“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

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.


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”