Nearly 80 percent of people throughout the world live in a “religiously restricted environment,” according to recent estimates presented by the United States at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly. Yet religious liberty has traditionally received much less attention than other issues in statecraft and foreign policy decision-making, ranging from arms control to bilateral trade deals.

We are often tempted to look at the results of foreign policy decisions and viscerally react to them. While sometimes these immediate reactions to a symptom can lead to solutions that look good on paper, they ultimately fail to address the root cause of the problem. These quick-fix solutions might provide superficial political cover, but often backfire and exacerbate the problem at hand.

Take, for instance, the rationale for admitting China into the World Trade Organization. The idea of welcoming them into the international trading community looks good on paper—since greater trade integration should, all else equal, promote greater cultural and institutional integration—but the idea failed in practice. Welcoming countries to the international trading community is a good and noble cause, but dismissing requisite structural reforms sets us up for failure. Indeed, while there are many reasons, ranging from lack of enforcement to inattentive politicians, the Chinese Communist Party’s lack of respect for people may be the source of their failure to live up to their end of the bargain.

In this sense, religious liberty is not a luxury good that countries can dismiss and still “get by”—it’s a necessity for a vibrant and democratic society. When a country violates the religious liberty of its people, it limits the most essential of all liberties: the freedom to think and to be—an unalienable right. From these violations, any subsequent violation can be justified because the state has already cast the first and most important stone. Countries that genuinely want to live at peace with themselves and others will learn to promote religious liberty among its own citizens.

Foundations for Economic Growth

Before we can identify the ingredients for effective foreign policy, we must trace out the factors that lead to economic growth. Economists have traditionally thought about institutions in two ways: contracting and property rights. For example, weaker legal protections are associated with less economic development and financial deal-making. Similarly, stronger property rights are associated with economic growth because they provide a check against expropriation from the state, allowing for investment and the provision of credit. Moreover, economists have also argued that these institutional ingredients are elements of democracy, which also drives economic growth.

While there has been much academic research on institutions and their effects on economic development and human flourishing, one of the widely acknowledged challenges is the fact that institutions do not just randomly appear—they are a path-dependent byproduct of a wide array of historical decisions and their effects on investment, output, and human behavior. This means that isolating the cause and effect on different dimensions of institutions on economic growth and foreign policy decisions is a highly challenging problem, even for the best statisticians.

So, are there other more foundational determinants of institutions? Religious liberty is one such determinant because it provides a means for free expression in society. A country without religious liberty is going to have a tough time promoting property rights, contracting, or even democratic governance because the basic conditions of respect for one’s neighbor have not been achieved.

In my working paper, “Human Flourishing and Religious Liberty: Evidence from Over 150 Countries, 2006-2018,” I use individual-level data from Gallup’s World Poll between 2006 and 2018 to quantify how changes in religious liberty affect human flourishing. Building on the seminal foundation introduced by Brian Grim nearly a decade ago, I find that increases in religious liberty are associated with robust increases in human flourishing even after controlling for differences in gross domestic product, the labor force, and measures of economic freedom. For example, moving a country that ranks in religious liberty along the lines of Russia to one that ranks closer to the United States amounts to an 11 percent increase in the share of individuals who say that they are thriving.

Because the data provides repeated observations on each country over time, it allows me to compare changes in religious liberty and dimensions of human flourishing in the same country, rather than comparing one country with another that might be different in more than one way. For example, Venezuela might have more restrictions on religious liberty than the United States, but it also differs in many other ways that are correlated with human flourishing as well. This paper provides the first comprehensive evidence that religious liberty is a determinant of social development beyond the traditional metrics of institutional quality or economic growth.

Religious liberty feeds into a wide array of national security priorities for at least three reasons. First, religious liberty is a precondition for lasting economic freedom that enables domestic stability and a defense budget. For example, I find that the correlation between religious liberty and property rights is 0.67, which reflects the reality that markets require competition, which can only exist when people feel free to express their thoughts and ideas in public without fear of persecution. Second, religious liberty is a prerequisite for self-expression and contentment. For example, I find that the correlations between religious liberty and women empowerment and freedom of expression are 0.70 and 0.75, respectively, which reflects the desire among people to speak and think freely. Third, religious liberty is a mechanism for holding public officials accountable. For example, the correlation between religious liberty and public corruption is -0.43, which reflects the tendency for the state to assert itself as the ultimate authority when individuals are not permitted to worship and think freely.

International Momentum

Although religious liberty was recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and again in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, the United States began prioritizing the promotion and defense of religious freedom across the world through its foreign policy as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act.

The Trump administration has vigorously sought to promote religious liberty. In addition to empowering the Department of State to champion it through both the publication of content and analysis and an active ambassadorship through Sam Brownback as the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, the White House has explicitly referenced religious liberty as a priority in its 2017 National Security Strategy and more recently through its June 2 executive order that grants USAID the authority to prioritize international religious freedom in the planning and implementation of US foreign aid. This latter step is particularly important in following through on a commitment to condition foreign aid to countries based on violations to religious liberty.

Foreign aid has a tenuous past. Although there are many examples where it succeeded, many administrations have disbursed funds to governments that were at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive because the funds ultimately propped up rogue actors. In fact, much of the empirical literature within economics provides little evidence that foreign aid has advanced economic growth for developing countries. Taking stock of this reality, the move toward allowing USAID to prioritize religious liberty in its disbursement of aid will allow for the conditioning of aid according to the achievement of specific targets, which provides both a carrot and stick.

Fortunately, the expansion of computing power and the increasing prevalence of data make it easier to empower governments to conduct their own monitoring and enforcement. Increased accountability and better tools offer the potential to help pave the way for improved outcomes in both religious liberty and human flourishing at large.

Challenges and Opportunities

My research reveals that there has been a systematic decline in religious liberty across countries over the past decade. In fact, the decline has been concentrated in countries that traditionally rank higher in terms of economic freedom, like property rights (correlation = -0.18). Western democracies have not been doing so well. Moreover, religious liberty in the United States has declined by 35 percent from 1980 to 2018, according to data from the Varieties of Democracy.

We would be wise to take heed of this quantitative evidence. Just as Abraham Lincoln, paraphrasing Jesus in Matthew 12:25, reminds us, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” the path toward reconciliation requires validation of each person’s right to believe and worship freely. Much of the violence we are witnessing domestically and abroad would be resolved if we affirmed others and their inherent dignity—the alternative is not just civil strife, but a deterioration of the fabric that defines the gains in per capita income and freedom we have experienced in the past century.