The Pew Forum recently released a noteworthy report demonstrating that religious restrictions worldwide are on the rise.
Pew found that between mid-2009 and mid-2010, religious restrictions increased in every major region of the world. Because of this increase, in 2010, 75 percent of people worldwide lived in countries that have either high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities toward religion, up from 70 percent for the year ending in mid-2009.
Pew reports that 66 percent of countries experienced some increase in government-endorsed restrictions on religious practice, and 10 new countries were added to the list of places with high levels of these restrictions. Among those countries with high government restrictions are Syria, Iran, and Egypt—all of which have made international headlines this year for oppressive policies and actions toward religious minorities.
The negative trends in religious liberty worldwide present an opportunity for the United States, which prides itself on its constitutionally protected freedom of religion, to advance religious liberty. Heritage scholar Jennifer Marshall wrote in a 2009 report that religious liberty “is an American success story that should be told around the world.… One of the major reasons for the success of the American experiment is that it balanced citizens’ dual allegiances to God and earthly authorities without forcing believers to abandon (or moderate) their primary loyalty to God.” However, Marshall explained, this aspect of the American order is often misunderstood, a notion confirmed in the Pew report.
Pew found that on both of the study’s measures of religious freedom—government restrictions and social hostilities—the U.S. moved up more than one point on a 10-point scale. The result: The U.S. is now classified as having a moderate level of government restrictions on religion (2.7, up from 1.6) and is now at the high end of moderate hostility toward religion (3.4, up from 2.0).
This is especially concerning given that Pew’s report chronicles the status of religious liberty in the U.S. two years ago, which means that it does not include some of the most recent high-profile conflicts, such as the Obama Administration’s anti-conscience mandate and the Chick-fil-A controversy this past summer. (More examples can be found in Thomas Messner’s post a few weeks ago.)
While Americans certainly do not face the same kinds of persecutions for faith that millions of others around the world do, we can hardly advance a model of religious liberty if we either misunderstand or half-heartedly embrace religious liberty at home. Marshall wrote in 2010, “Condemning and curtailing religious persecution is a critical goal, but religious freedom includes much more. Our vision of religious liberty must be robust.”
Given the negative trend in Pew’s findings, perhaps we’d better have this conversation sooner rather than later.
Thomas Bell is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.