“A Beacon on Our Coast”: Some thoughts on international religious liberty

Last Wednesday, I took part in a panel discussion on international religious liberty and human rights in the Trump Administration. The event was hosted by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Providence Magazine, and held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Event FlyerMy remarks were entitled “‘A Beacon on our Coast’: Religious Freedom as the First Freedom at Home and Abroad”. I offered a defense of religious freedom as the “First Freedom” as a matter of history, philosophy, and practical experience.

  • Historically, it was the early struggle for religious freedom that gave rise to concept of civil rights. As Judge Michael McConnell has argued, theological developments like the doctrine of “two kingdoms” and emphasis on liberty of conscience laid the groundwork for political concepts like separation of church and state and, more generally, limits on government power.
  • Philosophically, religion is the label we give to a fundamental human impulse: our “sense of the absolute” (to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s phrase), our attempt to define ourselves in relation to an ultimate or transcendent Reality, however conceived. The sense of religious obligation is pre-political. It flows not from civil society, but from our nature as human beings. Religious freedom honors these fundamental truths.
  • Practically speaking, religious freedom is indispensable to civil society. As Brian Grim and Roger Finke show in their book The Price of Freedom Denied, government and social restrictions on religious freedom are a powerful predictor of violent religious persecution and civil conflict. The converse is also true: higher levels of religious freedom mean reduced levels of religion-related violence. In Grim and Finke’s words, lack of religious freedom is the “Rosetta stone” – the master key – for understanding why violence and persecution persist in much of the world.

What does all this mean for international religious liberty and foreign policy? I offered two thoughts. The first (and obvious) lesson is that religious freedom must be a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. The second, perhaps less obvious lesson is that history and theology matter. In the United States, we need to be attentive to our own “theological history” and the way it uniquely shaped our concept and experience of religious freedom. For religious freedom to flourish in other societies, particularly outside the West, we need to understand their unique histories and theologies. Religious freedom cannot be an American export. It must be a native product, rooted in a society’s own religious and cultural traditions.

My full remarks will be published as an essay in the next issue of Providence. The full panel discussion is available as a YouTube video. My remarks begin around the 16:30 mark.


My co-panelists were Travis Wussow, Vice President of Public Policy for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Andrew Doran, Vice President and Senior Policy Advisor to In Defense of Christians; and Emilie Kao, founder of Kids World USA and formerly with the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

I’m so grateful to IRD and Providence, and especially Mark Tooley and Marc Livecche, for having me out and hosting me. As always happens when I go to D.C., I strengthened old friendships and made new ones.

Panel photo

Remembering Ralph Carr

Next Sunday, February 19, 2017, will mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, FDR’s directive to establish “military zones” throughout the United States for the internment of Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, and German-Americans.

Ralph L. Carr, governor of Colorado 1938-1942

Colorado governor Ralph L. Carr vocally opposed this measure. He was the only Western governor to welcome Japanese-Americans who were forcibly evacuated from the West Coast, and he worked tirelessly to ensure that internees were treated fairly.

Sign placed in the window of a store in Oakland, CA on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to evacuate Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. The owner, a University of California graduate, was housed in an internment camp for the duration of the war. (Library of Congress)

Japanese-Americans believed they had a friend in Colorado, and about 7,000 were resettled here, in a camp at Amache near Granada.

Amache Internment Camp, Granada, Colorado

Carr traveled around the state advocating for Japanese-Americans and explaining why it was wrong to imprison them without due process. “An American citizen of Japanese descent has the same rights as any other citizen,” he famously said. “If you harm them, you must first harm me.”

“If you harm them,
you must first harm me.”
– Ralph Carr

For his courage, Carr received hate mail and death threats. Ultimately his unpopular stance cost him his political career. In late 1942, a year when Republicans swept the political ticket across Colorado, Carr narrowly lost a Senate race to Democrat “Big” Ed Johnson, who criticized Carr’s compassion toward Japanese-Americans. Hopes that Carr might one day be a Republican candidate for vice president were dashed. He died in 1950.

Today Carr is remembered as a hero to Japanese-Americans. In 1994, Japan’s Emperor Akihito honored Carr during a visit to Colorado, and in 1999, Carr was named Colorado’s “Person of the Century” by The Denver Post. The state’s judicial center is named after him.

Bust of Ralph Carr in Denver’s Sakura Square

Carr is buried in Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. In 1976, a bust of Carr was placed in Denver’s Sakura Square to commemorate his efforts. Its inscription reads:

In the hysteria of World War II, when others in authority forgot the noble principles that make the United States unique, Colorado’s governor Ralph L. Carr had the wisdom and courage to speak out in behalf of the persecuted Japanese American minority. “They are loyal Americans,” he said, “sharing only race with the enemy.” He welcomed them to Colorado to take part in the state’s war effort and such were the times that his forthright act may have doomed his political future. Thousands came, seeking refuge from the West Coast’s hostility, made new homes and remained to contribute much to Colorado’s civic, cultural and economic life. Those who benefited from Governor Carr’s humanity have built this monument in grateful memory of his unflinching Americanism, and as a lasting reminder that the precious democratic ideals he espoused must forever be defended against prejudice and neglect.

A plaque dedicated to Carr in the Colorado state capitol reads:

A wise, humane man, not influenced by the hysteria and bigotry directed against the Japanese-Americans during World War II. By his humanitarian efforts no Colorado resident of Japanese ancestry was deprived of his basic freedoms, and when no others would accept the evacuated West Coast Japanese, except for confinement in internment camps, Governor Carr opened the doors and welcomed them to Colorado. The spirit of his deeds will live in the hearts of all true Americans.

Here’s a superb 10-minute documentary on Carr (created by 8th graders!):

Check out these other resources on Ralph Carr and the World War II internments:

  • Amache.org: webpage of Camp Amache in Granada, Colorado, maintained by the Amache Preservation Society
  • Densho.org: organization dedicated to preserving the testimonies of Japanese-Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II, offering firsthand accounts, historical images, and teacher resources

Christians in the Middle East: What Trump Can Do

On January 6, I published an essay in Providence Magazine: “How the Trump Administration Can Support Christians in the Middle East.” After reciting the litany of foreign policy challenges that President Obama leaves behind, I describe the dire situation Christians are facing in the Middle East:

The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, and the Christian presence there stretches back two millennia. The Coptic and Syriac Churches in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq are the oldest Christian communities on earth. Indeed, Syriac Christians continue to speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Today, these ancient peoples face the very real threat of elimination from the lands that gave them birth and nurtured their faith. . . .

If Christianity is to survive in the Middle East—and it must survive—Christian communities must be restored to their homes and lands. Their churches and property must be rebuilt. They must be guaranteed physical security, economic opportunity, and political equality. But they live in a region where all of these are in short supply.

I then offer three recommendations for the Trump administration.

  • First, appoint a Special Adviser for International Religious Freedom to the National Security Council. This would elevate international religious freedom issues to the highest levels of the American foreign policy apparatus. And they belong there. As I note, “countries that respect freedom of conscience also tend to value human dignity, equality, and the rule of law.” The converse is also true. Indeed, religious persecution is often a bellwether for broader human rights abuses.
  • Second, urge Congress to pass the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act. This bill directs the State Department to financially support organizations conducting criminal investigations on genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria. It would also set the stage for U.S. aid to NGOs on the ground who are supporting beleaguered Christians.
  • Finally, demand that the UN include Christians in any international genocide declaration. There are indications the UN may recognize that ISIS has committed genocide, but not against Christians. This would mean that Christians, particularly in Iraq, will be passed over for international aid and reconstruction assistance. As documented in the “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East” report I helped author, the ISIS genocide against Christians is undeniable. The incoming U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, must demand the UN acknowledge this.

Open Doors recently published its 2017 World Watch List on Christian persecution. Read about the “major trends” here.


Radical Christian legal theory, part 3: Bearing witness through law

Evangelicals love to talk about the “culture wars,” usually with some mixture of zeal and disdain. I wish we could dispense with the term. It frames our moral agenda all wrong. Christians aren’t called to be at war with their culture. We’re called to be witnesses to the Kingdom of God – in our worship, words, and deeds.

I don’t doubt that bearing witness sometimes feels like war. Jesus promised, after all, that we would have trouble in the world. But rather than fight back, He urged us to “be encouraged” because He has already won the battle – “conquered the world,” as He put it – through His death and resurrection. As evangelicals, we need to focus less on fighting a war with our culture, and more (much more) on following the way of the cross.

Continue reading “Radical Christian legal theory, part 3: Bearing witness through law”

Listening Space: An authentic conversation on race, tragedy, and healing

As I sat across the table from my friend Caron, each of us nursed a coffee, hers a dark roast, mine a cold brew. And we talked about pain and hope. Pain at recent tragedies affecting the nation – the fatal police shootings of young African-American men that seem to recur with startling regularity, spurring a racial divide that our current politics only seems to widen. But also hope in what Dr. King called “the American dream” – not material prosperity, but the essential promise of equality, freedom, and justice for each and every person in this country.

My friend at the table was Rev. Dr. Caron M. Allen. As we talked quietly in a coffee shop in downtown Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, my heart quickened at the unusual authenticity of this conversation: a thirtysomething white guy and a sixtysomething African-American woman talking honestly, face to face, about race, tragedy, reconciliation, and healing.

Continue reading “Listening Space: An authentic conversation on race, tragedy, and healing”

The geography of home: restoring Iraq’s Christians

I recently spoke with Professor Stewart Harris of the Your Weekly Constitutional podcast on the topic of Christian genocide, which you can listen to here.

Among other things, I speak about the long-term goal for Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities in Iraq: restoration to their ancient homelands. The vitality, solidarity, and long-term survival of these groups, as groups, is inseparably connected to their geography, to the places where they historically have lived, worked, and worshiped.

Restoration is also in the long-term interests of the United States and the international community. A minority presence  in Iraq contributes to a healthy regional pluralism. Middle Eastern Christians in particular tend to be supporters of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for minority rights.

Like it or not, geography still matters. Territorial security is necessary to order, and order is necessary to freedom and self-determination. The great ideas that advanced human civilization – democracy, liberty, and the rule of law – are possible only when territorial integrity and stability are assured.

As I write this, the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has begun. So, too, have the calls for Yezidi and Assyrian Christian homelands, semi-autonomous safe havens on Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, self-governing provinces in a greater federated Iraq. As Robert Nicholson writes:

The U.S. has spent more than a decade calling for democracy in the Middle East, but what we really want is stability and liberty for the people who live there. More liberty is better than less liberty, and imperfect liberty is better than instability and chaos. Democracy is a process; liberty is the desired outcome. A stronger emphasis on liberty will prompt a more organic transition to free societies, and the best place to start is with the liberty of peoples who have suffered, collectively, under the boot of rival peoples.

The InterVarsity problem: maintaining fidelity, breaking fellowship

I just finished up a presentation to a group of ministries on “Strengthening Religious Identity,” identifying legal strategies for ministries to maintain their Christian witness while carrying out their missions. It’s a topic particularly salient for faith-based organizations who hold to orthodox Christian views on sexual ethics and sexual identity and who dissent from the ascendant cultural ideology around these issues.

Continue reading “The InterVarsity problem: maintaining fidelity, breaking fellowship”

Radical Christian legal theory, Part 2: Justice for the poor

Thinking about law through a Christian lens means focusing on the poor. “[The Lord] has sent me to preach good news to the poor,” Jesus declares in Luke’s Gospel:

to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

(Luke 4:18-19) These words not only launched Jesus’s ministry. They defined his mission. The poor, the oppressed, the stranger, and the outcast – the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40) – were closest to Jesus’s heart precisely because they were at the margins of society.

Continue reading “Radical Christian legal theory, Part 2: Justice for the poor”

Radical Christian legal theory, Part 1: Law, Gospel, and foolishness

It’s not often one can say a law review article affected them profoundly. But for me, that’s true of Christian Legal Theory” by the late Harvard scholar William Stuntz.

This post is the first in a series on Stuntz’s article. My goal: to illuminate Stuntz’s ideas for a broader audience, to shed some light on the question that Stuntz poses in his opening sentence: “Why should anyone think about law in Christian terms?

Continue reading “Radical Christian legal theory, Part 1: Law, Gospel, and foolishness”

“Justice is in the hands of the ordinary.”

My friend Matt Parker, co-founder of The Exodus Road, likes to say that “justice is in the hands of the ordinary.”

It’s a simple yet profound message. And in the fight against the human trafficking and modern-day slavery — a tragedy that affects nearly 46 million people worldwide — it’s a message we all need to hear.

Continue reading ““Justice is in the hands of the ordinary.””