Religious Freedom at Home or Abroad Is Personal

As the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom commences, Catholic religious-liberty scholar Robert George, the newly elected chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, discusses the issue with the Register.

Prof. Robert George was elected June 11 as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Prof. Robert George was elected June 11 as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. (photo: ADELAIDE MENA/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Robert George is a Catholic Princeton professor, human-rights activist and the newly elected chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The commission, an independent bipartisan body established by Congress in 1998, monitors religious-freedom conditions in all of the nations around the world and makes specific recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress regarding how U.S. foreign diplomatic policy should be formed and carried out to advance the cause of religious freedom wherever possible.

Speaking with Peter Jesserer Smith, the Register’s Washington correspondent, George, alternately in his role as the commission’s chairman and as an activist for religious freedom, makes the case that religious freedom abroad and religious freedom at home are closely connected. Commenting last week just before the start of the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom, he stresses it is time that U.S. Catholics make the cause a personal one.

How do you envision your role as the new chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom?

To be a voice for the commission — and thus for the persecuted. I will strongly advocate the positions that [it] has adopted and the recommendations it has made, including the recommendations for CPC [country of particular concern] status for those nations that have not yet been so designated.

To be designated as a CPC, a country’s government must be guilty of ongoing, systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom. This can be anything from retaliation against religious dissenters by depriving them of jobs or other opportunities to abduction, murder and torture — the kinds of things that have gone on in places like North Korea, Iran and China.

When those recommendations are adopted by the State Department, it automatically triggers consequences: a menu of diplomatic and economic sanctions to be applied by our government to those countries.


What can U.S. citizens do to actually help religious liberty abroad?

What can citizens do? Press their government! The U.S. government has enormous leverage. Not in all countries — we don’t have much in North Korea — but we do have leverage with allies such as Saudi Arabia and with important trading partners such as China. So we need to use that leverage. And the people of the U.S. need to press our political leadership to use that leverage.


What’s the connection between promoting religious liberty abroad and being able to maintain and defend it at home?

Here, let me speak personally as a scholar and human-rights activist, not as chairman of the commission. Under our authorizing statute, we have no authority to intervene in or even comment on domestic issues.

In my personal opinion, however, the very best way we can advance religious freedom abroad is to honor religious freedom at home. That’s a simple matter of avoiding hypocrisy and setting a good example for the world.

We — as a people who pride ourselves on respect for freedom and as a nation “conceived in liberty dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — need to show the world what it means to respect religious freedom and other fundamental civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech, press and assembly.


How important is the Fortnight for Freedom for making these connections?

I think the fortnight [which runs through July 4] is very important, because American Catholics, like most Americans, are generally not as aware as we need to be of the threats to religious freedom both at home and abroad. The Fortnight for Freedom is, above all, an opportunity for informing ourselves and our fellow citizens.

The Church is helping us to be aware of the suffering of persecuted people abroad, not just Catholics and Christians, but people of all faiths: Buddhists, Bahais, Ahmadiyya and Rohinga Muslims, Yazidis and others. The Church wants us to be aware of what’s happening in those places and be aware of the erosion of religious-freedom rights here in the U.S. We need to know the facts about the appalling contraception and abortion-drug mandates that the current administration is still seeking to insert into the national health-insurance system under the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act.

Similarly, when it comes to the use of anti-discrimination laws to force people to participate in ceremonies and events that violate their religious beliefs, rights and conscience, we need to know what’s going on, so that we can stand up for freedom and the rights of conscience.


How does the marriage debate in the United States impact religious freedom?

Again, I need to speak only in my individual capacity and ask you to be clear about that. We, the commission, have no position on these domestic issues. 

To me, we need to be deeply concerned about the erosion of religious freedom as a result of the redefinition of marriage and the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious believers and others who morally object to same-sex sexual partnerships or their designation as “marriages.” It is happening here, just as it is happening in Canada and in European nations. This is a violation of people’s fundamental rights to act with authenticity and integrity in line with their consciences, where respect for conscience is consistent with justice and the common good.

The very basis of the right to freedom of conscience is in the moral reality that people have a duty to act in line with their consciences as best they can form them. That duty is in turn rooted in the values of authenticity and integrity, especially in matters of faith. Human beings are damaged, they damage themselves morally, when they violate their consciences. And that damage is done whether the act is freely chosen or whether it is performed under the pressure of culture or law.

We can’t do anything to force people to act in line with their consciences; laws can’t reach conscience in that way. But we can ensure that laws don’t impose themselves unjustly on people’s consciences, forcing them to act in ways that are inauthentic. 

And the Fortnight for Freedom is really lifting that up, making us more aware that: (a) the values of integrity, especially in matters of faith, are essential to human flourishing, and (b) people do have a moral obligation to form their consciences properly and then to act in line with their consciences.


Let’s get back to the commission: Where do you see it playing a role in promoting religious freedom and harmony in the Middle East?

Well, we are helping to bring together leaders of different faiths, men and women of goodwill, from the Christian and Muslim communities, and others. Working with religious-freedom advocates from across the globe (and representing many traditions of faith), we are strengthening the witness for religious freedom in the international arena.

We are also advocating on behalf of refugees. Given the displacement and suffering of Middle-Eastern Christians and others, we need to give them a kind of priority. There is an enormous, and growing, number of refugees. We who are blessed with plenty, and who live in freedom, cannot abandon them. I assure you that we’re hard at work on the commission to advocate on behalf of those who have been displaced and are suffering.


Do you see any real signs of hope for religious liberty in the Middle East and its ability to flourish?

The situation has grown worse in my three years on the commission, rather than better. The first thing we’ve got to do is reverse the trajectory. Right now, we’re just trying to stop things from getting worse.

Once again, please remember that I’m speaking for myself and not in my capacity as USCIRF’s chairman when I tell you that there is an important military component to what needs to be done to protect people from persecution. It is critical, absolutely critical, that ISIS, Boko Haram and similar groups be destroyed as fighting forces. As long as they are able to operate in the Middle East and Africa, the freedom of the people will be insecure, and their very lives will be in peril.


How can people in the pews and people of goodwill who are concerned about religious liberty in the Middle East and elsewhere help you and the commission?

First, inform yourselves on these issues. We live in the age of the Internet, so it’s very easy to get the information you need to be well-informed citizens on religious-liberty issues. Go to the website of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: You will find there the information you need to be an informed and active citizen. Then let your political leaders know what you think.

Be an advocate within your community and within your parish. Be the person who takes the initiative. Arrange a forum on religious freedom at your parish or in your community. Find well-informed people who are willing to speak. There are activists all over the country who can do that, informed people who are good speakers.

Look at the Catholic Church’s own teaching on religious freedom. This year, 2015 — you couldn’t find a better date — is the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the great declaration on religious liberty of the Second Vatican Council.

Let’s treat religious freedom as a personal issue, for each and every one of us.