Last month the White House released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Much is commendable about this document, not least of which is how quickly the Biden administration produced it. More substantively, it includes a clear call to prioritize US engagement in support of an open, rules-based international system.
The interim guidance is a promising preface to a more complete National Security Strategy. As the administration prepares that document, it should integrate US support for international religious freedom, a subject that the interim guidance ignores.
Advancing religious freedom has assumed greater importance in US foreign policy since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016, which President Obama signed, revitalized this issue and made it a priority during the Trump administration, which inaugurated the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and spearheaded the creation of an International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
The Trump administration included religious freedom in its 2017 National Security Strategy, citing its importance to America’s Founders and adding that the United States would “advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities.”
Morally, countries, organizations, and persons should support the advancement of religious freedom given the centrality of religion, spirituality, and belief to human dignity and flourishing. Advocates can also make the case for advancing religious liberty with reference to US strategic interests. Indeed, promoting international religious freedom accords with the broader goal of “lead[ing] and sustain[ing] a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules” that the interim guidance includes. After all, religious freedom is a critical element of free and open societies, and free societies tend to foster a more peaceful, open international system.
The interim guidance calls for the United States to work with allies and partners “to revitalize democracy the world over,” and, consistent with this effort, a growing body of research highlights ways in which religious freedom strengthens democracy and fosters prosperity. For example, Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues that “religious freedom instantiates and strengthens liberal democracy and its freedoms through the kinds of activities that it allows.” It gives religious organizations space to engage in political advocacy and to participate in civil society via entities such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
While not a sufficient condition for sustained economic growth, research indicates religious liberty helps to create environments conducive to prosperity. One reason for this is that religiously repressive societies are more prone to violence. Ilan Alon, professor of strategy and international marketing at the University of Agder, notes that a high level of religious repression can result in conflict, and an analysis by the US Institute of Peace supports the notion that religious repression can fuel a violent backlash among religious groups, although some states have sufficiently strong security apparatuses to limit armed conflict. Brian Grim, founding president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, conducted a study showing religious freedom correlated positively with most of the World Economic Forum’s pillars of global competitiveness. One key reason religiously repressive countries likely had lower levels of competitiveness? Repression risks unleashing (or does unleash) violence and instability that damages markets and hurts prospects for investment.
Moreover, religious freedom helps to foster norms of pluralism and openness to difference. Alon cites the example of the Soviet Union, which placed a quota on Jews allowed in elite universities and government agencies. Ultimately, when Mikhail Gorbachev started to open the Soviet Union, many educated Jews fled, leading to a “brain drain.” Societies with high levels of religious freedom thus attract individuals from a diversity of backgrounds. This brings fresh perspectives conducive to promoting both innovation and cultivating a democratic culture that respects diversity.
Furthermore, a 2019 study by Christos Makridis of Arizona State University that used data from Gallup’s World Poll between 2006 and 2018 found an association between increases in religious liberty and increases in human flourishing. Makridis writes, “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.” Of course, with any study, care must be taken to avoid confusing correlation and causation; nevertheless, logic suggests that freedom to worship, practice one’s faith, or, to paraphrase the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, seek and adhere to the truth would result in a higher degree of flourishing—for religion or belief are fundamental elements of human experience.
In sum, religious freedom is a pillar of peace, stability, and prosperity in democratic societies, while religious repression undermines prospects for order and human flourishing. Religious liberty’s linkages with other components of a healthy democracy were noted in a previous National Security Strategy. The 2006 document observes, “Political, religious, and economic liberty advance together and reinforce each other.”
Promoting religious liberty will also help the United States and its allies compete with great-power rivals. On this point, I have written that religious freedom should play a role in US efforts to counter China’s assertiveness on the global stage. Advancing religious freedom by, for example, spotlighting China’s abuses (e.g., in Xinjiang) can be used to curb China’s soft power and strengthen multilateral coalitions in support of human rights.
The Biden administration would do well to also be mindful of the linkages between religious freedom and a well-functioning democracy, and thus its importance for revitalizing democracy which, in turn, will put the United States and its democratic partners in a stronger position to advance an open, rules-based international system. As relations with China remain tense, the administration should consider how religious liberty can advance US strategic interests vis-à-vis Beijing.