The fight for religious liberty has intensified in America, whether among retail giants, restaurant chains, bakers and florists, nuns, or other imminent obstructions on the path paved by Obergefell vs. Hodges. Meanwhile, intense religious persecution continues to grow around the globe.
The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave room for optimism here at home. More recently, given the recent changes in the State Department — namely, the appointment of CIA director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and the confirmation of Sen. Sam Brownback as ambassador for religious freedom— many have waited eagerly for the administration’s approach to religious liberty internationally.
Now, in hosting its first ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom, the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) offered the first glimpses. Hosted by Brownback, and attended by a wide range of religious leaders, politicians, and victims of persecution, the event had the goal of promoting “religious freedom for all” and identifying “concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination.”
In the keynote address, Vice President Mike Pence called for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, and reminded the audience of the centrality of religious freedom to all else.
“In the long history of this nation, religious freedom has been our first freedom. But as our Founders knew, this precious liberty is endowed not by government, but by our Creator,” he said. “And we believe that it belongs not just to the American people, but to all people so endowed. The right to believe or not believe is the most fundamental of freedoms. When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms — freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves — are imperiled.”
While some have criticized American Christians of having an overly narrow and self-interested approach to such matters, Brownback made a point of emphasizing the importance of religious liberty for all, regardless of belief. Noting the event’s wide representation across Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Zeke, Baha’i Yazidi groups, Brownback emphasized that we needn’t share in the particularities of our beliefs to agree on the centrality of freedom of conscience to the health of civilization.
“We were as inclusive as possible, because we wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all,” Brownback explained. “…And all of that was intentional, because religious freedom really truly is for everyone. It’s a right given by God and is a beautiful part of our human dignity.”
Later in his remarks, Brownback drew the connection to economic flourishing, noting that without religious freedom, we will never have true economic freedom, either:
….Where religious freedom is promoted, economic opportunity grows. Security increases, and people flourish. Countries seeking to be more free and economically prosperous must devote themselves to protecting this fundamental right of humanity.
Protection for this freedom, along with the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, expression or foundations for a flourishing society. So ours is a great task, yet, successful. More people around the world will experience a burst of freedom that they have never known. A freedom that will yield great improvements for humanity, and an expanding atmosphere of peace.
Indeed, if we fail to properly protect religious freedom, one of the most radical and essential freedoms of America’s founding, we’ll have little protection against the range of governmental pressures and abuses that threaten all else. If a government is willing to trample over matters of conscience, freedoms of association, the press, and economic exchange are not too far away.
As Jay Richards explains in Acton’s recent volume on the subject, One and Indivisible: The Relationship Between Religious and Economic Freedom, religious liberty and economic freedom are “mutually reinforcing and indivisible,” offering a strong and robust foundation for a flourishing society. To diminish religious liberty is to instigate a “vicious circle” across the socio-political order:
The philosophical basis for religious freedom rests on the same foundation as the case for economic freedom: individual rights, freedom of association and the family, and the presence of a government with limited jurisdiction…An environment in which economic liberty is enjoyed is one in which religious liberty is likely to be enjoyed and vice versa. It is a virtuous circle. Similarly, in environments where our economic liberty is restrained, either by the state or by general lawlessness, our religious liberty is likely to suffer as well. This is a vicious circle.
If that is the case, then, if we wish to preserve religious liberty, what we need are robust defenses of both economic and religious liberty, framed in a way that makes it clear that these two liberties, these two freedoms, are mutually reinforcing and indivisible.
At a time when all other freedoms continue to be threatened on all sides — as government expands, culture secularizes, and materialism invades — keeping the foundation intact is critical. And this latest event gave great encouragement toward those yearn for a stronger international advocacy of precisely that.