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Land explains why religious liberty is vital to national interests

HOUSTON (BP)–Religious persecution worldwide is increasing and U.S. foreign policy must consider the dimensions of conflicts worldwide if democracy and peace are to flourish, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told a Rice University audience June 8.

Land, in a lecture titled “Global Security and U.S. National Interests: Why Religious Freedom Matters,” delivered at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy on behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said if the 20th century was known as the century of ideology, the 21st century is the century of religion. Nearly every conflict worldwide has a religious dimension, and U.S. foreign policy must engage countries that suppress the God-given right to freedom of conscience, Land contended.

President Bush appointed Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, to the USCIRF in 2001 and again in 2003.

“The world is filled with religious-related persecution and the situation is getting worse, not better,” Land said.

Such persecution was the impetus for the International Religious Freedom Act, passed with broad bipartisan support by Congress in 1998, which brought USCIRF into being, Land noted.

Old concepts of national security based on sovereign nations competing for strategic superiority are being replaced by ethnic and religious strife combined with high-tech weapons capability, Land said.

“It’s important for future leaders to be able to take religion seriously — to understand its yearnings, to use its potential and to counter its danger,” he said. “Diplomats and politicians and policy makers who are not equipped to do that are going to find themselves falling short in putting forward U.S. policy goals in the 21st century.”

Land cited four reasons why religious freedom concerns are vital to U.S. national interests.

First, Land said, religious liberty has been integral to America’s history.

“I believe we always do best in the world when we reflect who we are and when our foreign policy reflects who we are. And religious freedom, freedom of conscience, is an integral part, a foundational part, of why this nation exists,” he said. “… From our nation’s founding, the belief that every human being has a fundamental right to believe, worship and practice according to his or her own conscience has been a core conviction of the vast majority of the American people.”

Thomas Jefferson, Land said, called religious liberty the “first freedom,” and the founding fathers “believed that these rights were inalienable because they were understood to exist prior to society and to government and were granted by neither, but instead were merely recognized and protected.”

Land said the practice of religious freedom entails other rights such as freedom of assembly, free expression and property ownership, and such freedom creates “breathing room” for political dissidents, labor organizers and human rights advocates. Religious freedom fueled democratic reforms in Eastern Europe and has inspired communist China to stifle religious liberty for fear of pressure of similar reforms, Land said.

The second reason religious liberty is vital to U.S. national interests is that it is universal in its importance and applicability, Land said.

Land said religious freedom is fundamental in post-World War II human rights initiatives and is cited in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords and other international human rights statements.

Though the U.S. Constitution’s explicit declaration of complete religious liberty and separation of church and state might be the ideal, the USCIRF standard in evaluating foreign countries’ religious liberty practices is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other documents that state “every human being has the right to freedom of conscience, and that includes the right to practice one’s faith, to change one’s faith, without fear of persecution and without fear of discrimination.”

This U.N. standard would allow, unlike the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, for state preference of some religions over others. The standard does explicitly reject persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion.

Also, the promotion of religious freedom is linked to other fundamental human civil rights, including the growth of democracy, Land said.

“Governments that protect religious freedom for all their citizens are more likely to be governments that protect other fundamental human rights,” Land said. “Encouraging stable, healthy democracies is a vital national interest of the United States of America. The spread of democracy makes for good neighbors, it makes for economic prosperity, it makes for increased trade, and it makes for a decrease in conflict.

“Representative governments that respond to the needs of their people, governments that protects everyone’s right to practice their faith as they wish to practice it, are not societies that are active breeding grounds for terrorists. To the degree that societies suppress such impulses, they breed terrorism.”

Land said when societies begin trampling women’s rights, freedom of conscience and children’s rights, “you have a sign, just like when the canaries start dying in the coal mine … that there are poisonous gases loose in that society and they, left unfettered, will cause serious damage.”

Finally, Land contended, religious freedom is a means of fighting the war on terrorism.

Though religious freedom is not and should not be the top foreign policy concern, Land said it is imperative that it be championed for long-term security at home and abroad because it is “arguably the most fundamental component of all freedom.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. has often stood alone in promoting religious liberty issues, Land said, and prior to the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, religious freedom was considered by some U.S. policy makers to be “the red-headed stepchild” of foreign policy issues.

“That has certainly changed since 1998, and I can tell you from my three years on the commission that the only reason that most of the governments of the world pay any attention at all to this issue is because the United States of America forces them to pay attention to it, because our State Department, under the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act, issues an annual report and we issue an annual report, and we bring it up in diplomatic discussions with other countries — and they listen.”

Congressional hearings and religious freedom monitoring gives the religiously oppressed leverage against their governments they otherwise would not have, Land said.

Land said he is saddened and surprised by threats to religious liberty in Western Europe. For example, Land said the USCIRF cited Belgium and France for using government security to infiltrate religious groups they considered cults.

“I didn’t really expect that to be the case in Western democracies, but it has been the case and is the case.” Land also lamented France’s prohibition against Muslim headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes and large crosses worn as jewelry in French public schools.

Land said President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, noted “freedom is God’s gift to mankind.” President Bush has reiterated that point often in addresses about the war in Iraq.

But to make a difference, the ideal of religious liberty must be followed by government acting on a coherent policy consistently pursued, Land argued.

To advance fundamental reforms among countries whose leaders are hostile to religious freedom, America “must be willing to not just tell hard truths but to act on them. That means … concrete, real-world penalties for bad behavior.”

Land inferred that the radical Islamic religious revolution of the 1970s might have been thwarted had U.S. intelligence officials understood the religious factors involved among those who wanted to force progressive reforms on Islamic traditionalists.

“U.S. strategic interests are best served by telling allies things they don’t like hearing about topics the U.S. diplomats don’t like discussing. … If the 20th century was the century of ideology, then the 21st century is the century of religion, whether the State Department likes it or not,” he said.

Foreign policy decisions based solely on American security and prosperity are not sufficient in a religiously tense world because they ignore basic American values, Land said.

Religion shapes the worldviews of those involved in conflicts and is a threat because “it exists outside state control. It gathers and motivates people without state approval and it grows despite state attempts to limit or eradicate it,” Land said.

The current war on terror, Land said, is a war against radical Islamic jihadism, which is a competitor to freedom and democracy. Thus, the U.S. must empower moderate Muslim leaders, who, Land argued, will choose democracy over totalitarianism and “we will have greatly enhanced the prospect for long-term peace and security in the majority Muslim world and in the rest of the world as well.”

Land traveled to Texas June 7-8 with USCIRF staff and addressed faculty at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government on June 7 and the Houston Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee during a luncheon June 8.

The USCIRF is a nine-member, bipartisan committee established in 1998. More information on the commission’s work can be found at www.uscirf.gov.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: VITAL NATIONAL INTEREST.

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  • Jerry Pierce