There is no more fundamental liberty than the right to respond to one’s creator. Belief in the transcendent obviously varies, which is good reason for the state to stand clear as people respond to something infinitely mysterious and powerful. When government seeks to impose someone else’s understanding of the world beyond, it is interfering with the essence of the human person. Attempting to suppress people’s deepest spiritual beliefs also guarantees social conflict, since no serious believer in God can obey self-serving politicians instead.
Alas, the Pew Research Center finds a significant increase in infringements of religious liberty over the decade from 2007 to 2017. Government restrictions on religion — laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices — increased markedly around the world. And social hostilities involving religion — including violence and harassment by private individuals, organization or groups — also have risen since 2007.
Pew’s work is notable since it addresses two aspects of the ongoing attack on religious faith. One is legal restriction, from modest civil limits to brutal criminal penalties, including death. The other is social hostility, ranging from religious discrimination to mob violence. The two phenomena sometimes merge, especially in Islamic nations. In other cases, governments act despite general social indifference, like in China. In contrast, state repression trailed social antagonism in the Central African Republic.
Unfortunately, both threats contribute to persecution and are on the rise. Put the two together, and religious liberty is likely to suffer greatly. Pew reported that over the decade covered, “52 governments — including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia and Russia — impose either ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions on religions, up from 40 in 2007.” The comparable increase for states exhibiting significant degrees of social hostility was 39 to 56.
The news was not entirely bad. Both religious restrictions and hostility actually peaked in 2012. But they have since rebounded after dropping. While the future is unpredictable, there is no reason to expect attacks on religious faith to fall measurably in the near term, at least.
There is no more fundamental freedom than the right to seek spiritual fulfillment. There was a time when Christian majorities used the state to oppress those who believed differently. Today the oppression mostly comes from those of other faiths, especially Muslims and Hindus, but also atheists, who rely on government to impose their worldviews. The result is massive injustice worldwide.
It isn’t enough to press governments to stop targeting religious believers. States also must protect their citizens from private extortion and violence. And defending spiritual liberty should not be viewed as only the government’s domain. People of goodwill of all faiths should act and organize to expose and shame oppressors around the globe. Freedom of conscience benefits all of us.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He currently is Scholar-in-Residence with Centre for Independent Studies. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the US Spectator as Religious Persecution Continues to Increase, Threatening All Believers.
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