Rising Threats to American Religious Freedom: Framing the Problem
May 24, 2012
RFP Director Tom Farr delivered a speech titled "Rising Threats to American Religious Freedom: Framing the Problem" to the American Religious Freedom Program on May 24th, 2012.
Thank you Brian, and congratulations to you and the American Religious Freedom Program for holding this very important conference. I'm honored to have been given two tasks. First, to introduce Professor Robert George, and second, to frame the issue we will discuss today.
The first task will be a pleasure, the second less so.
My message to you about religious freedom is one of somber realism, although also one of hope.
Let me begin by placing the American landscape into a broader context. We are today in the midst of a global crisis in religious liberty, one with significant consequences not only for the United States, but for all people. Outside the West, where religious belief and practice are widespread and growing, the problem is that religious freedom has never been implemented in law or culture.
In Europe, which long ago provided the theological and philosophical wellsprings of religious freedom, those wellsprings have for the most part run dry. There the decline of religion itself has severely undermined respect for religious liberty.
Only in America is there a taproot of religious freedom that remains deeply embedded in law and culture. Here, and only here, there remain substantial numbers of political, religious, and civic leaders, scholars, and ordinary citizens who understand that religious liberty is vital to human dignity, and to social, economic, and political flourishing.
But even in America serious challenges have mounted over the last half century, and in particular over the last four years, challenges that will undermine the American system of religious liberty should we fail to respond with intelligence, wit, and wisdom. The stakes are high.
In two exhaustive reports the Pew Research Center recently concluded that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries in which religious freedom is severely restricted, either by governments or private actors. That is almost three out of four human beings on the planet.
And the problem is getting worse. Between the first report in 2009 and the second in 2011, the situation deteriorated in twice as many countries as those in which it improved.
Overall, most of the roughly 70 nations with the highest restrictions on religious freedom are non-Western, Muslim-majority nations. Of all the religious groups subject to harassment, Christians came out on top: They are harassed in 130 countries; with Muslims second at 117.
What about the West? Quite amazingly, Europe, compared with all other regions, has the largest proportion of nations in which hostility toward religion is rising. Social hostilities in the United Kingdom increased so much that the UK now stands in the company of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the category of “high” social hostilities. That is quite extraordinary.
On balance, it is fair to say that religious freedom is not faring well in the lands where it was first conceived. Of course, what is happening in Europe does not approach the levels of violent religious extremism and persecution we see elsewhere - torture, rape, unjust imprisonment, or unjust execution.
And yet, the root causes are quite similar: a belief that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods.
Of course, in the modern era religious freedom has always posed a threat to tyrants. From Stalin, Hitler, and Mao to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles, to Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar Assad, each sought to eliminate religion altogether, or to control and suppress it in order to maintain themselves in power.
But today religious liberty is being undermined not simply by tyrants, but by democratic majorities. We must never forget that no democracy is fixed or permanent. Each is an experiment in ordered liberty that rests, in part, on its protection of religious freedom in full.
What does the United States bring to this crisis, and what are our own challenges? I want to draw your attention to three recent propositions that help define our own difficulties, and will set the stage for our deliberations today.
First, in his March 2009 speech at Notre Dame, President Obama proposed the following idea: "It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God ... asks of us." As Gerry Bradley pointed out last week in Public Discourse, the President here denied that religion contains any element of rationality, any basis for knowing with certainty anything – for example, that God exists, that each of us is equal in His eyes, or that to kill an innocent human being is always and everywhere wrong.
The second proposition was put forward by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. In her December 2009 speech at Georgetown University, Secretary Clinton described the content of religious liberty, and of another right she believed equally important, in the following words: "To fulfill their potential, people ... must be free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose."
The third proposition occurred in August 2010. Federal judge Vaughan Walker overturned a California referendum that had affirmed in law that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Walker declared the results of this referendum unconstitutional, in part on the grounds that the reasons adduced in favor of marriage, and against same-sex unions, were based on “religious and moral values.”
Listen carefully. Powerful members of our political class are arguing that there is no rational content to religion; that religious freedom means the right to gather and worship, but not to bring religiously-informed moral judgments into political life; that religious freedom must be balanced by the "right" to love as one chooses; and that to make religious arguments against that purported right is unconstitutional.
These propositions are not yet embedded in American law and culture, but they are well along the road. To the extent they are accepted, they will represent a radical rejection of religious freedom as understood by the Founders and as practiced for most of our nation's history.
In 1786, James Madison wrote that our rights derive from the duty we owe God. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."
Now most nations had in place mechanisms of coercion designed to ensure that men pursued their duty toward God.
In one of history's great turning points, Madison reasoned in a different direction. He insisted that if men were to fulfill their obligation to God they must have freedom -- especially freedom from the coercive powers of the state. “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate. . . .”
To the Founders this right of religious freedom was vital to the individual but also to civil and political society. As Washington put it in his farewell address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports."
In sum, religious freedom as envisioned by our founding generation was both the right to worship, and the right to bring religious and religiously informed moral judgments into public life. Without the benefits of contending religious arguments in the political arena, in their view, American democracy would fail.
The challenge before us is that this understanding has been rejected by many of our elites. They argue that faith is emotive, not rational, and that faith-based moral judgments have no legitimate role in political life.
These views, I would submit, present a clear and present danger to our system of religious liberty, and to our democracy itself. I would also suggest that the global crisis in religious freedom threatens America's vital national interests as well. Where religious freedom is weak or absent, democracy cannot root, and violent religious extremism is likely to be incubated and exported. This is why our foreign policy is required by law to advance international religious freedom.
Is it any surprise that, given our own confusion and disarray, we have proven so inept in doing so?
And so you have much to consider today. The stakes are high, but there is great reason for hope. It lies, pace President Obama, in reasoned arguments, religious and otherwise, by men and women of courage, wit, and wisdom. You are about to hear a man who is at the center of this project.
It is now my pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker, Professor Robert George. Professor George is founder of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and holder of the prestigious McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence. He is justly renowned, not only in the United States, but worldwide, as one of the profound thinkers of our time, especially on questions of law, public morality, and religious freedom.
In March of this year, Professor George came to Georgetown University to give the keynote address at a conference organized by my own Religious Freedom Project. His address drew a huge crowd and was extremely well received, but later that night I was fortunate enough to see him carry his thinking into one of the most extraordinary conversations I have ever heard.
The conversation occurred before an audience of Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths, and people of no faith at all. Each listened, transfixed, as Professor George discussed religious freedom with one of the most influential Muslims in the United States, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.
The conversation highlighted not only the natural law arguments that you will hear shortly, but it elicited from Hamza Yusuf a Muslim argument for religious freedom, drawing on the theological and philosophical resources of Islam. It was fascinating – the video went viral and I invite you to watch it on our website.
One final, but very important note. Robby George, the grandson of immigrant coal miners, is a guitarist in the styles of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, and a bluegrass banjo player in the styles of Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Bela Fleck. At Swarthmore he led a country and bluegrass band called "Robby George and Friends."
I like the sound of that. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the great defender of religious liberty, the bluegrass-banjo-playing Professor Robert George.