Effective Leadership Needed to Get Religious Freedom Right

Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

In the sixth installment of Democracy Talks, Lindsay Lloyd, Bill McKenzie, and Chris Walsh argue that the health of democracies around the world depend upon getting the basics of religious freedom right.

Religious freedom is a fundamental right that most Americans with even a cursory knowledge of the Constitution or the nation’s history will recall as a pillar of our democracy. But its application in today’s world, both at home and abroad, is a complicated task. At least, that is what we gleaned from our conversations for this segment of Democracy Talks with global leaders, respected scholars and authors, and clergy and laity.

Among the issues that deserve the attention of policymakers as well as democracy advocates are three that we list below. The health of democracies around the world, as well as the stability of global peace, depends upon getting these basics of religious freedom right.

Strengthening Religious Freedom Requires Religious and Civic Leadership

The differences among world religions run sharply across doctrine, practice, and even ethnicity. They also can erupt into violence and bloodshed.

The existence of such differences heightens the need to find ways to respectfully express distinctions in beliefs and traditions. Cultivating an appreciation for religious pluralism, where divergent views are explored and tolerated, is the best way to curb sectarian tensions. In his interview for this series, Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core, defined religious pluralism well:

Colloquially put, religious pluralism is the idea that faith is a bridge of collaboration and people of diverse faiths should be coming together in ways that respect each other’s identities, that build relationships between different communities, and that facilitate cooperation on concrete projects for the common good.

The question is, how do those of us in the larger civil society build those kinds of relationships and develop respect for religious identities that do not coincide with our own? Patel contends that American hospitals offer an instructive example. At first glance, that sounds surprising, but he is right: Hospitals serve people of all faiths and respect their differences right down to a patient’s dietary practices. Medical practitioners of all beliefs work together in a common task: to heal others.

Creating more opportunities for religious freedom to flourish requires the commitment of religious as well as civic leaders. They are in a far better place to facilitate interfaith collaborations than political leaders, particularly in today’s toxic political climate.

In Dallas, Richie Butler, Senior Pastor of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, participates in the city’s ecumenical Faith Forward initiative. That group of interfaith leaders works together on issues that challenge the nation’s ninth-largest city. He also leads Project Unity, an effort to have a broad range of citizens address Dallas’ common issues. Butler elaborates on both in his Democracy Talks video.

At an international level, collaboration occurs, too, including among the three historic Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, explains how his organization, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, brings together followers of those faiths “… to understand each other, see the common points of tradition and history, learn to understand each other, live with each other, like each other.”

Religious collaboration, however, doesn’t happen without effective leadership from various faith traditions and civil society. The work must be intentional and consistent.

Religion belongs in the public square

Of course, debates long have ensued in the United States about whether religion should play a role in resolving larger public challenges, such as protecting basic human rights or building up neighborhoods torn apart by poverty. Princeton University’s Robert P. George directly and rightly answers this question when he says: 

The free exercise of religion includes the right to take one’s religiously informed moral judgments into the public square, where public policy matters are debated, and contend on terms of equality with one’s fellow citizens who may see things differently in deciding what our public policies will be on questions of justice, the common good, human dignity, and human rights.

You will hear echoes of that affirmation in the conversation between conservative commentator Pete Wehner and liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Referring to theologian Paul Tillich’s declaration of religion as “ultimate concern,” Dionne contends that: “If a citizen isn’t free to express and be loyal to his or her ultimate concern, that is a problem for free government.” To Dionne and Wehner, being faithful to that “ultimate concern” in the public arena involves searching for justice.

Whatever the larger challenge, people of faith are often compelled to seek answers for the common good. They must do so with humility because theirs is not the only voice or the only answer. Still, as Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministry cautions: “If religion is marginalized, then the very foundations of our democracy — equality, rights, and freedom — are going to be compromised.”

For this reason, we urge leaders in the White House, Congress, state houses, and the courts to create room for religion in public discussions about national issues. France’s experiment with secularism, or laïcité, offers a cautionary lesson of what happens when religious beliefs are not part of the public dialogue. 

By officially limiting religion’s role in France’s larger public issues, people motivated by their religious identity have had a harder time integrating into French society. This particularly has been true for France’s growing Muslim population. French policy leader and business executive Hakim El Khouri explains that he spends a large amount of time working on ways for himself and fellow Muslims to be French and Muslim and Muslim and French at the same time.

The world is witnessing the most extreme example of a government driving religion out of the public square in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of followers of that historic tradition have been driven into Chinese concentration camps. That includes Dr. Gulshan Abbas, whose sister, Rushan Abbas, and daughter, Ziba Murat, explain how Dr. Abbas ended up in such a camp after Rushan spoke out in Washington, D.C. about the CCP’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims.  

Promoting religious freedom stabilizes nations

The example of Uyghur persecution illustrates why the Biden administration and congressional leaders must remain vigilant about religious freedom. If room is not created for religious freedom, it can lead to sectarian strife in a region or country. Wehner put it bluntly and correctly: “Religious freedom has a huge amount to do with the stability of a society. If you don’t get religious freedom right, it can tear a country apart.”

We see examples of fissures in the Middle East, with the Sunni-Shia split. You can also see how Protestant/Catholic tensions have destabilized Northern Ireland. Two former members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Nina Shea and Rabbi David Saperstein, caution in their conversation how religious extremism threatens Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa as well. 

Getting religious freedom right matters immensely to our society, too. Polarization runs deeply in American life, including over religious identity. We see that in debates over transgender Americans, the COVID-19 vaccine, and reproductive technologies, among other issues. The tone and tenor of those debates will determine whether we can mend at least some of our divisions. That is why political and religious leaders alike should lead by example in having honest, yet constructive conversations.

To end on an optimistic note, there is a positive element to getting religious freedom right. As Wehner notes, religion is central to the lives of many Americans. Finding ways for people of faith to express their views will lead to a greater flourishing of American life. In turn, that strengthens our democracy.