“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

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”

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”