The Public Value of Private Faith
Government should protect the faith that motivates so much giving and service.



It’s been called the first freedom: the freedom of conscience. To believe what you think is true, to change those beliefs, and to live with others who believe differently are among the most basic rights of a free people.

Yet for three out of four people on the planet, such freedom is a distant longing. The Pew Research Center reports that 76 percent of the world’s population lives under “high” or “very high” religious restrictions. Pew also reports escalating violence and persecution in the name of religion.

For example, Egypt made headlines in 2011 as thousands of its citizens filled Tahrir Square in Cairo in what has been called the Arab Spring. The Western media reported stories filled with hope of newfound empowerment for the suffering Egyptians. Yet today, Egypt has the most severe government restrictions on religion and the world’s attention has gone elsewhere.

America’s religious freedom was born with the arrival of the first pilgrims, and it was made a cornerstone of our Constitution. It has also been the subject of spirited debate ever since. The latest ruckus is over the freedom of a family that owns a business to not pay for certain employee benefits that would violate their deeply held beliefs. This conflict is now being resolved by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby.

David Green started Hobby Lobby in his Oklahoma City garage more than 40 years ago. Today, the family still owns the company outright, but it has outgrown the garage to occupy over 400 stores scattered across the country. The business yields $2 billion in annual revenue. The family also has 18,000 people to whom the federal government recently granted access to 20 different contraceptive methods through Obamacare. The Green family is quite willing to offer 16 of those contraceptives, but the four others, which include the so-called morning-after pill, pit the government against this family’s conscience.

The decision in this case will indicate how free Americans will be to practice their beliefs in the future. But there is another way to practice beliefs that draws far less attention and causes virtually zero lawsuits. Every major faith tradition includes a command to love your neighbor as yourself.

Tony Blair is fond of telling a story about Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the first century. A man interested in converting to Judaism challenged the rabbi to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel passed the test with his pithy retort: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.”

Religion is the No. 1 motivation for giving and serving in America. Christian faith prompted the rise of such historic charities as the Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army, United Way, and Goodwill Industries. Today, of the $300 billion donated to charity in America each year, 32 percent is directed to religious causes. Educational institutions rank a distant second, at 14 percent.

When he became president in 2001, George W. Bush sought to harness the power of religion to strengthen America and bring America’s blessings to the world. He called it rallying the armies of compassion, and the results were as stunning as they were left untold.

Consider that from 1999 to 2000, more Africans died of AIDS than died in all of Africa’s wars combined. In early May, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Africa and said that it was “the best untold story of the last decade.” Secretary Kerry and others are now speaking of Africa, long known as the Dark Continent, as on the rise and of the promise of an AIDS-free generation there within our lifetimes. The rock star Bono leads a chorus of voices citing President Bush’s global health intervention as the antidote that cured Africa’s hopelessness.

I had the privilege of serving as director of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, which gave me access to many of these stories left untold. This was often at the president’s choosing. I vividly recall our visit to a prisoner-reentry facility in Baltimore when the president, to divert attention away from a former prisoner’s past crimes, recalled his own past struggles with alcohol, because the ex-con wanted to show his daughter that he was becoming a new man.

The humble service of faith-motivated Americans is done without fanfare. Yet it is a story worth telling. In a newly published book, The Quiet Revolution: An Active Faith That Transforms Lives and Communities, I laud hometown heroes who vanquish disease, crime, poverty, and injustice every day. There is not a social problem in America that is not being solved by caring neighbors.

The work of compassion best fits the hand of the individual. It is good for government to protect the faith that motivates such service.

— Jay Hein is the president of Sagamore Institute, a national policy think tank. He is the author of The Quiet Revolution and co-author of The New Wisconsin Idea: Reinventing Public Compassion for the 21st Century and serves as editor-in-chief of American Outlook, a quarterly public-policy journal.