Religious Freedom on the Run
On religious intolerance, the West is catching up to the rest of the world.

(“Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion”/The Pew Forum)


Between 2006 and 2009, social hostilities against religion in the United Kingdom rose to the point that the U.K. was rated “high” in that category, alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia and, by 2010, France and Germany. By 2010, the U.K.’s scores on social hostility had nearly doubled. All three of the NATO allies, two of them permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, were scoring worse in this category than Iran, Sudan, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, their scores on government restrictions also grew worse.

What about the United States? In the 2009 and 2011 reports, government restrictions on religion were graded as “low” and social hostilities as “moderate,” putting us in the company of such states as Congo, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Rwanda.

But the 2012 report shows significant deterioration. In government restrictions, the U.S. is now rated as “moderate.” In social hostilities, it now ranks worse than China, Syria, Laos, the Congo, and Uzbekistan.

Here’s a final fact from the three annual Pew reports on religious freedom: Of the religious groups that were the targets of harassment, Christians fared the worst by one important measure. Over the five years covered by the reports, harassment of Christians was reported in 139 nations. For Muslims, that figure was 121.

So What?
The Pew reports warrant three conclusions.

First, the growing persecution of religious minorities constitutes a humanitarian crisis that is of significant proportions but receives little notice from the academy, the media, or policymakers.

Second, the global crisis of religious liberty has significant strategic implications for the United States. Empirical and theoretical studies provide evidence (see, for example, here and here) for what history and common sense suggest: Democracy in highly religious societies will not take root without the acceptance, in both law and culture, of robust protections for religious freedom. Without religious freedom, democracies will not be able to defeat violent religious extremism. To the extent that the U.S. sees the defeat of terrorism and the establishment of democracy in the broader Middle East as vital American interests, it should be working hard to advance religious freedom there.

Third, the United States is not succeeding in this endeavor, despite a statutory requirement to do so (the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act). As I have written elsewhere (e.g., here and here), our policy was largely ineffective under Presidents Clinton and Bush and has reached new lows under the current administration.

The Pew reports help to explain why. It is hard to sell a product you no longer understand and do not believe in. Americans of all political and religious stripes would do well to ponder the the implications, for others and for ourselves.

— Thomas F. Farr is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.