When the Witherspoon Institute’s task force on religious freedom released its monograph, Religious Freedom: Why Now?, earlier this month, the answer to the question in the title seemed obvious. The controversy occasioned by the Obama Administration’s mandate that all health plans pay the cost of contraception was in the front of the news, and the Catholic bishops were taking a united stand insisting that, at the very least, their churches and agencies be exempt from being forced to pay for drugs and procedures whose use the Church teaches to be immoral. The press was beginning to frame the issue as women’s rights versus religious liberty, and while an immediate showdown was apparently averted in part by the distraction caused by a radio commentator’s outburst, the larger question seems likely to be featured in the upcoming presidential campaign. Religious freedom is an issue now, it seems, because the continuing growth of government involvement in daily life makes every matter of how people choose to live into a political question: “The personal is political,” once a radical slogan, has become a daily nuisance, or a burden, or a threat.
But actually, Religious Freedom: Why Now? has been several years in preparation, and its coincidental release in the midst of the contraception mandate debate has the happy effect of putting that debate in global perspective. This is not another parsing of the First Amendment or meditation on its contemporary meaning. Instead, it is an analysis of religious freedom as a human right recognized by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an argument concerning its strategic importance in international affairs. The strategic case for religious liberty rests on two empirical observations: first, that religion is resurgent across the globe today, contradicting the secularization thesis that had been axiomatic among modern social theorists, and second, that religious extremism, terrorism, and warfare launch from places where religious liberty is denied. The way to achieve global peace, the authors conclude, is not to contain or repress religion, even bellicose religion, but to nurture and expand religious freedom, which has the effect of restraining religious excess from within, preserving the good of religion and meliorating the bad. Although the monograph starts from the U.N. Declaration rather than the U.S. Constitution, the authors do not at all forget about America; indeed, the little book is a call to America to remember herself.