More than 60 years ago, the United Nations affirmed that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." So reads Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted Dec. 10, 1948.
Despite this stand for religious liberty, today about a third of all nations severely restrict religion. And, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 70 percent of the world's population lives in these countries.
In some cases, totalitarian regimes oppress religious individuals and groups generally. In others, statist regimes built on an established religion persecute minority faiths.
These governments lack what we take for granted in the United States: a constitutional framework that values religion and protects religious liberty. The key to America's success story on religious liberty is in the founders' design. The Constitution protects the free exercise of religion while prohibiting the establishment of a national religion.
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Reconciling civil and religious authorities, as well as the process of harmonizing the interests of competing religious groups, was instrumental in developing self-government. The lesson remains applicable today as American foreign policy seeks to promote freedom in highly religious societies abroad.
The American model of religious liberty takes a strongly positive view of religious practice, both private and public. In fact, the founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government. More recently, American leaders also recognized that religious freedom abroad serves U.S. national interests.
In 1998, Congress committed to promote freedom of religion as "a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries." The lawmakers passed a bill requiring the State Department to report annually on religious liberty around the globe.
On Nov. 17, the State Department released this year's report. It designates eight nations — including North Korea, Iran and Burma — as countries of particular concern. These nations typically offer their people the least economic liberty and some of the worst economic conditions, as shown in the Index of Economic Freedom co-published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal.
On the other hand, governments that respect religious liberty tend to respect other freedoms as well.
Religious freedom is strongly related to political liberty, economic freedom and prosperity. As researcher Brian Grim notes, "Wherever religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income and better educational opportunities for women."
Some academics used to predict that political and social progress eventually would marginalize religion. But religious belief and practice remain widespread and active around the world.
Religion's persistence shouldn't be surprising. God has been on the minds of mankind in every generation. That's not about to change — as long as conscience, the mystery of existence and the prospect of death challenge every human being to grapple with questions of transcendence and divine reality.
Earthly governments should acknowledge, and constitutionally protect, the right to pursue those ultimate questions.