Forged out of a century and a half struggle against religious persecution in the colonies, the American constitutional heritage codified an innovative break from centuries of Western practice. Both the First Amendment and state constitutional provisions bar religious establishments and protect religious free exercise from government infringement. These two provisions work in tandem. Freed from the paternalistic support of government and thus owned and operated by the people themselves, religious communities have blossomed here in bewildering diversity and fecundity. In turn, the protection of free exercise provides leverage to religious communities and institutions against government intrusions of their autonomy in civil society.
This American constitutional experiment not only shapes law and politics; it has also seeped deeply into the American DNA. As I will show, this DNA in our national character has produced a singular global impact in three ways: 1) by our example; 2) by our global leadership; and 3) by our booming scholarly and advocacy infrastructure.
The American Example and Experience
Most 18th Century European intellectuals thought the American experiment was folly, that ending state support would doom churches — or that protecting religious free exercise would produce chaos. But the American experiment demonstrates that churches thrive without state support. And that protecting religious rights produces a more harmonious, inclusive, and productive society.
This has inspired scholars and global activists from the 18th century to our own time. In the 1830s, for example, the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville observed how the spirit of liberty and religion moved together in America:
In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.
In this sense the United States bequeathed to the world a model of the social benefits of guaranteeing religious freedom. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell show, the United States uniquely manages to combine strong religiosity with a high degree of inter-religious amity and tolerance – what they term “American Grace.” Moreover, successive waves of immigrants of diverse faiths find that they can thrive here as nowhere else, not only because the law protects their religious life but because societal norms buoy that legal promise. Even tiny religious groups, like American Sikhs, gain allies in defending their way of life.
Fatefully, the American experience and model profoundly influenced the transformation of the global Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). Before Vatican II, Church leaders resisted religious freedom and pluralism, making Catholicism a net drag on democratic governance. In America, however, Catholics thrived in a democratic society of pluralist voluntarism. This experience informed the work of the American Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray, who made the case for the compatibility of Catholic teaching with the American Constitutional heritage. Though initially silenced by the Vatican in the 1950s, Murray went on to help craft language of the Church’s 1965 declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
That declaration stands as one of the pivotal moments in the global advance of freedom because it turned the Catholic Church into the engine of the last wave of democratization on earth. Before that declaration some 70% of Catholic countries were authoritarian; by the 1990s only two were not democracies. Moreover, Catholic majority nations, according to Pew Research, now enjoy the lowest levels of both government restrictions on religion and religious social hostilities in the world.
American Global leadership
When the United States emerged as a global superpower after World War II, it led the way in enshrining religious freedom as a universal right in international law and remains a global leader in upholding it today.
On the eve of the Second World War, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt invoked “Four Freedoms” in his State of the Union address in January of 1941, articulating principles that conduce to world peace and development. One of those four principles, audaciously, was the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”
In the searing aftermath of the Holocaust, the United States also played a leading role in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the U.N. committee that drafted the declaration. Article 18 of that foundational declaration, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, provides this ringing statement of principles:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
Similar language is found in subsequent international covenants that virtually all nations have signed.
The denial of religious freedom also served as a pivotal subtext of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as American leaders deployed diplomatic leverage to open spaces for faith behind the Iron Curtain. The Jackson–Vanik law of 1974, for example, tied normalized trade relations to the freedom of Jews, and others, to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 tied territorial sovereignty of the Soviet Union to advancements in human rights, particularly religious freedom. Article 8 of the Helsinki Accords begins: “The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” American leadership culminated in the close personal collaboration between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II to support the Polish Solidarity and other dissident movements, which brought down the Iron Curtain.
Most recently, Congress invoked the American tradition of religious liberty in its landmark International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, which makes the promotion of religious freedom a “basic aim” of American foreign policy.
What moved Congress to act was the broad array of religious leaders backing the initiative, leaders often at odds on other issues. A number of these leaders forged relationships with their unlikely allies through the domestic campaign in the early 1990s to reinstate a heightened legal protection for religious claimants burdened by government regulations. In other words, a coalition galvanized to strengthen domestic religious liberty helped fuel the international campaign.
The law sets into motion a process by which our diplomatic personnel must document the status of religious freedom in every country on earth, for an annual report that has become the gold standard of reporting on the status of religious freedom. That documentation helped catalyze the third American global role as the hub of independent research and advocacy on religious freedom
Infrastructure of Research and Advocacy
Informed by the American experience and anchored in the United States, a booming array of think tanks and academic centers documents the empirical benefits of religious freedom, while a network of religious advocacy groups and human rights champions upholds it in international law. This infrastructure of research and advocacy is leading the way in documenting the value of, and challenges to, religious liberty in the world today.
For example, State Department documentation, along with U.N. and NGO reports, provide the foundation for systematic measurement of global restrictions on religion by the Pew Research Center. With a simple internet connection anyone can now access Pew’s transparent measures of religious repression for every country on earth.
In turn, this global documentation enables sophisticated statistical research into the connections between religious liberty and other social goods. Groundbreaking scholarship demonstrates the powerful links between protections of religious freedom and democracy, civil liberties, women’s status, economic development, regional stability, and peace.
Repression of religion, on the other hand, is one of the key drivers of the strife, violence, and instability afflicting many parts of the world today. Regimes that severely violate religious freedom experience lagging economic development, corruption, abuses of power, repression of women and minorities, and violent religious strife that spills over borders.
Yet at the very time the value of religious freedom is becoming manifest, we see a worldwide crisis of repression. According to Pew, over three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion, and alarmingly those restrictions are rising.
Behind that peril, however, lies promise. We live in an historic moment when mounting empirical evidence and events on-the-ground corroborate a key ontological insight suggested by the American experience: humans are spiritual creatures who thrive best and most harmoniously when they enjoy the freedom to express their fundamental dignity. Religious liberty may be the best means of peacefully navigating the crucible of the 21st Century: living with our differences in a shrinking world.
Troubles in the Cradle of Liberty
The American constitutional heritage provided a model to the world of how protecting broad religious exercise fosters vibrant civil society, unleashes positive contributions by religious communities, builds citizen loyalty, and cultivates mutual respect among competing faiths.
Ominously, that heritage is fraying. Evidence comes from the Pew Research Center, which reports a doubling of both government restrictions on religion and religious social hostilities in the United States from 2007 to 2016. These “troubles in the cradle of liberty” arise from diverse sources. From the secular left we see religious conscience rights treated as trivial or a cover for odious discrimination. How else to explain the former Obama Administration’s costly, unnecessary, and doomed legal strategy of trying to conscript groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor – against their sincere religious convictions – to provide contraceptive services in their health plans?
From the right we see an even more alarming trend – the rise of a “blood and soil” ethno-tribalism that challenges the proposition that American citizenship, equally by birth or adoption, is open to all on the basis of a shared creed embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which gave us the specter of an angry mob with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us,” represents a stunning repudiation of George Washington’s paean to a Hebrew congregation of an enlightened American policy that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Given American leadership in upholding international law on religious freedom, this amnesia about our religious heritage has global implications. It is hard to promote something abroad that is fraying at home. Charges of hypocrisy stick when we challenge infringements of religious rights in other nations. In other words, to defend religious freedom abroad we must preserve it at home.
This leads to an enticing proposition: Could responding to the global crisis of persecution lead to a renewal at home? It has happened before. Recall a pivotal episode of American jurisprudence, when the Supreme first rejected conscience claims of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1940 and then reversed itself three years later. The issue was the requirement that Witnesses children salute the flag during the pledge of allegiance (with arms extended upward), which to them represented blatant idolatry. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Court found in favor of the school district mandate, which invited a wider wave of persecution against Witnesses and their children, with thousands kicked of school, harassed, and beaten up, as Sarah Barringer Gordon recounts.
Such a spectacle was deeply embarrassing to President Roosevelt as he sought to mobilize the nation against the Nazi threat (which persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses along with Jews). Thus his invocation of religious freedom in 1941, though phrased as a global right, was meant to buoy that tradition at home, and it did. Two Supreme Court justices changed their minds, to be joined by two others appointed by Roosevelt, to overturn the Gobitis decision in 1943, paving the way for expansive protections of religious conscience rights for many others to come.
The lesson: To ensure America’s continued global leadership for freedom of religion, we must revive and strengthen the domestic legal and cultural norms that produce vibrant religious civil society, the fertile soil of such salvific international action.
Allen D. Hertzke is the David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma.