Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?

By Jennifer Marshall, Heritage Foundation

Religious liberty and a thriving religious culture are defining attributes of the United States, characterizing the American order as much as its political system and market economy.[1] From the earliest settlements of the 17th century to the great social reform causes led by religious congregations in the late 19th century and again in the 20th century, religion has been a dominant theme of American life.

Today, almost 90 percent of Americans say that religion is at least “somewhat important” in their lives.[2] About 60 percent are members of a local religious congregation.[3] Faith-based organizations are extremely active in providing for social needs at home and in sending aid abroad.

Why does religious liberty matter—to America and to the world?

Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the American experiment. That is because religious faith is not merely a matter of “toleration” but is understood to be the exercise of “inherent natural rights.” As George Washington once observed: “[T]he Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” And “what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator,” James Madison wrote in his 1786 Memorial and Remonstrance. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

The model of religious liberty brilliantly designed by Madison and the other American Founders is central to the success of the American experiment. It is essential to America’s continued pursuit of the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence, the ordered liberty embodied in the Constitution, and peace and stability around the world.

The key to America’s religious liberty success story is its constitutional order. The Founders argued that virtue derived from religion is indispensable to limited government. The Constitution therefore guaranteed religious free exercise while prohibiting the establishment of a national religion. This Constitutional order produced a constructive relationship between religion and state that balances citizens’ dual allegiances to God and earthly authorities without forcing believers to abandon (or moderate) their primary loyalty to God.

This reconciling of civil and religious authorities, and the creation of a Constitutional order that gave freedom to competing religious groups, helped develop a popular spirit of self-government. All the while, religious congregations, family, and other private associations exercise moral authority that is essential to maintaining limited government. The American Founders frequently stated that virtue and religion are essential to maintaining a free society because they preserve “the moral conditions of freedom.”[4]

Religion and good morals are the only solid foundation of public liberty and happiness. – Samuel Adams
October 16, 1778

Today, the religious roots of the American order and the role of religion in its continued success are poorly understood. One source of the confusion is the phrase “separation of church and state,” a phrase used by President Thomas Jefferson in a widely misunderstood letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802.[5] Many think this means a radical separation of religion and politics. Some have gone so far as to suggest that religion should be entirely personal and private, kept out of public life and institutions like public schools.

That is incorrect: Jefferson wanted to protect states’ freedom of religion from federal government control and religious groups’ freedom to tend to their internal matters of faith and practice without government interference generally. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s phrase is probably more widely known than the actual text of the Constitution’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The American model of religious liberty takes a strongly positive view of religious practice, both private and public. While it does not mean that anything and everything done in the name of religious liberty is not subject to the rule of law, it does mean that the law ought to make as much room as possible for the practice of religious faith. Far from privatizing religion, it assumes that religious believers and institutions will take active roles in society, including engaging in politics and policy-making and helping form the public’s moral consensus. In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government.

Defying predictions that political and social progress would eventually marginalize religion, religious belief and practice remain widespread and vibrant around the world.

“The very things that were supposed to destroy religion—democracy and markets, technology and reason—are combining to make it stronger,” write the authors of a book about religion’s persistence in culture and politics around the world. [6]

In this era—as in all prior human history—God has occupied the thoughts of man. Conscience, the mystery of existence, and the prospect of death challenge every human being to grapple with questions of transcendence and divine reality.

Religious freedom recognizes the right of all people to pursue these transcendent ends. This right is granted not by government but by the Creator. By respecting it, a government acknowledges that such ultimate issues are outside its jurisdiction, and that conscience is answerable to a higher authority than the law of the land. Individuals and institutions should be free to believe and to act in response to divine reality.

Because religious liberty is the bedrock for all human freedom, it provides a sturdy foundation for limited government. Liberty of conscience demands, and ultimately justifies, limited government.

Conversely, limited government requires individual responsibility. Freedom engages the moral responsibility of each and every person. In a free society, religion is an ally of good government as it forms the moral character of individuals and communities.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that ought to be enjoyed by the people of all nations. This principle has been recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international agreements. Despite widespread recognition, many people are unable to exercise this basic liberty.

Even with religion’s global prevalence, religious freedom is far from universally respected. About a third of the world’s nations restrict religion to a high or very high degree, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in these countries.[7]

In some cases, totalitarian governments have oppressed religious individuals and groups generally. In others, statist regimes built on an established religion have persecuted religious minorities.

Countries designated by the U.S. State Department as “countries of particular concern” because they restrict religious freedom (such as North Korea, Iran, and Burma) suffer in other ways as well. They also tend to have the least economic liberty—and some of the worst economic outcomes.

On the other hand, governments that respect religious liberty tend to respect other freedoms as well. Religious freedom is strongly related to political liberty, economic freedom, and prosperity. As one researcher of international religious liberty notes, “[W]herever religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, and better educational opportunities for women.”[8]

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act made religious liberty an official part of U.S. foreign policy. The United States committed to promote freedom of religion as “a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries” and to “identify and denounce regimes” that engage in persecution on the basis of religion.

Condemning and curtailing religious persecution is a critical goal, but religious freedom includes much more. Our vision of religious liberty must be robust.

Attempts to relegate religion to private life or to prevent religious institutions from conducting their business according to their beliefs threaten this fundamental freedom. Religious individuals and institutions should be free to exercise their religious belief within their private spheres as well as to engage publicly on the basis of religion. Believers should be free to persuade others to embrace their beliefs. Individuals should be able to leave or change their religion without fear of reprisal, and all should have the right to protection under the rule of law regardless of belief.

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most secure and consistent protection for religious liberty needs to be rooted in constitutional government. U.S. public diplomacy can support the development of such robust religious freedom by telling America’s success story.

That requires that U.S. policymakers understand and be able to articulate the role of religion in the American constitutional order. In the 21st-century war of ideas, U.S. public diplomacy must rely on the bedrock of American founding principles in the fight against potent ideologies that present strong, coherent, and deeply misguided explanations of the nature and purpose of human existence. Evaluating religious dynamics around the world should become a regular function of analysis, and articulating the role of religion in the U.S. should be a consistent feature of communications strategy.

Religion and traditional morality continue to play a significant role in American public life. Most Americans continue to attach great significance to religious faith and practice, marriage, family, and raising children in a morally rich and supportive environment—values shared in many highly religious societies around the world.

Religious freedom is the birthright of all people, but too few governments around the world acknowledge it and far too many people have never enjoyed it.

One of the gifts of providence to the United States is a Constitution that has successfully safeguarded this fundamental right. It is a gift Americans should cherish and a model for all throughout the world.


Jennifer A. Marshall is Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.


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