In the 21st century, religious freedom is under growing pressure around the world, including in the United States. This alarming development should matter to all of us. Any assault on religious freedom is an assault on our right, given by God, to seek the truth about God and man, and to exercise our duty to live our lives in accord with that truth. To undermine religious freedom is to undermine our dignity as persons, our capacity for human and social flourishing, our quest for justice and peace, and the possibility of happiness in this life and the next.
Unfortunately, despite international acknowledgement of the importance of religious freedom since World War II, and many attempts to protect it in law, scores of millions of religious people and ther communities are today deprived of religious freedom. There are reasons for concern in the United States as well. The decline of religious freedom here is critically important for its own sake, but it also weakens American leadership in defending religious freedom around the world – from China to Nigeria, and from Russia to Ukraine.
Rise and Fall of Religious Freedom in the Twentieth Century
Until World War II most nations of the world lacked legal protections for, or cultural acceptance of, religious freedom for all their citizens. However, following the defeat of Nazi Germany, and with the horrors of the Holocaust still embedded in the global conscience, the new United Nations endorsed in 1948 an idea that had for centuries been present in Christian and Jewish thought but never implemented fully in political life—that is, that there are certain “natural” or “inalienable” rights possessed by each human being by virtue of his or her existence. Such rights derive from the God-given dignity of man, and cannot legitimately be removed, or “alienated,” from persons by anyone, especially by governments.
Given the wide spectrum of religions and atheist governments in the UN, the new idea could not as a practical matter be expressed in religious language, as it had been in the American Declaration of Independence. But it was nonetheless expressed in philosophical language that was quite sweeping and, at the time, revolutionary.
In 1948, member nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR asserted. that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 18 asserted the right of religious freedom for all.
While the UDHR was not legally binding, the idea of inalienable rights as an international norm had at least entered the vocabulary of nations. In 1976, Article 18 of the UDHR was substantially repeated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which, for those nations ratifying it, was legally binding.
Two important provisions strengthened religious freedom. First, the ICCPR declared religious freedom “non-derogable,” that is, it could not be restricted by government for any reason other than those expressly listed in the ICCPR itself. Second, ratifying nations “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents… to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in accordance with their own convictions.”
These international documents represented a substantial advancement in the idea of fundamental human rights, including religious freedom, for all. Unfortunately, while the importance of such language, including the language on religious freedom, was and remains a standard to which every nation is called, it is now clear that many, from the beginning, routinely ignored the international norms.
The sad reality is that such consensus as existed on the concept of natural or inalienable rights, attached to every person and – in effect – preceding the existence of the state itself, was never securely grounded. Unsurprisingly, it quickly eroded during the second half of the 20th century. The erosion was particularly evident in the dramatic growth of violent religious persecution and of invidious religious discrimination.
Violent Persecution. Government persecution often results from official opposition to the religious beliefs and practices of minorities. Sometimes government motives are religious themselves, such as in the theocratic Islamic governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Other governments have mainly political motives in persecuting minorities, such as in atheist communist China, where almost all religions are subject to violent oppression, or authoritarian Russia, where religious groups that are seen to oppose the government, or those that are rivals to the favored Russian Orthodox Church, are subject to violent oppression. The terrible results are being played out in the Russian war on Ukraine, which is supported by the ROC. Still other persecuting governments combine religion and nationalism, such as we see in India, Sri Lanka, and Burma. In the 1990s the Serbian Orthodox despot Slobodan Milosevic brutally persecuted Bosnian Muslims.
Of course, violent persecutors are not always governments. Non-governmental persecutors include terrorist groups such as ISIS, or mobs of Hindu radicals in India who assault Muslim or Christian minorities. Sometimes governments are complicit in persecution by private actors, either by encouraging or tolerating it.
Violent religious persecution occurs today mainly (but not only) outside the West, especially in the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Africa. It can include torture, rape, murder, unjust imprisonment, forced displacement of populations, and sex slavery. All these depredations were visited by ISIS on the religious minorities of Iraq, such as Yezidis and Christians. In Burma, hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children were driven from their homes and villages by the government’s military forces. One of the vilest forms of violent religious persecution, anti-Semitism, is once again rising in Western nations, a sure sign of danger, not only to human dignity, but to Western democracy itself.
Unfortunately, examples of violent persecution are many and seem to have become a staple of life in the 21st century. The Pew Research Center, has reported annually over the past decade that between 65 and 82 percent of the world’s population lives in nations where religion is highly, or very highly, restricted. That percentage seems to have stabilized in the higher range of the spectrum, which means that some three-quarters of the world’s population is at least highly vulnerable to violent religious persecution.
Even for the citizens and religious communities in these nations who are not themselves persecuted, their societies are generally unstable and insecure, economically stunted with high levels of poverty, and perennially on the edge of religion-related violence, war, or terrorism. The absence of religious freedom contributes to these problems, including instability, which in turn causes problems for other nations such as the United States.
This works both ways. The presence of religious freedom for everyone in a given society contributes to public goods, including human dignity, political stability, economic development, and the undermining of religion-related violence, war, and terrorism. This is why the United States and other nations have over the past two decades incorporated into their respective foreign policies the advancement of religious freedom.
Invidious Religious Discrimination. Aside from violent persecution, millions more suffer unjust discrimination from governments and private actors. Unjust discrimination typically does not entail violence and bodily harm, but often is a precursor to violent persecution. Religious people and communities suffer this kind of discrimination when they are not seen as equal under the law, including in cases where the law only nominally treats them as equal. Often they are treated with contempt as inferiors, not only by the state and state officials but by key cultural institutions – such as print and social media, entertainment platforms, educational institutions, businesses and corporations, and other religious communities.
This kind of deeply-seated discrimination within a society is more than disagreement. Religious freedom includes the right peacefully to dispute the premises and expressions of any religious community. Indeed, this kind of discourse is a sign of a healthy democracy. The American founders intended to encourage reasoned religious disagreement about the common good, when they guaranteed the free exercise of religion for all. But healthy disagreement presumes the equality of the disputants. When disagreement manifests itself in attempts to proscribe or ban a religious group, or its teachings, from the public life of a nation, the result is not only unjust. It is a sign of an authoritarian state and a barrier to the emergence of stable democracy. When it occurs in a democracy, it is an indicator of its decline.
Most of the people subject to this kind of discrimination live in nations outside the West, including in nations where intermittent violent persecution also occurs against disfavored minorities. Examples of this phenomenon abound, and include Egypt, Iraq, Russia, India, Libya, Vietnam, Cuba, Mexico, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and many others.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon of invidious religious discrimination is increasingly occurring in Western democracies, including the United States. This is both surprising and alarming. Democracies are thought to be bulwarks of ordered liberty and, as such, protectors of equality under the law. While democracy has never been a perfect system of government, an important achievement of most democracies has been the capacity to permit people with deep and profound differences, especially differences over religion, to disagree and – at a minimum -- to coexist.
In the 21st century, however, when religious freedom is in steady global decline, pluralism remains a critically important goal for most societies. A brief examination of the global status of religious freedom, including America, will show why.
Oppressive Regimes Today
The reasons for the growth of religious persecution and discrimination are varied, but they include the development and spread of Marxist-Leninist governments throughout the world, initially in the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, then in China. By the second half of the 20th century, there were dozens of states heavily influenced by communism, including China, North Korea and Vietnam in East Asia, Somalia and the Congo in Africa, and Cuba and Chile in the Americas.
There was then, and is today, no possibility of “inalienable” or “non-derogable” rights for all, grounded in human dignity, in communist or Marxist-dominated societies. This is especially true for religious freedom, which is anathema to the communist understanding of history and human nature. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, some of its former satellite nations have returned, in some measure, to the concept of inalienable rights and religious freedom. Examples include Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
China’s example demonstrates the enduring power of the communist idea in suppressing inalienable rights and especially religious freedom. Since the communist revolution in 1949, China’s governments have all recognized that religion poses a threat to the totalitarian state. As the American founders understood, a society where substantial numbers of citizens participate in religious communities is a society in which the loyalties of its citizens are grounded in something greater than the state. This is a major reason that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion for all religious communities.
In China, a succession of communist governments has been faced with large numbers of religious communities, including Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. Each Chinese leader has understood the threat posed by these groups to the complete control necessary to sustaining a communist government. The first Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) attempted to destroy most of China’s religions, including Catholicism. Mao employed against his citizens, religious and not, some of the vilest methods of persecution in human history, including imprisonment, “reeducation camps,” torture, and murder by force and mass starvation.
Mao’s policies failed. As other totalitarians have learned, religion cannot be ripped out of the human race by force. But his successors have experimented with other means of controlling religion. Today, China’s President, Xi Jinping, has initiated a 21st century version of control that some have labeled a “second Cultural Revolution.” Xi’s persecution has been updated with modern methods, such as “reeducation camps” for hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and compelled DNA testing in order to track opponents of the regime. Some of his policies simply involve brute force, including imprisonment, torture, and the bulldozing of churches. Xi’s goal with the Catholic Church and other religions is “sinicization.” In the case of the Church, Xi’s goal is to destroy the Church’s public witness by making it part of the Chinese communist bureaucracy.
China’s example reveals the enduring power of the communist idea, which shows signs of revival even in the West. But, while communism is perhaps the most insidious and systemic threat to religious freedom in the 21st century, it is by no means the only one. Others include the totalitarian government of North Korea, the theocratic governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and secular authoritarian governments seeking to coopt religious groups within their societies, such as Russia’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church in justifying its savage war on Ukraine.
The most lethal non-governmental cause of religious persecution is Islamist terrorism, which has emerged in the 21st century with groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban. These and other such groups purport to be motivated by Islam, and have tortured and slaughtered tens of thousands of human beings whose religious beliefs they deplore, including Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Hindus, disfavored Muslims, and others.
The rise of religious persecution resulting from these and other circumstances led the United States in 1998 to pass the International Religious Freedom Act. This law established a major new office in the State Department – the Office of International Religious Freedom – headed by a senior diplomatic official, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. The Ambassador has the lead in advancing religious freedom globally as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
US Ambassadors have had notable successes, such as encouraging other nations to develop similar foreign policy initiatives. Like the international norms of the post-war era, these developments are critically important for the world, and for the survival and possibility of flourishing of religious communities. But, like the international norms that were agreed in 1948 and afterwards, neither IRFA nor its counterparts in other nations have prevented the scourge of religious persecution and invidious religious discrimination from growing around the world.
Unfortunately, there are signs that the American commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad is fading. The implications for American global leadership in advancing religious freedom are serious: it is difficult to sell a product in which you do not believe.
The Decline of Religious Freedom in the United States
Religious freedom is at the center of the American constitutional tradition. Traditionally understood in the United States as the “first freedom” because of its foundational meaning and value to individuals, society, and political life, religious freedom was traditionally a source of consensus in foreign policy, and in domestic politics and culture.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With these words the framers sought both to protect a fundamental human right and to encourage the “exercise” of religion in American public life. Indeed, they believed the Republic would fail without it. Accordingly, they sought to protect free exercise equally for all Americans and their religious communities.
Until the second half of the 20th century, most accepted the view that the exercise of religion was good for America. There were exceptions. Immigrants associated with minority religions have often been stigmatized and resisted when they arrived on America’s shores. “Free exercise” was not always defended for non-Protestant religious minorities, such as Catholics and Jews. Other religious minorities have experienced discrimination or violence, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
But most minorities have benefited from free exercise equality, even when imperfectly applied. For example, Catholic immigrants to America in the 19th century met with fierce resistance, including violence. But by 1884, even amid debates over the anti-Catholic Blaine amendments (which are still with us today), Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore were optimistic about the American system of religious freedom.
Notwithstanding the flawed application of free exercise equality, it has contributed significantly to the success of American democracy by helping cement loyalty to the American creed, fostering social cohesion despite deep religious differences, encouraging economic development, and supporting public virtue.
Looking back from the 21st century, we can see this consensus operating well into the 1990s, and near unanimous, bipartisan support for laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the IRFA, both signed by President Clinton. But by the second decade of the 21st century that consensus had evaporated.
Today growing segments of the public see morally orthodox religions, including the Catholic Church and its beautiful teachings on marriage, sexuality, the sacredness of all life and the natural distinctions between men and women as bigoted and hateful. This has resulted in cultural assaults on the Church, including violent attacks on churches and shrines, and political assaults, such as the Equality Act, which if passed will enable ruinous lawsuits against Catholic individuals and institutions who remain faithful to the Church’s moral teachings.
Religious Freedom for the Good of All
Religious freedom matters because religion matters. Human persons are naturally impelled to discover the answers to the religious questions so central to our being and to the meaning of our lives. If we discover answers, we naturally want to order our lives in accord with them. If we live in a democracy that purports to protect religious freedom, we seek not only to live in accord with the truths we have discovered, but also to participate as free and equal citizens in bringing to bear our truth claims in public life.
Properly understood, religious freedom provides an immunity from coercion by anyone, especially the state. But religious freedom so understood does not provide a warrant for violence, or the oppression of others. In fact, the evidence shows that when it is integrated into law and culture, more religious freedom makes religious violence less likely, and social and political flourishing more likely.
Today religion, like religious freedom, is under great pressure in America and throughout the West. Ironically, this is occurring as religion itself is becoming more powerful in other regions of the world, especially the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa. The evidence shows that religion fares poorly in authoritarian states, whether they are theocratic or secular in nature. Minority religions, or disfavored members of majority religions, are frequently oppressed, and the result is injustice, violence, vast human suffering, economic stagnation, instability, and threats to international security.
These trends are momentous and consequential. The victims of violent religious persecution and invidious religious discrimination – men, women and children, each created in his image -- are worthy of our concern as a matter of justice. The instability of their nations and the regions in which they are situated is important to our own national security. What might we do to help remedy these pathologies? According to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, we should advance religious freedom in our foreign policy. In other words, the core remedy is movement by all nations, however imperfectly, toward the ideal of free exercise for everyone.
That ideal has been codified in law and valued by culture in a special way in the United States, and it has served the nation imperfectly but well, supporting freedom, equality, justice, human dignity and human flourishing, and social and political harmony. But free exercise of religion, and with it the success of the American experiment in democracy, is under threat today. The stakes are high, and they do not encompass America alone. If religious freedom is lost here, it is unlikely to be retrieved anywhere else. That is why protecting religious freedom for all is so important in the 21st century.
Tom Farr (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) serves as President of the Religious Freedom Institute, a non-profit that works to advance religious freedom for everyone, both as a source of individual human dignity and flourishing, and as a source of political stability, economic development, and international security.