the authors see in the current Faith-Based Initiative and urges both candidates to make reforms during the next administration. To read the letter and gain a greater understanding of a religious liberty issue being debated during this political season please click here.
A fairly intense conversation regarding church-state relations is currently focused on the American founders’ “original intent.” Did the founders intend to guarantee religious liberty through an institutional separation of church and state or did they merely intend to keep one any religious viewpoint from becoming America’s “official religion”?
This debate is contexted in part by the struggle between secularists who believe that church and state should be separated by an impassible barrier and religious conservatives who depict separation of church and state as fiction constructed by liberal Supreme Court justices. Caught between these two polarities are diverse Baptists who have some sense of religious liberty as a Baptist distinctive but who might also lament the secularity of post-modern America and the loss of “the good old days” when public school children were asked to bow their heads for teacher-led prayers and Bible readings.
For Baptists who value religious liberty through separation of church state, it is always important to understand as clearly as possible what we mean by that phrase. Part of that understanding involves an honest quest for truth regarding original intent, and in particular, a way to evaluate fairly the contention that church-state separation is a myth. What should we make of the books, articles, and websites which claim that the founders really intended to establish a “Christian America”? Through a maze of alleged quotations from the founders themselves to this effect, how can we find our way to some sense of confidence about the founders’ true original intent? Church-state scholar Derek Davis examines one website line by line with the not-so-surprising conclusion that most of the author’s “quotes” are misquoted or so wrenched from their original contexts that the conclusions drawn are ill founded.
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