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A Crisis of Freedom


Alton Pelowski

Men light candles during a vigil to commemorate Pakistani Minorities Leader Shahbaz Bhatti. A Catholic and outspoken critic of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, Bhatti was shot and killed by gunmen March 2, 2011. (CNS photo/Mohsin Raza, Reuters)

Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, recently spoke with Columbia about the current state of religious freedom from a global perspective.

What is of great concern globally is the evidence that violent persecution is increasing.

Farr served as the U.S. State Department’s first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999-2003 and is the author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford, 2008). He is also chairman of the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom, which on March 1 will release a book titled Religious Freedom, Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right. For more information, visit berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/rfp.


Columbia: Is there a global crisis in religious liberty?

Thomas Farr: There is indeed a global crisis, although it has different dimensions. Outside the West, it’s pretty clear that violent religious persecution is growing — including torture, rape, unjust imprisonment, murder and disappearance — and this is having a dramatic humanitarian impact.

Within the West, several countries have for some time considered themselves to be post-religious. So it is not surprising to see a diminution of the conviction that religious liberty is something worth protecting. The United States, I think, is behind Western Europe and Canada, but on the same downward trajectory. The reason why we haven’t reached the same levels, in my view, is that the United States remains a very religious place. But we are seeing, and have seen in recent years, assaults on what was once considered the first freedom in American history and the U.S. Constitution.

What is of great concern globally is the evidence that violent persecution is increasing. Two studies by the Pew Research Center, in 2009 and 2011, lay out the statistical evidence for the growth of religious persecution throughout the world and the absence of religious freedom.


Columbia: Is this persecution primarily from other religious groups or from secular and atheistic governments?

Thomas Farr: It’s coming from both. In many countries around the world, Catholics and other Christian minorities are under great pressure from a variety of authoritarian or theocratic governments, as well as private actors, which have in common a desire to keep the practice of Christianity private, to keep it out of public view.

China is an example of a nominally atheist regime. Although there are religious believers within the Communist party, the party is officially atheist and clearly fears religion. Catholicism in recent decades has become a matter of grave concern among Chinese officials because of its association with Pope John Paul II and the collapse of Communism in Europe. Of course, other minorities in China, including Protestants, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, are subject to persecution as well.

In the Muslim majority world, particularly in the greater Middle East, the problem is the dominance of an extremist interpretation of Islam. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have very closed, quasi-theocratic systems, it is virtually impossible for any Christian, or frankly any non-favored Muslim minority, to exist in public. Christians are also in a fragile situation in the nascent democracies of Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. The continuing salience of radical interpretations of Islam and the utter absence of religious freedom in these countries means that Muslim communities feel a sense of impunity at violence against Catholics and other minorities. Although they may be breaking the law when attacking people, they may not be prosecuted for doing so if they allege that their victims were somehow insulting Islam. This is an impossible situation for countries that seek democracy. Democracy cannot succeed when such practices exist.


Columbia: What is the ability and willingness of the federal government to address the issue?

Thomas Farr: According to the International Religious Freedom Act, it is the responsibility of the U.S. State Department and the president to advance religious freedom as part of our foreign policy. But under this administration, and to a certain extent prior administrations, the ambassador-at-large has very little authority, virtually no resources and little status in the U.S. diplomatic community.

The humanitarian argument is powerful in an emotional sense, but people in the State Department don’t see its policy relevance. In short, they see religious freedom as a humanitarian issue, not a strategic issue. Until this changes, U.S. religious freedom policy is unlikely to be effective.

However, if our foreign affairs establishment can come to see that advancing religious freedom is in the national interest, we will have the opportunity to develop resources and programs to implement strategies in critical countries around the world. For example, we need to empower those people who are speaking from the heart of Islam, within their own countries and traditions, and who already see the need for democracy grounded in religious liberty — not because the United States or the United Nations tell them to do so, but because it’s in their interest to do so.


Columbia: Does national interest pertaining to global religious liberty primarily pertain to the threat of war and terrorism or does it extend beyond that?

Thomas Farr: I think there is a perfectly good argument grounded in the American understanding of what we have historically called “the first freedom.” What that means is not merely that it is the first right enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but also that it belongs to all people and is given by God. We believe this, and it is a reason for standing with the persecuted around the world.

The strategic argument, on the other hand, is that it is in our interest for democracies to succeed and become stable. Successful democracies will yield their benefits to all of their citizens equally, and will not be suffused with religious violence and extremism. Religious liberty, properly understood, is an antidote to violent religious extremism. Why? Because religious liberty imposes limits as well as freedoms — for example, equality under the law, no state coercion in matters of religion and freedom of religious expression. There is plenty of evidence in history and in contemporary scholarship to show that the Arab Spring countries are not going to have stable democracies without religious liberty. I think this is common sense.


Columbia: In light of religious-based terrorism, how do you respond to those who claim that religion is the cause of violence and hatred, and that it should be discouraged entirely?

Thomas Farr: I would accept the proposition that some religious ideas are a cause of terrorism. But if one defines religion as the search for religious truth and accepts the possibility that such truth does exist, then religion is a universal endeavor, common to all. If this is true, the key is to invite it into politics, not to exclude it. Those who would make the secular argument — that is to say, the solution is to get religion out of politics, the public square and democratic deliberation about policies and laws — are making the same mistake that the Communists made. It assumes that human nature can be secular and that there is no transcendent truth.

We have seen this secular idea in the United States in a number of troubling areas. For example, when federal judge Vaughn Walker overturned the Proposition 8 decision in California, which reaffirmed marriage between a man and a woman, he argued that the people who opposed same-sex marriage in California did so for religious reasons and that those reasons do not meet the standard of “rational scrutiny” required by the Constitution. This is a very dangerous proposition, because it is in effect declaring that the most sacred and important issues in human life cannot be involved in politics. If this proposition had been at work in American history, it would have excluded much of the founders’ work, the anti-slavery movement, and those who fought for women's suffrage. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail would have been rejected as the basis for civil rights laws. Such thinking represents moral confusion of a very high order and, I would argue, constitutional confusion as well.

In the long run, I think the secularization that exists in a place like China is far more rooted than it is here, simply because the United States has a 200-year history of the belief that religion deserves a special status in our Constitution. And that gives me hope that the erosion of religious liberty that we’ve seen in the last couple of decades in the United States can be turned around.


Columbia: What can Knights do practically to promote religious freedom in their homes and communities?

Thomas Farr: First, do not be afraid to speak out on the basis of your religious beliefs — in a reasonable, persuasive and charitable way. Don’t accept the proposition that you have to keep your religious views to yourself and not take them into public life. The founders of the United States understood that religion is necessary to the health of a republic. It’s necessary for moral citizenship.

Secondly, support candidates — local, state and federal — who understand this vital issue and who will appoint judges who understand that religious liberty does not move religion out of public policy decision making.