At Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in November 2019 at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC, Thomas Farr explained why the most profound reasons for religious liberty are Christian. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Thank you, Mark. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this group, and I’d love to leave plenty of time for a Q&A afterward, or at least… I spend my days fighting for religious freedom for everybody everywhere. I do that because I believe religious freedom is necessary for every human being and every society. And that’s under assault around the world, including in the United States. The consequences of this are very bad for all of us around the world.  

So where is this idea of religious freedom come from? Today, I mean, in the West, especially academics would say the Enlightenment, although not only academics. The Enlightenment identified religion as a little more than a motive, superstition, and found reason as the only means of appropriating the truth of things, and banished religion to the private sphere. For those who believe this, religious freedom means the right to believe and to worship, an idea reflected in the phrase “freedom to worship.” But religious freedom does not mean you have the right to bring your irrational beliefs into public life.  

This of course is precisely the opposite of what the American founders meant by the right of free exercise of religion, which they guaranteed to every citizen in every religious community. They saw it as a public right, not a private right. So why did they see it that way? Many of the founders, of course, read Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Thoreau. As well as of course the pre-Enlightenment thinkers who had a great deal of influence on them, especially John Locke. But in fashioning the First Amendment, they were drawing most importantly on deep Christian sources. It’s those sources of religious freedom I want to address with you this morning.  

My argument is that the most profound and powerful reasons for religious freedom are Christian reasons, and those reasons become profound and powerful in part because they extend not only to Christians but to everyone. In short, there is within Christian thought a deep theological warrant for religious freedom for everyone. That theological warrant also has a deep relationship to American foreign policy. I spent 21 years as an American diplomat, as Mark mentioned, and I can tell you that it’s a pretty secular profession. Madeleine Albright once wrote the diplomats of her era, following the Enlightenment view of religion, were trained to avoid it. 

Well that religion avoidance syndrome has diminished in recent years, but the underlying skepticism about religion unfortunately has not disappeared from Foggy Bottom and American culture at large as well. A recent Pew study which you may have read has suggested that skepticism about religion is on the rise, particularly in your generation. Now I am not suggesting that our foreign policy should be Christian. I am suggesting that an aggressive secularism at the State Department and in American culture increasingly has handicapped our 21-year policy of advancing international religious freedom in our foreign policy. While things have improved this state under Secretary of State Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback, our foreign policy elites in general don’t understand the true meaning or value of religious freedom to anyone in America or anyone else. 

So the reality is not to assert the superiority of Christianity but to remind our foreign policy elites and ourselves of the Christian roots of this precious right of religious freedom. In short, without Christian theology, there would be no religious freedom. Without Christian theology there would be no secular democracy that protects the rights of all human beings, Christian or not. Without Christian doctrine, thought, and practice, not withstanding the sins and hypocrisy of Christians throughout the ages, the world would be a very indifferent and much impoverished place.  

Of course today, most of the West would disagree about what I just said. In the early 21st Century, much of the academy, the media entertainment industry, the corporate world, and progressive political movements view Christianity, as with the Enlightenment, as irrational, illiberal, and intolerant. This view helps fuel opposition to religious freedom in the West and helps confound our ability to convince skeptics of its value to them. Of course, there are historical examples of Christian intolerance and coercion. In the 5th Century, Augustine used the Scriptures to justify the coercion of the radical Donatists. The Inquisition for State and Church sponsored attempts to deter heresy and save souls by burning heretics. 

Contemporary critics of Christianity certainly cite these examples, but in the main, today’s opposition to Christian teachings derives from the Church’s resistance to modern norms of freedom. And I heard a lot of discussion of this in previous conversation. Moden norms of freedom such as radical individualism, especially on questions of human nature, sex and sexuality such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right to construct one’s chosen gender identity. Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that skeptics tend to ignore the rich tapestry of Church teachings on freedom, including religious freedom. But those teachings are critical to understanding how modern ideas of freedom and self-government themselves emerged. 

The origins of the Christian understanding of human freedom and religious freedom reside not, surprisingly, this is a Catholic speaking to a mainly Protestant audience, reside in the Scriptures. Genesis declares that each of us are created in the image of God. Consider the implications of that. If each of us fears God’s image, we are in a profound sense equal to each other. In the image of God, each of us possesses an intellect and will, which are the wellsprings of free choice.   

Jesus’s incarnation, life, passion, death, and resurrection deepened our equality and freedom by liberating us from the bondage of sin. As Paul put it, “through Freedom, Christ has set us free.” This was, of course, not the idea of human autonomy that we have today. The Christian logic of religious liberty is this: true liberty is the freedom to choose God in this life and therefore in the next. But God does not coerce us to choose. Jesus did not coerce obedience or belief. To do so would have eliminated the way we image God. That is our intellect and our will. It would have destroyed the source of our dignity as human agents. Each of us is truly free because we are capable of choosing and free to choose the truth. 

Now Christianity’s first three centuries were experienced as a tiny but growing minority religion, often under severe persecution. This experience produced theological reflection on the end times, and the meaning of persecution and suffering, such as we see in Peter’s letter… letters and in Revelation. But the experience of persecution combining with reflection on the Scriptures that were then being placed into the camp also yielded remarkably rich, forward-looking, and optimistic reflections on religious freedom.  

The works of early Church fathers such as Tertullian posited a revolutionary idea, and you hear that phrase a lot but this was really revolutionary. The very nature of religion, alongside the nature of man requires free address. Accordingly justice requires freedom of all in religion. Their ideas were expressed at the so-called Edict of Milan issued in 313 by the Emperor Constantine. The edict declared religious freedom for all throughout the Roman Empire and was history’s first declaration of universal religious freedom. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.  

Constantine’s successors abandoned religious freedom in part because the early Middle Ages saw struggles over core questions of Christian orthodoxy such as the true nature of Christ. Is he human? Divine? Both? To his merit, this is a question for Protestants, Mary the mother of Christ. Is she also the mother of God? Constantine’s successors use coercion to punish heretics and schismatics. True religious freedom, of course, would not emerge until Modern Europe. Nevertheless, the seeds of religious freedom had been planted within Church teachings and later flowered. Litantius, for example, hear this. Litantius, third century, was read and quoted by Thomas Jefferson in the 18th Century, and by the Catholic declaration of religious liberty in the 20th Century.  

But these seeds did not lie dormant all those centuries in between Litantius and Jefferson. Several developments of Christian theology and philosophy kept them alive. Let me name three. First was the assertion by Popes of Libertas Iglesia, the freedom of the Church over its secular authority. The secular kings and emperors began to emerge in Medieval Europe. We see the Church declaring a principle that would later prove crucial to the development of democracy and civil society, especially in America. The principle that a secular state has no warrant over ecclesiastical and scriptural matters and is therefore limited in its power. This tension played out during the Middle Ages, with secular leaders and religious clergy battling over the boundaries between Church and State.  

While the two often collaborated, to be sure, such as in the Inquisition and the Crusades, the claim of Libertas Iglesia was such a seminal step toward the concept of limited state, and helped to stab… helped establish the framework of what became modern social pluralism. Recall that one of history’s formative documents of limited government, England’s Magna Carta in 1215, begins with a declaration of Libertas Iglesia. Freedom of the Church over, against authority. 

A second evil development that would contribute to the modern understanding of religious freedom emerges with the modern idea of the individual conscience. By the 11th and 12th Centuries, canonists for drawing the epistles of Paul began to declare that all men have a duty to follow the dictates of their consciousness, even if doing so puts them in conflict with Church authorities, again thus teaching, which still exists in the Catholic Church, was reaffirmed a couple of weeks ago in the canonization of John Henry Newman alumnus. This teaching is not the modern idea that conscience is ordered to the self rather than to God.  

Within the Catholic division, the greatest duty of men and women is to ensure their consciences are well formed in truths of the Church. Then, as now, the Church teaches that an error of conscience can send you to Hell, but it also teaches that if you are certain your conscience is correct, you must decide. It was crucial to the development of religious freedom. In the modernity, here is a third contribution to religious freedom. The idea that all persons possess natural rights as a result of natural law. That is to say, that here to them by virtue of their existence rather than the grant of kings, the positive law. 

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Church authorities are writing on the natural right to property and self-defense. The 16th Century Dominican monk Bartolome de las Casas defended the rights, the natural rights, of American Indians against Spanish and Portuguese oppression by appealing to many sources. Of course, the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century made a substantial contribution to the American understanding of religious freedom. Some of that contribution would fight to the reformers’ rejection of the Catholic Church, partly to repent. John Calvin emphasized the supremacy of individual consequence and the authority of the Bible rather than the Church. But as we’ve seen, most of these arguments did not appear in the sixteenth century. The first time many of them were present on Church thinkers was fifteen hundred years before the Reformation.  

It was not until the American Revolution and the American constitutional settlement that religious freedom emerged full-blown in it’s modern sense. So let’s turn there. The American constitutional settlement reflected the Founders’ belief in the value of religion. Not just religious freedom. That comes second to the value of religion for individuals and for society and cost… and to protect the free exercise of religion. That’s a Constitutional phrase. I didn’t make it up. Note the phrase of individuals and religious communities, religious groups in both private, but especially in public. That phrase “exercise” is very public. Just think of free exercise of religion. It doesn’t really capture what happens behind Church doors, maybe except for Pentecostals. There are echoes of here both of ancient and of free Christian ideals.  

So let me give you three basic examples. First, the founding generation venerated the role of religious conscience, as we’ve said, in human nature and in social flourishing. Think about that. It’s not just an interior thing. Conscience is in fact an interior matter. Every human being has one. But they’re connecting conscience to public matters. James Madison defined religion as, quote, “the duty of which we go to our Creator in the manner of our discharging.” Unquote. He understood conscience as a primary means, the primary means by which people discerned and carried out that duty. The duty of following one’s religious conscience, that is to say religion, is so important that, as Madison put it, it is quote “precedent both in the order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society,” unquote. 

Second example. The core American democratic principle of limited government was in part derived from the core Christian concept: the sinfulness of man, which is the root cause of the corruption that inevitably accompanies concentrations of power. The founders believed that no group of human beings, even the Saints as they understood that term, should be invested with too much power for too long. The power of government is limited, was limited in their view, by the commitment of religious citizens to an authority greater than the state, and by the role of religious communities not just its individuals. The role of religious communities in the voluntary institutions of society that would limit the power of the State. If you don’t have all those faith-based institutions, you know as well as I, guess who goes into the… performs those services? Government does a lot of that today. So, the Founders believe that religion constitutes a highly effective limit on government. Here we see reflections of the medial idea of the freedom of the Church, Libertad Iglesia. 

Third. Most Americans believe that the New Republic would fail without a virtuous system, and that a central source of this virtue was religion. They came to accept… and I don’t know how much you’ve read the Founders but they are just all over virtue. If we don’t have a virtuous citizenry, this revolutionary experiment and Republican experiment will fail. They came to accept that religious contribution to the country and law and public policy was not through the establishment of religion or a coercive… a coercive religious phenomenon, but of the free contention of citizens’ religiously informed model arguments derived again from religion. 

These and other colonial views of religion such as the view of the wellsprings of equality, which I mentioned earlier, about the value of religion, led to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion for all individuals and groups. Note that last point. When the Protestant Founders, and they were mainly Protestant, there weren’t many Catholics around. When the Protestant Founders considered wording for what became the First Amendment, one option that they considered we know from the record, which was the “rights of conscience.” Now, if there’s a more Protestant, Reformed phrase, I don’t know that it is. They considered that and they projected that. 

What is guaranteed for you and me and every American citizen and religious group, is the free exercise of religion. First Amendment scholar Michael McConnell argues that they chose that phrase in order to protect the public rights involved in religious exercise. It’s not just the private rights of conscience. Equally important, says McConnell, they were protecting the rights of communities as well. So in sum, the American Constitutional establishment valued religious expression both in private and public, and for religious groups. The purpose of the First Amendment’s ban on establishment, this is very important, was not to keep religion out of American politics. Precisely the opposite. The ban on establishment was designed to protect religion from government, thereby to limit the power of the future government, and to ensure the moral vibrancy of the American people. That’s the purpose of the ban on establishment. Not to make you shut up because you’re religious, which is what people believe it is today. 

Note that all these ideas have deep roots in Catholic, Protestant Christianity. They protected everybody. Not just Christians.  

So let me end with a few thoughts on how all this relates to U.S. foreign policy. In my view, the essence of the American understanding of religious freedom is what we should be advancing in our foreign policy. Not… Not the First Amendment, per se, but the notion of equal protection under the law and culture for free exercise of religion. We should be doing that by making arguments, grounded in history, modern research, common sense, that without religious freedom, no human being and no societ… society will flourish. But with religious freedom, good things result, including the recognition of human dignity for everyone, the stabilizing of democracy over the long term, economic growth, greater equality for women and the undermining of religion-related violence and terrorism.  

Now as most of you know, we’ve had since 1998 a separate statute, I hope you know, a statutory requirement for advancing religious freedom in our foreign policy, led by ambassadors at large of the office for religious freedom at the State Department. That policy has been in place for 21 years, older than many of you, for four administrations, both parties. Many remarkable people have served in that office and many important steps have been taken. The current ambassador, Sam Brownback, is having a major impact but there remains a fundamental problem with our policy.  

As a general rule, many members of the American foreign policy establish… establishment, like many of our political and cultural needs today no longer believe in religious freedom as the first freedom of the American Constitution and the human soul. They no longer believe that’s necessary for the health of American society, let alone for other societies abroad. And this ignorance and indifference, alas, seems to be attached just as much to the Christian leaders as to secular leaders.  

But those of us who are Christians have good reasons for supporting a vigorous American religious freedom policy abroad. We’re American citizens who want to further our nation’s interests. Most of us believe in the Christian argument, those of us who are Christians, that all should have religious freedom, including Jews and Muslims and everybody else. We deplore the rising violence against all these groups. In the west and in our own nation, we also observed that Christians are being targeted more than any other religious minority in the world. The results are catastrophic for Christians, for the nations in which they live, and for the world, because they have contributed so much in every case to those nations. 

So let me end by suggesting how Christians can act. First, those of us who are not subject to violent persecution have a Christian responsibility to defend those who are. The love of Christ surely means the love of those who suffer the same. To avert our eyes and conclude that we are powerless, to pretend that we cannot have an impact is unacceptable. Second, as Christians, we must pray. Every church in our great nation should be storming Heaven with it’s pow—with it… with the prayers of the faithful. God has promised to hear us. Third, we must act as citizens who have both the right and responsibility to influence our own government. As Americans, we must insist that the government do better in defending religious freedom abroad for everyone. In this we must support Ambassador Brownback and Secretary Mike Pompeo. Fourth, we Americans have a particular responsibility to retrieve the tradition meaning, the American meaning, of religious freedom.  

And so firstly, as we’ve seen that understanding derive from a Christian worldview. It did derive from a Christian worldview and for that reason, it includes everybody. The implications of what I just said is that if you move away from that Christian understanding, others begin to drop out of that definition of religious freedom including Christians. Tragically, we’re in imminent danger of losing that understanding.  

Today in America, the phrase religious freedom appears with scare quotes and the mainstream press. In 2016, the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, an organization charged with protecting the civil rights of every American, said that religious freedom stands for, and I quote, “intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and Christian supremacy.” Unquote. We must fight this obstructive attitude with the same determination and the same Christian law with which we fight violent persecution outside America. If we in America lose the idea of religious freedom as the first freedom, where can it be retrieved? What happens to religious freedom if America has an impact on its fate outside of it? 

Fifth and finally, we must do more than defend religious freedom. We must exercise religious freedom. Those of us who are Jews or Christians or Muslims must live openly without apology as we are in an increasingly secular and hostile societies. And we’re indeed threatened by secular hostility, but a greater danger in my view is our own difference and fear. If we don’t live our faith publicly, those of us who are Christians, defending Christian teachings on the sanctity of life, on marriage, and sexual morality, where will we find the passion and the discipline to defend our brothers and sisters whose very lives are threatened because of those beliefs? 

So let’s publicly act as Christians and as American citizens with love for our Lord and love four our country, the better to defend our brothers and sisters and all others suffering this persecution abroad by defending and exercising the right of religious freedom. 


Question: Okay. So my name is James Nyberg, I’m from Luther University. So my question is how do you think Protestants and Catholics, and I sort of think back to William Buckley, you know, sort of having that conservative alliance with Protestants… how can they work together to fight for these shared ideas of religious freedom and liberty of conscience? 

Answer: Great question. Important questions. Those of you who don’t know him, William Buckley is an interesting one that goes back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the 1990s there began a wonderful movement which still exists called Evangelicals and Catholics Today, ECT. If you don’t know about it, look it up. Usually when I say that to my students and people that work with me, they immediately pull out their phones. Don’t do that. Do that after the answer. But ECT, Evangelicals and Catholics Today, was started by Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Newhouse, who was the founder and publisher of First Things Magazine, which I highly recommend to you.  

They have the last 25, 30 years put into First Things, I would guess certainly 6, 8, maybe 10 Evangelicals Catholics Today declarations on very important issues that had divided us, including justification, I mentioned Mary, and you know, salvation by faith alone, and stuff like that. But also religious freedom. I think there’s a mistake personally, this is me speaking personally, I’m a convert to Catholicism, to make light of our differences. I mean that’s not religious freedom. Religious freedom is… There was a great phrase by John Courtney Murray, a Catholic, the last great Jesuit Catholic in my view, in which he said religious freedom means creed’s intelligent conflict under a canopy of civil discourse. 

That’s… we don’t have to pretend we don’t have our differences. It’s kind of fun to debate them and talk about them and maybe realize some of them aren’t as bad as we traditionally thought. We have canards, we have wrong thinking about each other, and that’s what ECT has done as well. But on to your question, there is no… There is every reasonable world for Catholics and Protestants and let me just add for religious people of other, non-Christian faiths, Muslims and Jews particularly in our own country who had the same view that American religious freedom is for everyone, and they defend it with their own religious beliefs.  

I have a Muslim gentleman who works for me. His name is Ishmael Royer, R-O-Y-E-R. Look up. I discovered Ishmael when he was defending Jack Phillips, the masterpiece… masterpiece cake shop baker who I met not a couple weeks ago for the first time in Colorado. And Ismael made an Islamic case for defending Jack Phillips. He also submitted an amicus brief for him, obviously going beyond Catholics and Protestants, so if you don’t mind… But I think this is important for us Christians who don’t do this as much as we should.  

He just submitted an amicus brief in the Harris Newhall case, you know what that one is? That is changing the Civil Rights Act, Title 9 I think it is, the definition of sex so that it means basically whatever the individual wants it to mean. And this amicus brief says let me tell you what this means to Muslims, especially Muslim women. I suggest you read it, and if you can’t find it, email me or Mark and we’ll get it for you. It’s not good, what it means to Muslim women. I suggest it’s not good in any sense but this… The point is people arguing from their religious beliefs or religious reason for everybody. That’s what we want. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that that is a mainstream Islamic point of view, but it makes it all the more precious to have somebody who is a serious Muslim as this man Ishmael is.  

By the way, just a plug for… for the Religious Freedom Institute, which is my organization, we’re going to give this month the first inaugural Defender of Religious Freedom Award, given to a man or woman anywhere in the world who defends religious freedom for the reasons that I just gave you from within their tradition, faith tradition. Not in spite of it. And this year, the award is going to Archbishop Charles Shipew. We had to start with a Catholic of course. But anybody who knows this man knows why he’s a good fit for this particular award. Sorry, long, too long answer for that. Any other questions, comments?  

Question: So I’m Ellie Bore from College, and I was just wondering how you think the value of religious freedom reconciles with believers in China and in other closed countries such as those who say that persecution is really strengthening in the Church history? 

Answer: Well you know that’s a… there’s a long tradition of the Church, this is grounded in Scripture, accepting persecution. Jesus said, remember, blessed are those who are persecuted in My name. And so we really believe, most of us as Christians, that persecution, when it comes — we don’t look for it, like with suffering or martyrdom we don’t look for it. And when it comes, you know, It’s an interesting question. What do you do? But you didn’t ask what they should do. 

By the way, we have a study called Under Caesar’s Sword, which looks into the question of what Christians under persecution are doing. Look at our website. Under Caesar’s Sword. We did it with Notre Dame. But you asked the question which is what… what should we, or how should we reconcile this. I think that is your question. I would suggest that we do not accept persecution of Christians, wherever it is. We fight it. We oppose it. Now we have to be smart. Just flapping your wings, or condemning… if that works, do it. If that doesn’t work, find something that does. And that’s what we try to do at the Religious Freedom Institute. So fight it and fight for it here at home too because if we lose it here, how can we convince the Chinese, anybody else that it’s in their interests to do it there? One more question. Come on now, if you don’t ask it I’m going to ask you. 

Question: Faith McDonnell from IRD. Thank you Tom. About the same time you talked about Evangelicals and Catholics Today, there was a movement in the UN and beyond to try to deconstruct the universality of human rights and even some of the mainline Church leaders like the National Council of Churches got involved with that and tried to make them non-universal. Can you say something about that? Is that still an aggressive push, like, within the UN or… or in any of the Church that is? 

Answer: I think that it is. It’s still aggressive and in fact It’s picked up steam beyond the United Nations. It’s in Protestant and it’s in Catholic Churches. Why this is happening, it would probably take to long to get at, but I do think a lot of it is rooted in just what you said. It’s somehow the notion that human rights are constructed by somebody other than God, fundamentally through Christ. Now look, there are civil rights that properly constructed governments are right to a minimum wage, or right to health care, whatever.  

But we’re talking about rights that adhere to the human being by virtue of their existence. The most powerful argument I can imagine for that, I mentioned it earlier, is the notion that we are created, all of us, in the image of God. It doesn’t matter where you live, what your religion is, whatever characteristics we have. God loves us. He loves us. That’s why we exist, and life is responding to that love. Is there a more powerful way to ground fundamental human equality than that? I cannot imagine, and I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. How, and this is a problem I think you may have read, I think my predecessor mentioned this, this is a problem within the Catholic Church now which has me scratching my head. This business of Amazonian senate is befuddling to me. But, like you, I am deeply grateful to have the Scriptures and to have, I think, of what this issue potential of all of us are equal. Because God created us.