Why Religious Liberty is More than Coexisting

You may have seen the bumper sticker splashed with religious symbols—the Star and Crescent, Star of David, and Cross—which together form the word, coexist. It is a gesture toward peace, asking those of wildly divergent backgrounds and worldviews simply to agree to disagree. But how effective can such an ode to harmony be when it is viewed from a car window on a highway, and separated from the so-called peacemaker?

I suspect these bumper stickers are uniquely American. For all of the warts and exceptions, Americans enjoy a fair amount of liberty in matters of faith. Writing from Fredericksburg, Va., in 1777, Thomas Jefferson said, “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” And, while his theology was opaque, Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom became the catalyst to the Bill of Rights and modern-day religious freedom initiatives.

While the practice and profession of one’s religion has been largely ubiquitous since Jefferson’s writings, religious harmony practiced in a free and open manner has remained elusive for much of the world. One can look to the far East and see an ongoing civil battle between Muslim separatist groups and the central government in the southern islands of the Philippines or the secular persecution of the Rohingya people of Myanmar. Shuttling across the continent of Asia, the religious—and therefore ethnic—strife within the Middle East is far too protracted to name. The recent horror in Nairobi is a sobering reminder that groups such as al-Shabaab are still present in pockets of African nations. One could even look to Paris and the city’s 2004 ban on “religious symbols,” which many consider to target Muslim headscarves, as an example of religious intolerance.

A recent Pew Forum study confirms such religious unrest as government restrictions on religion and social hostilities related to religion are on the rise in almost every region of the world. The irony of this trend is that such developments come on the coattails of the 2011 Arab Spring and other popular uprisings throughout the world where greater freedoms and/or more equality were demanded by the masses. In many ways it is a logical reaction for regimes such as Assad’s in Syria or even the Vietnamese Communist party to want to hold on to power by indiscriminately squelching freedoms of all kinds. But what are the costs of such campaigns of intolerance and violence? What is more, is there any such model that can be emulated in hopes of closing the global religious liberty gap?

A memorial located in downtown Washington, D.C. stands as a reminder of religious liberty in public policy with the descriptors “statesman, author, and diplomat” inscribed. Many may not be familiar with Oscar Straus or even his memorial in Federal Triangle, but his life’s story demonstrates the significance of religious diversity and the need for a variety of worldviews in governing. As the first Jewish-American to hold a presidential cabinet position in 1906, Straus had a proclivity to study and understand the great thinkers of religious freedom such as Roger Williams—people who didn’t look for ways to simply exist alongside of but to integrate within those with divergent faiths and worldviews.

The Oscar Straus memorial actually consists of two statues: one representing reason and the other justice. At the base of the justice statue is inscribed the following: “Our liberty of worship is not a concession nor a privilege but an inherent right.” An individual’s inherent rights should be treated with utmost dignity within the public policy arena and not simply relegated to tired cliches.

Interestingly, the U.S. foreign policy community seems to be moving toward a more substantial understanding of this inherent right. Just this past August, the State Department announced the establishment of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives as a “portal for engagement with religious leaders and organizations around the world” that would reach “out to faith-based communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the policy process, and works with those communities to advance U.S. diplomacy and development objectives.”

In remarks made by John Kerry at the official launch of the office, the Secretary of State said, “As leaders and citizens, particularly people in public life, everybody talks about how we draw strength from the example of our faith communities—but not enough people actually translate those words into actions or policies or life philosophies.” Although the U.S. has long since published a scorecard of sorts on the state of religious freedom around the world, this nascent office indicates an interest in more than simply grading other nations. Rather, it takes an active diplomatic posture that acknowledges the importance of diverse faiths in international affairs.

Acknowledging this diversity demands as close to equal treatment as possible within the realm of policy. Practically, the Center for Public Justice makes two suggestions for application.

1) There must be no privileging of secularism or of anti-religion in the public square. That would be to discriminate unjustly against public religions.

2) There must be no discrimination against those who make no religious profession or who are antagonistic toward religion. Such discrimination would mean the unjust privileging of the convictions of some citizens over others.

These two pillars of equitable treatment of faith seem to be reaffirmed in the words of Marcus Aurelius: “There is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.” In an era of extreme political polarization the performance of public policy among those with differing worldviews should still be carried out with a dignity that is proper and proportional. In the public square, I believe collaboration is preferable to coexistence. After all, a memorial to a statesman, author, and diplomat that collaborated within a sundry of worldviews is more desirable to that of one that simply pedaled coexistence.

-Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.