A good day in the long international struggle for democracy and religious liberty

Newly freed Suu Kyi of Burma

The best assurances of religious freedom around the world are thriving democracies and a commitment to the rule of law. Democracy and religious freedom are inextricably related, and although there are democratically elected governments that are not working hard enough to protect the rights of religious minorities, democracies are universally a platform for the protection of diverse religious practices and expression. Additionally, when authorities are willing to protect the most basic freedom of conscience regarding religious faith, they are likely to be reliable defenders of broader political and civil liberties.

So we celebrate when democracy advances in areas of the world where it faces great challenges. Such was the case in Burma this weekend, where democracy-advocate and long-time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. She has been detained 15 of the last 21 years by the ruling military junta. It is unclear if this signals anything more than a determination by the junta that it serves their purposes to show clemency, but it is good to have a stronger voice for democracy free without restrictions.  

George W. Bush reminded us of the priority of freedom in his second inaugural address in 2005, and his message still rings true today. He said:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. . . .This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. . . .History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction set by liberty and the author of liberty. . . .When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, “It rang as if it meant something.” In our time it means something still.

There are still forces arrayed against freedom throughout the world: the remnants of communism, particularly in China; the autocracies of the Muslim world; in many troubled republics of Africa; and elsewhere.

One group that has worked for freedom for decades is Freedom House.

Freedom House supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights. It supports nonviolent civic initiatives in societies where freedom is denied or under threat and we stand in opposition to ideas and forces that challenge the right of all people to be free.

One of the longtime advocates of freedom and religious liberty is Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a great friend of evangelicals. He writes in a paper on what he calls The Wilberforce Agenda:

I have argued that identifying Christian concern with Wilberforce issues would help define opposition to abortion as being rooted in the desire to protect vulnerable beings, and would thus strengthen rather than dilute its appeal — and would do so even with people who failed to share the view that a fetus is a vulnerable person. In sum, I believe that priority regard for Wilberforce Agenda issues will have the double value of rescuing millions of victims and shattering caricatures of the “Dread Christian Right.” Many Christian leaders understand this — including Chuck Colson, Richard Land and Robert George — as do such model officials as Sam Brownback and Frank Wolf. They know that the positions of 19th century Christian leaders like William Wilberforce, William and Catherine Booth and Josephine Butler on such issues as African slavery, prison reform and widespread prostitution imbued Christianity with lasting power, and were powerful means by which Christian witness shaped and led society. They know, as many of their colleagues do not, that such issues are as potent today as they were in the 19th century.

 Doug Bandow at Cato Institute points to religious liberty as the first freedom.

Most people think of political and civil freedoms when it comes to human rights. And the two are fundamental, to be sure. But most governments which violate these forms of individual liberty also suppress religious freedom. . .Indeed, there is a good argument for treating religious liberty as the first freedom. If a government is unwilling to protect basic freedom of conscience when it comes to religious faith, then it is unlikely to tolerate political free-thinking either. In contrast, persuading repressive governments to carve out room for religious worship and practice may act as an important step in creating protected personal space. . . .…Although Washington cannot make fighting religious persecution a central element of U.S. foreign policy, it can include religious liberty as an essential aspect of its promotion of human rights. In particular, any dialogue with Muslim governments concerned about the treatment of Islam in the West should include a discussion of how those same regimes treat Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities.


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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