Religious Freedom: A Fleeting Consensus and Prospects for Renewal

By: Thomas Farr Timothy Shah

April 29, 2016

Religious Freedom: Past, Present, and Future Challenges

In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) landed on President Bill Clinton's desk with the support of a unanimous House and near-unanimous Senate. Clinton signed the act into law. Five years later, in 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) arrived carrying near-unanimous House support and a unanimous Senate vote. Again, Clinton signed the act into law. The pair of bills gave religious freedom teeth—creating new diplomatic envoys and a foreign policy imperative dedicated to religious freedom, and reversing a Supreme Court ruling by requiring the federal government to accommodate religious freedom in its domestic policies generously, as legislators believed the "first freedom" demanded. Both bills marked a consensus and apparent fulcrum point. Neither touched off controversy.

Now, in 2016, the landscape of religious freedom looks very different. Around the world, religious believers and non-believers have watched their liberties wither under devastating attacks. The most recent data indicate that roughly five and a half billion people, 77 percent of the world's population, now live under high or very high levels of hostility toward their religious freedom—hostility either social or governmental. Ten years ago, that number stood at 68 percent. In the last decade, that means, over 600 million people—people the world over—have been subjected to levels of religious persecution they did not experience before.

That astonishingly big number-600 million people-gives a sense of the scale of the challenge the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center was founded to face, but not its texture. Religious freedom faces complex challenges, not just large ones. In the United States, for instance, religious freedom has been placed on the defensive. But not, as in Europe because of longstanding laïcité and rising anti-Semitism, nor, as in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, because authoritarian governments and violent extremists have expanded their reach. In the United States, the culture wars have driven a wedge into a longstanding consensus on religious freedom. As same-sex marriage and federal rules requiring the provision of birth control, sterilizations, and abortifacients come to the fore of debates on religious freedom, advocates of exemptions and accommodations increasingly face accusations of bigotry. In Indiana, those accusations gained broad corporate backing and led the governor to reverse course on legislation modeled after RFRA, vetoing a bill that would have easily passed in the 1990s. The threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) has also challenged American's convictions on religious freedom—the first freedom. In a December poll, only 60 percent of Americans endorsed the importance of religious freedom for Muslims. In a country where both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass legislation protecting religious freedom for all Americans, that number is disheartening and challenging.

America's crumbling commitment to religious freedom has defanged its foreign policy. It is hard for any administration to convince other nations of the importance of religious freedom. It is doubly hard when the administration is selling a remedy in which it no longer believes and indeed opposes in court. The ambassador at large for international religious freedom—a very senior diplomat at the State Department whose job, created by IRFA, is to advance global religious freedom—has never been treated as other such ambassadors are within the department.

But in the last decade and especially during the Obama administration support for the role has dipped to an historic low. Unlike other ambassadors at large, the ambassador for religious freedom is not really considered a senior official at the Department of State. His status is far below that of other similar diplomatic officials, and he and his office lack resources. Although at this writing a very able man, David Saperstein, has been appointed as ambassador, it is nevertheless revealing that when he was appointed, the Obama administration had left the position unfilled for more than half the president’s tenure.

Now is a dangerous time for America to be asleep at the wheel of global religious freedom policy. In the European Union, anti-Semitism is rising. According to Pew, Jews face harassment or hostility now in almost 40 percent of the world's countries and over three quarters of European nations—an increase of 50 percent from a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al Shabab in Kenya are targeting Christians for slaughter-hundreds or thousands at a time, in towns, schools and shopping malls. Communist, authoritarian, and theocratic states, such as North Korea, Cuba, China, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia continue to regiment and punish religious believers who refuse to recognize the state, or the official religion, as the most important authority in their lives. They reserve that role for conscience.

The last decade, in short, has been fraught for religious believers and for believers in religious freedom. But those challenges are not insurmountable; religious freedom advocates possess an arsenal of strategies and advantages as they look to the future.

It might be said of religious freedom in America that reports of its death are exaggerated. Religious freedom in America is under threat, not defeated. A majority of Americans continue to believe in the importance of religious freedom, even as they spar, sometimes despairingly, over its applications, and bipartisan enthusiasm dims. The current political controversy over religious freedom has spurred research on religious freedom’s benefits—invigorating an academic community near the core of which sits the RFP. Academics have built a formidable and palatable case for religious freedom that should buoy and arm supporters: religious freedom, we know now, is good for democracy, good for economies, and capable of soothing violent religious tensions. Religious freedom advocates, even if they have lost ground in the last 10 years, can cloak themselves in the confidence that comes with selling a good product.

Promising data analysis aside, religious freedom advocates ought to draw their most abiding confidence in their case from religious believers and the nature of religion itself. Religious belief is not easily extinguished. Even under the gravest repression—in the Soviet Union, in China, in Rome—believers have borne witness to conscience. Religious belief is, as research increasingly indicates, a natural and indestructible component of human experience. Indeed, even as restrictions on religious belief have grown through the past decade, religion has resurged, not retreated. So too, for religious freedom advocates, who have refashioned their arguments, built political and social networks, and can look forward from a decade of challenges steeled to meet them.
Opens in a new window