“Prison is a hopeless place.” That’s how one former inmate describes it. What can give hope? The freedom to practice one’s faith, even behind bars and barbed wire.
The first kind of religious freedom to appear in the Western world was “freedom of the church.” Although that freedom has been all but ignored by the Courts in the past few decades, its place in American jurisprudence is once again being recognized.
Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett explains how we should think about and defend the liberty of religious institutions:
To embrace this idea as still-relevant is to claim that religious institutions have a distinctive place in our constitutional order—and not only a distinctively worrisome or harmful one. It is to suggest that churches are not “just like the Boy Scouts” and that, while they to a large extent function in civil society in the same way and deliver the same Tocquevillian benefits as any number of voluntary associations, they are, in the end, different.
True, it is increasingly difficult, within the boundaries of argument set down by some versions of liberal political theory, to justify, on principled grounds, special treatment for religious liberty. Still, in our history and tradition, “religious” institutions and authorities have acted, and have been regarded, as special and distinct, whether or not “religion” has been understood as neatly separate from “culture,” “conscience,” or “morality.” We live under a written Constitution that “singles out” religion and we inhabit a tradition in which “church” and “state” have, in a special way, cooperated and contended. If it is anachronistic to invoke the freedom of the church, it seems even more ahistorical to deny the distinctive (for better or worse) place and role of religious actors in that tradition, and today.
Before I try to convince you that Katha Pollitt is dangerously wrong, let me attempt to explain why her opinion is significant. Pollitt was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts and has taught at Princeton. She has won a National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
She is, in other words, the kind of politically progressive pundit whose opinions, when originally expressed, are considered outré — and then within a few months or years, are considered mainstream in progressive circles.
However, in her latest column, “Why It’s Time to Repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Pollitt is but a few minutes ahead of the liberal curve.
She begins with the stunningly obtuse claim that, “In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”
Pollitt is smart enough to know that claim is nonsense. She’s also smart enough to know that there are plenty of people who are gullible enough to believe it could be true.
Yesterday the State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. A wide range of U.S. government agencies and offices use the reports for such efforts as shaping policy and conducting diplomacy. The Secretary of State also uses the reports to help determine which countries have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom in order to designate “countries of particular concern.”
“In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” is the depressing introduction to the report. “In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.”
Writing for Canada’s National Post, Acton University lecturer Fr. Raymond de Souza calls our attention to the 25th anniversary this year of the defeat of communism and observes that “there are new questions about the unity of liberties.” In the 1980s, he writes, “when in the Gdansk shipyard the workers began to rattle the cage of communism, they demanded economic liberties (free trade unions), personal liberties (speech, the press), political liberties (democracy), legal liberties (against the police state) and religious liberty (the strikers insisted upon public worship in the shipyard itself).”
In continuity with older revolutions and even older political philosophy, he adds, “the liberties demanded were thought to be all of a piece. Liberty was not divisible, it was thought and often said. Today that question is is up for debate.”
The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation has issued a global study that links religious freedom to economic growth. Researchers say that religious freedom has been a previously “unrecognized asset to economic recovery and growth,” and that religion contributes heavily to peace and stability, both of which are necessary to economic stability.
Mark A. Kellner breaks down the study’s findings:
According to the RFBF [Religious Freedom & Business Foundation], the study looked at GDP growth for 173 countries in 2011 and found religious freedom correlated with lower corruption. Moreover, “when religious groups operate in a free and competitive environment, religion can play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries.”
The authors analyzed 2011 GDP data and compared with data on religious restrictions, the level of economic and business freedom in a given country, and “measures of government regulation, taxes, labor issues, demographics and economic circumstances.”
This past weekend, Christians around the world commemorated the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to ponder how Easter was celebrated in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity and the region in which these very events unfolded. There is one factor, however, that may have made the liturgical festivities less expansive and well-attended than one might imagine: the minimal number of Christians in the region. In the Middle East, the number of Christians has dwindled to less than 10 percent of the region’s population. This diminishing number is not, however, simply a result of natural immigration patterns or conversions to other faiths; it also reflects the determination of intolerant and extremist governments and associated groups to drive them out.
In a Wall Street Journal article titled, “The Middle East War on Christians,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, explains that in Iraq alone over the past 10 years, “nearly two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have been driven from their homes.” Prosor then adds: