Why Religious Freedom?


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ABSTRACTWhy Religious Freedom? Home About Advertise Contact Support A Voice for the Faithful Catholic Laity Get Crisis in your Inbox Daily Headlines Best of the Week Politics Business Church Art & Culture Catholic Living Features The Civilized Reader The Standard Bearers Books April 2, 2012 Why Religious Freedom? by James Stoner W hen the Witherspoon Institute’s task force on religious freedom released its monograph, Religious Freedom: Why Now? , earlier this month, the answer to the question in the title seemed obvious. The controversy occasioned by the Obama Administration’s mandate that all health plans pay the cost of contraception was in the front of the news, and the Catholic bishops were taking a united stand insisting that, at the very least, their churches and agencies be exempt from being forced to pay for drugs and procedures whose use the Church teaches to be immoral. The press was beginning to frame the issue as women’s rights versus religious liberty, and while an immediate showdown was apparently averted in part by the distraction caused by a radio commentator’s outburst, the larger question seems likely to be featured in the upcoming presidential campaign. Religious freedom is an issue now, it seems, because the continuing growth of government involvement in daily life makes every matter of how people choose to live into a political question: “The personal is political,” once a radical slogan, has become a daily nuisance, or a burden, or a threat. But actually, Religious Freedom: Why Now? has been several years in preparation, and its coincidental release in the midst of the contraception mandate debate has the happy effect of putting that debate in global perspective. This is not another parsing of the First Amendment or meditation on its contemporary meaning. Instead, it is an analysis of religious freedom as a human right recognized by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an argument concerning its strategic importance in international affairs. The strategic case for religious liberty rests on two empirical observations: first, that religion is resurgent across the globe today, contradicting the secularization thesis that had been axiomatic among modern social theorists, and second, that religious extremism, terrorism, and warfare launch from places where religious liberty is denied. The way to achieve global peace, the authors conclude, is not to contain or repress religion, even bellicose religion, but to nurture and expand religious freedom, which has the effect of restraining religious excess from within, preserving the good of religion and meliorating the bad. Although the monograph starts from the U.N. Declaration rather than the U.S. Constitution, the authors do not at all forget about America; indeed, the little book is a call to America to remember herself. The strategic argument is written to apply universally, drawing in part on the recent work of Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (Cambridge, 2011), who compile and analyze statistics about religious persecution worldwide, and in part on a movement that saw early success in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act passed by the U.S. Congress. (Thomas Farr, chairman of the task force, was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, established by the Act.) It might seem paradoxical and is at least perplexing to the layman to see the root cause of Islamist terrorism not in religious radicalism itself but in the denial of religious liberty in the countries from which terrorism emerges, but the argument is that repression radicalizes opposition of any sort, political or religious, or both. Philosophers at least as long ago as John Locke supposed that toleration in matters of religion would lead to civil peace and religious moderation, and at least since Tocqueville the observation has been made that religious liberty can strengthen religious belief and practice, too. That political oppression often generates violent resistance would surprise no one; what is new is to extend the logic to religion. What Grim and Finke show with modern statistical analysis, and the Witherspoon authors report, is that civil liberties travel together: Respect for religious liberty correlates highly with political freedom, freedom of the press, and “gender empowerment,” and less highly but still significantly with economic freedom and a number of economic measures such as lower poverty and higher GDP. In short, “Social science confirms that religious liberty is tightly bundled with other liberties” (p. 21). That almost all the perpetrators of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia, a repressive Islamic monarchy, perfectly reinforces the principal argument. Moreover, while the Witherspoon authors are delicate and indirect on the question, the clear implication to me is that the architects of American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan overlooked the importance of rel.......