In his letter to the Turo Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington promised "to establish effective barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution." He argued for an attitude that respected the inherent and equal right of everyone to worship God as they think best or to not worship God at all. The government, wrote Washington, would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
Over two hundred years later, President George W. Bush elaborated on Washington's promise: "Religious freedom is the first freedom of the human soul. The right to speak the words that God places in our mouths. We must stand for that freedom in our country. We must speak for that freedom to the world."
Religious liberty has played an integral part in American history. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience, is an integral part, a foundational part, of why this nation exists.
But does religion matter in international affairs? Just about everywhere we look in the world today there is a religious dimension to conflict. The old concepts of security based on sovereign nations competing for armaments and strategic superiority are being replaced by high-tech weaponry and ethnic and religious strife—which often are synonymous with one another.
It is important for future leaders to take religion seriously—to understand its yearnings, use its potential, and counter its danger. Diplomats and politicians and policymakers who are not equipped to do that will fall short in promoting U.S. policy goals in the twenty-first century. We need people who can factor religion and religious concerns into domestic politics and international relations just as they do economic and security concerns.
The promotion of religious freedom is linked to the promotion of other fundamental human civil rights, including the growth of democracy. Governments that protect religious freedom for all their citizens are more likely to be governments that protect other human rights. Encouraging stable, healthy democracies is a vital national interest of the United States. The spread of democracy makes for good neighbors, for economic prosperity, for increased trade, and for a decrease in conflict. Countries with governments that protect everyone's right to practice their faith are not active breeding grounds for terrorists.
The 2007 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom paints a bleak picture of our world with eleven countries—Burma, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—noted as "countries of particular concern." It is believed these governments have "engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief."
The Commission also identified eight countries— Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria—as requiring close monitoring, given that the governments of these nations have engaged in or tolerated attempts to regulate thought, conscience, and religion or belief.
As the 2007 annual report states, religious freedom has a central place not only in the "area of advancing human rights but also in promoting accountability, conflict resolution, and reconciliation within societies."
When we prioritize trade and security concerns over human rights and religious freedom we travel a dangerous road. The better way is to seek to link these concerns in a way consistent with our own interests and the long-term betterment of the lives of those in countries where violations of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are common.
By placing attention on the state of religious freedom in individual nations, we greatly enhance prospects for long-term peace and security in the world.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.