The top officials of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have set forth compelling reasons why religious freedom around the world is important. Its Chairperson, Robert P. George, and its Vice Chairperson, Katrina Lantos Swett, have done so in an essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion.”
They assert, “To respect fundamental human rights is to favor and honor the [human being] . . . who is protected by those rights—including the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.” Therefore, honoring the individual human being favors “human flourishing in its many dimensions. For those who regard humans not just as material beings but also as spiritual ones—free, rational and responsible—it is obvious that their spiritual well-being is no less important than their physical, psychological, intellectual, social and moral well-being.”
Such human flourishing “requires respect for their freedom—as individuals and together with others in community—to address the deepest questions of human existence and meaning. This allows them to lead lives of authenticity and integrity by fulfilling what they conscientiously believe to be their religious and moral duties.”
Moreover, religious “faith by its nature must be free. A coerced ‘faith’ is no faith at all. Compulsion can cause a person to manifest the outward signs of belief or unbelief. It cannot produce the interior acts of intellect and will that constitute genuine faith.” Indeed, coercion “in the cause of belief, whether religious or secular, produces not genuine conviction, but pretense and inauthenticity.”
Religious freedom, therefore, must “include the right to change one’s beliefs and religious affiliation. It also includes the right to witness to one’s beliefs in public as well as private, and to act—while respecting the equal right of others to do the same—on one’s religiously inspired convictions in carrying out the duties of citizenship.”
As a result, “one of the aims of U.S. foreign policy should be to combat . . . [religious] intolerance—not just because religious freedom reduces the risk of sectarian conflict, but more fundamentally because it protects the liberty that is central to human dignity.”
This statement echoes the words of the international legal instruments that appropriately guide the work of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. supported in the U.N. General assembly in 1948, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992.
The Universal Declaration opens with these words in its Preamble: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It then declares in Article 18, “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.”
These latter words are essentially repeated in Article 18(1) of the International Covenant. Its Article 18(2) goes on to say, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
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