The Role of Religious Freedom Today
This is the first of a two-part series on religious freedom by Rep. Francis Rooney. For part 2, see "Religious Freedom and Islamic Society."
Throughout history religion has played a stabilizing role in society. When practiced freely, religion establishes a moral compass for people to follow, which in turn leads to tolerance of differing views and comity in civil society. Free expression of religion allows pluralistic religious organizations to exist within modern secular states, and can ease ideological conflicts by transforming volatile societies into models of peaceful coexistence.
St. Augustine realized that free expression of religion leads to a stable and just society when he wrote in The City of God that without the justice and morality induced by religion, people would become no more than a “band of robbers.” Centuries later, Pope Benedict XVI referred to this metaphor and told the German Bundestag that religion in civic life is an essential precondition for peace and justice, because “the conviction that there is a God gives rise to the idea of human rights, equality before the law, recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions,” i.e. conscience.
The free expression of religion is a precondition for a functional role of religion in society. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786, written by Thomas Jefferson and supported by James Madison, was the first ever law protecting religious freedom. The Statute provided the blueprint for the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which has allowed a pluralistic religious society to develop in the United States which coexists with the modern secular state. A modern-day study of religion in the United States, American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, argues strongly that religious beliefs and practice correlate positively with numerous forms of good and productive behaviors, like increased volunteerism, charitable giving and civic activism in American society.
American leaders from George Washington to George W. Bush have promoted religious freedom as a stabilizing influence on individuals’ behavior. In 1790, President Washington wrote a letter to a Jewish congregation, stating that religious beliefs are an “inherent natural right” and the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” In his Farewell Address, President Washington further warned that “national morality” cannot exist “in exclusion of religious principle.” Two centuries later, it was President George W. Bush who said “freedom of religion is not something to be feared…faith gives us a moral core.
The United States experience with religious freedom has spread around the world. During a 2014 visit to Albania, Pope Francis recognized the “peaceful coexistence and collaboration” of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the former communist, majority Muslim state. Lebanon, the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, with significant populations of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Druze, has a government structure designed to protect the different religions from persecution and to promote inter-religious cooperation. Free expression of religion allows religions in Albania and Lebanon to peacefully coexist without fear of persecution.
Due to its stabilizing role in society, religious freedom can be used as a “soft power” weapon to deter extremist ideologies, as evidenced by Holy See diplomacy. In the 1950’s, the Catholic Church was the only religious group President Truman could engage to openly attack communism. While other religious leaders refused to speak up, the Catholic Church directly and publicly attacked communism as an existential threat to religion and freedom. Decades later, Pope John Paul II’s inspiration and leadership hastened the end of communism in Eastern Europe. In Poland, his home country, the Pope’s visit to the Gdansk Shipyard in 1979 forcefully inspired the Solidarity movement, whose actions eventually toppled the communist regime.
The Holy See has used inter-religious dialogue as a platform to nurture an exchange of ideas oriented toward finding an Islamic rationale to combat extremist ideology. During a visit to Turkey, Pope Francis met with Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The two Christian leaders jointly condemned Christian persecution in the Middle East and called for further inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Pope Francis’ recent visit to Egypt, in which he publicly appeared with Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, similarly called for more inter-faith dialogue in a nation currently plagued by religiously inspired attacks on Christians. This dialogue serves as another example of the importance of pursuing freedom of expression of all religions as a “soft power” tool.
In summary, it is clear that religion plays a stabilizing role in society and that freedom to practice religion, of all beliefs, is critical to assuring that society is tolerant and civil. Building on past examples, hopefully religious freedom can provide an effective “soft power” weapon in the war against radical Islam, which will be discussed in part two of this series.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 19th congressional district. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.