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The treasure of religious freedom

Celebrating the International Religious Freedom Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Eleanor Roosevelt holds a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. Wikimedia Commons

The treasure of religious freedom
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Today is International Religious Freedom Day, when we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Congress passing the International Religious Freedom Act. IRFA is a crown jewel in a set of international commitments—starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago—which intersect with America’s founding ethos of religious freedom for all. It is important that we recommit to the values of both of these streams of thinking—the values of the UDHR and IRFA as well as the historical fact that America’s national identity is rooted in the quest for religious liberty.

America has religious freedom DNA. We see this as early as the Pilgrims’ flight to the New World in 1620. Their Mayflower Compact declared that they would operate under the laws of God but there was to be no compulsion in matters of religion for those outside their tradition.

Over the years the colonies and early America had to struggle to achieve widespread religious liberty, but in places such as Pennsylvania, a conviction developed that religious dissent and religious pluralism would not undermine the rule of law. Indeed, religious liberty was seen as a strength of American society, as religious people in their civil and religious organizations sought to do good for their fellow men.

George Washington recognized the importance of religious freedom, writing to a Jewish congregation that they were welcome in the United States, as were different sects of Christianity and other religions. Another U.S. president, John Adams, wrote, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” America’s founders such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and many others saw religious freedom as crucial for a healthy republic. Indeed, that is why religious freedom is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment—it’s foundational to all others and inextricably linked to other fundamental rights such as the right of people to assemble, freedom of the press, free speech, freedom of conscience, and property rights.

By the early 1800s one after another of America’s states dropped any form of state-established churches. America’s religious vitality was marked by Great Awakenings, by the calls of religious people to end slavery and to enfranchise women’s rights, to care for the poor, to act against corruption, and to seek civil rights for everyone. The heritage and character of America simply cannot be understood without understanding the highly religious nature of the American public over the past three centuries, and the shared commitment to religious freedom that characterized most generations in the past.

The act makes international religious freedom a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy.

The International Religious Freedom Act is rooted in America’s founding ideals, but it has a second parent: the quest for human rights following the horrors of concentration camps and the destructive nature of World War II. In the aftermath, many governments came together to create a new set of institutions such as the United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many ways, the UDHR is an important precursor to the International Religious Freedom Act. The declaration emphasizes the commonality of all human beings and has specific provisions on religious freedom.

Since an aspirational declaration was not enough, governments came together in 1966 and passed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Under it, governments are to hold one another accountable for upholding religious freedom for their citizens.

However, the promise of religious freedom abroad remained unfulfilled in the 30 years following the passage of the ICCPR. So. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act with wide bipartisan support. The act makes international religious freedom a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy. The act sets up an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to lead an office within the State Department, as well as a separate bipartisan commission on international religious freedom. Over the past 25 years IRFA has resulted in annual reports on the status of religious freedom and some minor triumphs such as the release of individual families and prisoners like Presbyterian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was released from a prison in Turkey in 2018.

As we celebrate the anniversaries of IRFA and the UDHR this year, we recognize that the treasure of religious freedom is something that must be conserved at home in a time of increasing attacks on religious people and their convictions. If religious freedom falters in the United States, due to attacks on religious people who refuse to conform to progressive views on life, marriage, and transgenderism, who will be left to champion religious freedom abroad?


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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