Four Reasons Religious Freedom
Vital to U.S. National Interests
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics
& Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission gave
the four reasons religious freedom is vital to U.S. national interests
in a recent speech. This is an excerpt from that speech:
The world is filled with
religious-related persecution and the situation is getting worse, not
better…Old concepts of national security based on sovereign nations
competing for strategic superiority are being replaced by ethnic and
religious strife combined with high-tech weapons capability…It's
important for future leaders to be able to take religion seriously --
to understand its yearnings, to use its potential and to counter its
danger…Diplomats and politicians and policy makers who are not
equipped to do that are going to find themselves falling short in
putting forward U.S. policy goals in the 21st century.
Land cited four reasons why religious freedom concerns are vital to
U.S. national interests.
First, Land said, religious liberty has been integral to America's
"I believe we always do best in the world when we reflect who we are
and when our foreign policy reflects who we are. And religious
freedom, freedom of conscience, is an integral part, a foundational
part, of why this nation exists," he said. "... From our nation's
founding, the belief that every human being has a fundamental right to
believe, worship and practice according to his or her own conscience
has been a core conviction of the vast majority of the American
Thomas Jefferson, Land said, called religious liberty the "first
freedom," and the founding fathers "believed that these rights were
inalienable because they were understood to exist prior to society and
to government and were granted by neither, but instead were merely
recognized and protected." Land said the practice of religious freedom
entails other rights such as freedom of assembly, free expression and
property ownership, and such freedom creates "breathing room" for
political dissidents, labor organizers and human rights advocates.
Religious freedom fueled democratic reforms in Eastern Europe and has
inspired communist China to stifle religious liberty for fear of
pressure of similar reforms, Land said.
The second reason religious
liberty is vital to U.S. national interests is that it is universal in
its importance and applicability, Land said.
Land said religious freedom is
fundamental in post-World War II human rights initiatives and is cited
in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the
Helsinki Accords and other international human rights statements.
Though the U.S. Constitution's explicit declaration of complete
religious liberty and separation of church and state might be the
ideal, the USCIRF standard in evaluating foreign countries' religious
liberty practices is the United Nations' Universal Declaration on
Human Rights and other documents that state "every human being has the
right to freedom of conscience, and that includes the right to
practice one's faith, to change one's faith, without fear of
persecution and without fear of discrimination." This U.N. standard
would allow, unlike the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, for state
preference of some religions over others. The standard does explicitly
reject persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion.
Also, the promotion of religious freedom is linked to other
fundamental human civil rights, including the growth of democracy,
Land said. "Governments that protect religious freedom for all their
citizens are more likely to be governments that protect other
fundamental human rights," Land said. "Encouraging stable, healthy
democracies is a vital national interest of the United States of
America. The spread of democracy makes for good neighbors, it makes
for economic prosperity, it makes for increased trade, and it makes
for a decrease in conflict. "Representative governments that respond
to the needs of their people, governments that protects everyone's
right to practice their faith as they wish to practice it, are not
societies that are active breeding grounds for terrorists. To the
degree that societies suppress such impulses, they breed terrorism."
Land said when societies begin trampling women's rights, freedom of
conscience and children's rights, "you have a sign, just like when the
canaries start dying in the coal mine ... that there are poisonous
gases loose in that society and they, left unfettered, will cause
Finally, Land contended, religious freedom is a means of fighting
the war on terrorism.
Though religious freedom is not and should not be the top foreign
policy concern, Land said it is imperative that it be championed for
long-term security at home and abroad because it is "arguably the most
fundamental component of all freedom."
Unfortunately, the U.S. has often stood alone in promoting religious
liberty issues, Land said, and prior to the passage of the
International Religious Freedom Act, religious freedom was considered
by some U.S. policy makers to be "the red-headed stepchild" of foreign
policy issues. "That has certainly changed since 1998, and I can tell
you from my three years on the commission that the only reason that
most of the governments of the world pay any attention at all to this
issue is because the United States of America forces them to pay
attention to it, because our State Department, under the requirements
of the International Religious Freedom Act, issues an annual report
and we issue an annual report, and we bring it up in diplomatic
discussions with other countries -- and they listen."
Congressional hearings and religious freedom monitoring gives the
religiously oppressed leverage against their governments they
otherwise would not have, Land said.
Land said he is saddened and surprised by threats to religious liberty
in Western Europe. For example, Land said the USCIRF cited Belgium and
France for using government security to infiltrate religious groups
they considered cults. "I didn't really expect that to be the case in
Western democracies, but it has been the case and is the case." Land
also lamented France's prohibition against Muslim headscarves, Jewish
yarmulkes and large crosses worn as jewelry in French public schools.
Land said President John F.
Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, noted "freedom is God's
gift to mankind." President Bush has reiterated that point often in
addresses about the war in Iraq. But to make a difference, the ideal
of religious liberty must be followed by government acting on a
coherent policy consistently pursued, Land argued.
To advance fundamental reforms among countries whose leaders are
hostile to religious freedom, America "must be willing to not just
tell hard truths but to act on them. That means ... concrete,
real-world penalties for bad behavior."
Land inferred that the radical
Islamic religious revolution of the 1970s might have been thwarted had
U.S. intelligence officials understood the religious factors involved
among those who wanted to force progressive reforms on Islamic
"U.S. strategic interests are best served by telling allies things
they don't like hearing about topics the U.S. diplomats don't like
discussing. ... If the 20th century was the century of ideology, then
the 21st century is the century of religion, whether the State
Department likes it or not," he said.
Foreign policy decisions based
solely on American security and prosperity are not sufficient in a
religiously tense world because they ignore basic American values,
Religion shapes the worldviews of those involved in conflicts and is a
threat because "it exists outside state control. It gathers and
motivates people without state approval and it grows despite state
attempts to limit or eradicate it," Land said.
The current war on terror, Land
said, is a war against radical Islamic jihadism, which is a competitor
to freedom and democracy. Thus, the U.S. must empower moderate Muslim
leaders, who, Land argued, will choose democracy over totalitarianism
and "we will have greatly enhanced the prospect for long-term peace
and security in the majority Muslim world and in the rest of the world
Land traveled to Texas June 7-8,
2004 with USCIRF staff and addressed faculty at Texas A&M's Bush
School of Government on June 7 and the Houston Anti-Defamation League
and American Jewish Committee during a luncheon June 8. The USCIRF is
a nine-member, bipartisan committee established in 1998. More
information on the commission's work can be found at
Richard Land, president of Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission SBC