When I served as a missionary in Asia for more than 20 years, I entered a world ripe with challenges for religious freedom. Imagine being in a world where you hesitate before saying "God bless you" to the person in line behind you at the grocery store or "I'll be praying for you" to a colleague battling a terminal cancer. I learned all too quickly what this absence of the freedom for even the simplest of religious impulses feels like.
Thankfully, in the United States we consider this freedom to be a right, not a privilege. In the wake of the recent removal and then reinstatement of Bibles in cabins at Georgia State Parks, I am reminded of how much we take this for granted. But what does this privilege look like, and how precious is it?
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, freedom of religion means that one has the opportunity to speak and display religious convictions. We Americans are free to teach, worship, practice and live out our faith. We are free to incorporate positive, religious beliefs into music, television, movies and other forms of entertainment. We are able to meet a stranger on a bus and talk to them about the Bible. We can freely give the government a gut check when we feel this protected right is being violated. Even those in the military can proudly share their faith and lean on each other during times of distress. Sadly, this is not the case around the world.
American Bible Society has always worked to provide access to the Bible, especially to those who need it most. During our nearly 200 years, we have seen how Scripture can change lives. I'm thinking about thousands of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, experiencing horrific trauma, trapped in endless cycles of blame and shame, and now given a sense of peace when cared for by those who provide access to the Bible's healing messages. These women learn how loving and comforting God is, and how different from every other "warlord" of ridicule and judgment. In these settings, God's Word brings something that nothing else can-healing from brokenness, peace from anxiety and salvation from despair.
I am hopeful that one day all people will be able to exercise religious freedom. The U.S. Department of State recently published its International Religious Freedom Report for 2012. The report calls religious freedom auniversal human right. I couldn't agree more. In far too many countries, journalists, poets and teachers have been harassed, beaten, taken hostage and imprisoned for their beliefs. The report states that the ongoing challenge is to fix the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom.
Looking inside the narrative of the Bible itself, centuries of men and women at the bedrock of our Judeo Christian foundations have faced down persecution and the restraints of religious freedom. Here again, the Bible offers strength to those who are persecuted, as well as guidance for finding ways to address this challenge with love, perseverance and prayer.
It is my hope that as Americans, we will continue to prize our religious freedoms, doing all in our power to keep them protected and preserved. A world where religion is not valued is a dark place to be. I join the U.S. Department of State and Gov. Nathan Deal in urging Americans to continue to pursue this as a right and privilege, for the full flourishing of every human person.