SOUTH BEND, Indiana – At first blush, it might seem there’s not much in common between the stark, in-your-face persecution against Christians in regions such as the Middle East, where people are being killed for their faith, and subtle persecution in other places, such as the quiet removal of crosses from the public arena.
Yet what some would say is that in both cases, religious freedom is either an absolute good, as it’s described in the American constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or it’s simply one “commodity” among many in the political marketplace.
“I would like to see religious freedom incorporated into what’s called ‘High Foreign Policy’, which includes defense, diplomacy, alliances and foreign aid. Right now, it’s a little corner of the State Department,” said Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.
Philpott noted there’s a new book out, Weapon of Peace, by Nilay Saiya, in which the author shows a strong correlation between the denial of religious freedom and religious terrorism.
“Terrorism is obviously a long-standing concern for the United States,” Philpott told Crux. “In our longest-standing war, in Afghanistan, we’re basically fighting on the premise that we can’t leave because religious terrorism would rise up again. You can’t say that’s peripheral to U.S. foreign policy. The fight against ISIS… religion and religious violence are at center of some of our most difficult foreign policy dilemmas. September 11 was about it.”
If repressive regimes have a strong correlation with the rise of religious terrorism, Philpott argued, then the U.S. has a strong national security interest in encouraging free regimes, the kind that allow for religion.
In this sense, he applauded a decision from the Trump administration to hold a ministerial conference on religious freedom last year that included not only top politicians but also international NGOs, encouraging a global network of organizations.
Philpott has focused on reconciliation, religious freedom, and theories of religion’s role in politics. He is the author and editor of several books, including Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution, which he co-edited with Timothy Samuel Shah.
The book is the culmination of a four-year project largely financed by the Templeton Religion Trust. The primary partners in conducting the project were the University of Notre Dame (under the auspices of the Center for Ethics and Culture) and the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. The project put together a team of 17 scholars to take a deeper look into religious persecution world-wide. One of the chapters is dedicated to religious freedom in the West.
“We think trends in the West are serious enough that they should be documented,” he said. “But of course, compared to Pakistan or places where Christians are being tortured, this is not anywhere near the same kind of scale or magnitude.”
According to Philpott, in the West there are two faces of religious freedom.
“One is the issues surrounding sexuality, like the contraception mandates under the Obama administration,” he said,” involving “the increasing creation of conscience issues for institutions.”
The second is the use of anti-religious rhetoric, which has become clear under Trump, he said, as the way the president speaks of Muslims or the travel ban, has led to a sharp spike in anti-Muslim incidents and also a growth of anti-semitism.
“I would call for both left and right, each in their own way, to understand what religious freedom means for them and understand the religious freedom on the other side,” he said.
“The left thinks teachings on contraception are crazy, but they are issues of conscience, and we have a long tradition of respecting that in the United States,” he said. “But we also have a tradition of being welcoming to people of all faiths. At large, we have a good history of respecting both Muslims and Jews. They’ve been able to find a home where they can flourish here in a way they can’t in other countries, and I would hate to see that change.”
According to Richard Garnett, it’s essential for religious freedom advocates to propose and believe that the underlying right is universal, even if it’s applied differently around the world.
“I always say that the particular problems we’re confronting here are different from those [Christians face] in China, Sudan or Pakistan, as we’re not being decapitated for our beliefs or our churches burned to the ground, but I do think that we have religious freedom challenges in the States.”
“I think our belief in religious freedom is strong, and I’m glad I live here and not somewhere else, but I think that it’s a mistake to be complacent about the situation here just because it’s not as bad as it is in some other places,” he told Crux.
“Grateful vigilance is the correct posture to have,” he said. “One doesn’t want to overreact, be histrionic or exaggerate or anything, but I also think that one should be clear-eyed and not naive about the challenges.”
The challenge in the U.S., he said, is not a “theocratic desire to persecute us and punish us for our beliefs,” but the fact that increasingly, religion is not a part of the life or the upbringing of Americans, so the importance of religious freedom is not obvious.
“They wonder what is so special about religion: ‘Isn’t religion like what sports team you like, a club?’” Garnett said. “That used to be something we could take for granted, because our Constitution makes religion special and our tradition has treated religion specially. But I think increasingly it’s seen as a luxury good, so if it conflicts with something else we care about, you see a growing number of people who think religious freedom should lose.”
For him, there’s no room for doubt: “The right way to think about it is that religious freedom is this foundational good that makes so many other things we care about possible.”
Garnett is an associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, teaching in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, First Amendment law, and the death penalty.
In terms of new frontiers in America, Garnett believes there will continue to be tension between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom, such as a religious school firing a teacher because the person becomes an advocate of Planned Parenthood.
“The most regular cases are those involving same sex marriages, but it’s not limited to that issue,” Garnett said. “It’s a general thing with anti-discrimination laws, or what in the UK is known as Equality Law: what counts as bigotry, as prejudice, is coming up against a lot of traditional teachings on sexual morality, marriage and abortion.”
Another thing Garnett expressed concern over was the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case regarding a cross-shaped World War II monument. He made a distinction between this case and those of Confederate statues, saying there’s a “fraught history” to statues put up in the 1950s as a threat to African-Americans, while the monument reflects the longstanding influence of Protestant Christianity in America, not a sign of “Christian hegemony and domination.”
The fact that people are starting to think of religion as a “luxury good,” he said, means that as history goes forward, “we’ll see fewer of these monuments, because [Christianity] won’t speak to as many people,” but that doesn’t mean that all the crosses should be removed.
He also said he found the clash between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws to be “interesting,” because young people use the word “identity” a lot.
“Religion surely is part of that, yet in all kinds of other areas, people are agitating to be public about their identities, why would it be any different with religion?” Garnett said.
“I don’t agree with those who think that the separation of Church and State is wrong. I believe you can have political and religious authority separate, but still have religion in the public square as a non-coercive force.”