Thomas F. Farr, Remarks for International Religious Freedom during the USCCB General Assembly, Public Session, Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Pates, eminences, excellencies,and assembled guests, it is an honor to be invited to appear before this
convocation. I am grateful for the opportunity to address you on the subject of
religious freedom -- a matter of increasing importance to the Church and to the
Let me begin with two personal footnotes, both of
which are relevant to my remarks.
The first is that my wife and I were born and
raised here in Georgia as Methodists. Our English and Scottish ancestors came to
Georgia by way of the Carolinas, where they fought in the Revolutionary and
Civil Wars that formed this great nation and its system of ordered liberty.
I am a proud southerner who relishes the
opportunity to "come home" to see my relatives, to return to the graves of my
ancestors, and to visit the battlefields where they fought and died.
The second footnote is that my family and I "came
home" in a more profound sense when we converted to Catholicism twenty years
ago this past Easter. That happy event took place in the diocese of Arlington,
Virginia, where we now reside. I have the privilege of working at the nation's
oldest Catholic university, Georgetown, where, as a former diplomat, I teach in
the School of Foreign Service. I am also a senior fellow at Georgetown's
Berkley Center, where I direct the Religious Freedom Project.
As you may know, the incentives to think about religious
freedom at Georgetown have recently been quite generous.
In fact, I have been privileged to spend the last thirteen
years of my life reflecting, writing, and acting on the subject of religious
liberty, both here and abroad. Those years have convinced me of three
propositions that will frame my remarks today:
First, both history and modern scholarship
demonstrate that a robust system of religious liberty in both law and culture is
indispensible to individual human dignity, and to the social, economic,
intellectual, political, and religious flourishing of civil societies and of nations.
Second, religious liberty is in global crisis,
with enormous consequences for the Church, the United States, the success of
democracy, the defeat of religion-based terrorism, and the cause of international
justice and peace.
Third, propositions one and two are highly contested.
Outside the West, where religious belief and practice are widespread and
growing, the idea of religious freedom in full – i.e., full equality under the
law, in private and in public, for all religious ideas and actors -- is highly
suspect. Although most nations have signed international covenants and enacted constitutional
provisions that purport to guarantee religious liberty, in truth, almost no
nation outside the West has protected that right in practice. Even in Europe,
where the origins of religious freedom are buried deep in history, the decline
of religion itself has dramatically reduced respect for any public expression
Evidence of a Global Crisis
Let me give you the evidence for labeling this phenomenon
"a global crisis." In 2009 and 2011, the Pew Research Center presented two
comprehensive reports that measured in every country of the world government
restrictions on religion and social hostilities toward religion. The two
reports covered the years 2006 to mid 2009.
The first report revealed a profoundly disturbing
statistic: 70 percent of the world's
population lives in countries in which religious freedom is either highly
or very highly restricted, either by governments or private actors. That is
almost three out of four human beings on the planet.
Most of those people live in 66 countries. Of
those, most are either Muslim-majority nations, communist regimes such as
China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, or large non-Muslim states such as India,
Burma, and Russia.
The second report demonstrated that the problem is
getting worse. Between the first and second reports restrictions on religious
freedom increased in twice as many countries as those in which restrictions
decreased. And because the problem countries tend to be populous, the
increasing restrictions affected some 2.2 billion people, or about a third of
the world's population, whereas the small numbers of improvements affected only
about 1% of the world's population.
The religious minorities most subject to
harassment in these and other countries were Christians, who were harassed in
130 nations, and Muslims, who were a close second at 117.
Many of the nations with the highest restrictions
on religious freedom are Muslim nations, including the theocratic autocracies
of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also the nascent and struggling democracies such
as Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Note those last two. They are places where America
has spent its blood and treasure for more than a decade. After the overthrow of
the Taliban and Saddam, respectively, religious persecution subsided
temporarily. Now, like an infection that was never quite eliminated,
persecution is returning in both countries with a vengeance.
But there were also a few surprises in the second
report. Strikingly, Europe, compared with all other regions, has the largest
proportion of nations in which social hostilities toward religion are rising. Hostilities
in the United Kingdom, for example, increased so much that the UK now stands in
the company of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the category of "high" social
hostilities. That is quite extraordinary. French government restrictions
increased enough to move France ahead of Cuba in that category.
On balance, it is fair to say that religious
freedom is not faring well in the continent where its theological and intellectual
origins lie, and that should be a cautionary tale for us. Of course, what is
happening in Europe does not approach the levels of violent persecution we see
elsewhere - torture, rape, murder, unjust imprisonment, or unjust execution
resulting from the religious beliefs and practices of the victims, or those of
Underlying Cause of the Global Crisis
And yet, the root cause is quite similar: a belief
that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or
social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods.
Of course, those views are not new.
Modern tyrants from Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, to Mexico's Plutarco Calles,
Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Syria's Bashar Assad have sought either to eliminate
religious ideas and actors altogether, or to control and suppress them in order
to keep their regimes in power.
What is new, and profoundly troubling, is that we
are seeing today the rejection of religious freedom not simply by authoritarian
regimes in places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but by democratic
majorities in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Western
Europe. These majorities seem unwilling to embrace the core of religious
freedom, which is full equality under the law in private and in public matters
for all religious individuals and institutions.
To be sure, religious freedom is rejected by
democracies for different reasons – in Egypt, for example, the Muslim majority
is loath to permit Christian Copts full equality, because it means much more
than the right not to be persecuted or the right merely to be tolerated. It
means the right of Copts to run for President, or to make Christian arguments
in political life, or to criticize Islam publicly without fear of
recrimination, or even to invite Muslims to become Christian. In Russia, the
Orthodox Church allies with anti-democratic forces in order to maintain its
Religious freedom is also increasingly being
rejected in Western Europe, but for very different reasons. Here the problem is
not a religious majority but an aggressive secularist majority that refuses to
permit religiously-informed moral arguments into public life. Recently our Religious
Freedom Project held a major conference in Oxford on the rising tensions
between religious liberty and assertions of equality for homosexuals. In his
keynote address, Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic bishop of Paisley, Scotland, noted
that one of his priests had expressed fear after having watched a popular
television program with audience participation. The audience was of one mind –
once same sex marriage becomes law in the UK, they said, any dissenters should
be "pursued by the law."
I could not help recalling the anti-Catholic penal
laws enacted by the English in Scotland in the late 18th century –
laws that criminalized the very existence of priests and the mass, let alone the public expression of Catholic
teachings. I am not suggesting that Scotland is returning to the practices of the
18th century, but it would be foolish to assume that the growing
intolerance of Catholicism in Europe cannot devolve into persecutory laws and practices.
Bishop Tartaglia said that he expected one day to be standing before a judge
because of his public defense of Catholic teachings. Others at the conference
made it clear that they simply could not, and would not, brook any "special"
consideration to religious ideas, which, they argued, had no more relevance to
human beings or societies than any other idea under the sun.
In short, religion in Europe is no longer seen as
intrinsic to human dignity and social flourishing. It is generally understood as
merely an opinion, and, as a species, a dangerous opinion at that. While it is
fine to practice your religion in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, democracy
requires that you keep it there. To bring it into politics endangers democracy.
This malevolent idea, which was most famously
championed by the American political philosopher John Rawls, is gaining
considerable purchase in our own country. It gives reason for profound concern,
not only for religious individuals but for the whole concept of democracy
grounded in ordered liberty – both here and abroad.
Individual and Social Value of Religious Freedom: A Cause for Hope
It is a great irony, but also a cause for hope,
that at the very moment when religious liberty is under sustained pressure
around the world, contemporary scholarship is demonstrating that societies desperately
need it. The work of sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke, for example,
shows that religious freedom is highly correlated with the consolidation and
longevity of democracy, and with other goods such as economic development, the
equality of women, or the absence of violent religious extremism. A recent
study by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, entitled Silenced, shows how the absence of religious freedom -- in the form
of laws or norms criminalizing blasphemy -- silences the voices of reform throughout
the Muslim world, thereby almost ensuring that struggling democracies cannot
and will not take root.
the Future: the Church's Role
What, then, is to be done? In particular, what can
the Church do to address this crisis? Let me focus my answer in two areas:
first, the role of the Church internationally, and, second, the question of
America's own policy of advancing international religious freedom.
The Church has always been the repository of the
most powerful argument for religious liberty, namely, the fundamental dignity
and equality of every person in the eyes of God. While that understanding did
not take modern form until the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae in 1965, the historic struggle among Catholic
nations to advance that norm can provide a model for others.
Samuel Huntington, in The Third Wave of Democratization wrote that the lessons of Dignitatis played a substantive role in
triggering the democracies that emerged from the 1970s into the 1990s, eighty
percent of which were Catholic. Many of those nations came to embrace religious
liberty, not only in the traditional sense of libertas ecclesiae, but on the basis of the equality of all
religious institutions in civil society – Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian
This very point, it seems to me, is vital for the
Muslim world. It suggests two key lessons: first, that democracy cannot
consolidate without full equality among all religious groups, and, second, that
democracy need not place religion at the margins of political life. As Dignitatis puts it, "government ought
…to take account of the religious life of the people, and show it favor…."
Most in the Muslim world, when they hear the
phrase "religious freedom" do not think of such a "religion-friendly"
understanding of the role of government. Unfortunately, they are far more
familiar with the French model of privatization -- moving religion to the
margins of public life. It is one of the greatest ironies of all that the
United States, which has traditionally invited religion into public life, has
utterly failed to overcome that perception in its foreign policy. Our policy is
viewed by Muslims, with some justification, as offering the French model,
rather than the American model.
Let me now turn briefly to US foreign policy. As
many of you know, Congress passed in 1998 the International Religious Freedom
Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton. It mandated that the
United States advance religious freedom in its foreign policy, and it created
an office in the State Department, headed by an ambassador at large, to achieve
that goal. It also created a separate IRF Commission, on which several of you
In the fourteen years since the passage of that
law, much has been achieved. US diplomats, for example, have become adept at
producing an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country
in the world. All U.S. presidents have given major speeches abroad that
included this subject – for example, President Bush in 2002 in Beijing, and
President Obama in 2009 in Cairo. The Commission has over the years made some
very important policy recommendations.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to argue that US
policy has had much impact on the status of religious freedom anywhere in the
world. Having served under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, and having written
critically of both, I can say that all three administrations are responsible.
But US policy has continued to weaken. For example, it took this administration
two and one-half years to get its IRF
ambassador into the job, and when she arrived she had little status or
resources. Meanwhile, favored human rights initiatives were quickly under way
and well resourced, including the promotion of international LGBT rights, which
has garnered far more energy in the State Department than has the promotion of
international religious freedom.
The explanation for our anemic policy abroad is,
in my view, not difficult to discern. In part it is that the State Department
under any administration is a highly secular organization. But the deeper
reason is that, for many of our elites – including some in this administration
– religious freedom is a threat to the modern project of sexual liberation. This
is why many wish to define freedom of religion as a private right, i.e., the "freedom
to worship," but not as the right of citizens to employ religiously informed
moral arguments in the political life of the nation, and to win.
This thin, impoverished concept of religious
freedom also has implications for our strategy, such as it is, to advance
religious freedom in the Muslim world. To the extent Muslims in Egypt or
Pakistan or anywhere else believe that the American goal is to move Islam to
the private margins of their lives, then to that extent they will not buy what
we are selling.
In short, our international religious freedom
policy is weak because the intellectual roots of religious liberty in America are
weak. Too many of our elites no longer believe that religious freedom is the
first freedom. Those intellectual roots need to be strengthened, which is, I
might note, one goal of our Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown.
It is here -- in strengthening our understanding
of the value of religious freedom -- that I believe the bishops of the Roman
Catholic Church in America can make their greatest contribution.
The Church is uniquely positioned to help reclaim
a sense of the importance of religious liberty. Its theology, as well as its
natural law and personalist philosophies, teach that each person possesses
inherent dignity and worth, a dignity and worth at the root of any argument for
religious freedom. Its historical demand for libertas ecclesiae helped develop the idea and practice of limited
government and created the very possibility of social pluralism. Its successful
struggle to embrace democracy that is grounded in the equality of all religious
institutions in civil society and law provides hope that others can learn
similar lessons from history and experience– especially Muslim-majority
Of course, religious freedom for the Church brings
with it enormous responsibilities, for its leaders and its members, precisely
because of the Church's understanding of freedom as ordered to truth. Our
freedom beckons us to witness the great culture forming truths taught by the
Catholic tradition, truths such as those concerning human life, marriage, and
caring for the poor. It means opposing -- in civil society and in law -- the increasingly vocal arguments now
arrayed against those truths, arguments in favor of abortion, contraception,
"no-fault" divorce, same-sex "marriage," pornography, and
What we convey in exercising our religious
liberty, in other words, is vitally important. It is important to American
democracy, and to the protection of religious liberty itself.
The stakes are very high. They implicate our
country, our Church, and the world.
God bless you all in your work.