“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