Leland Award Lecture by Robert P. George

By Robert P. George
Dec 13, 2013

On Friday, December 13, 2013, Robert P. George was honored as the recipient of the 2013 John Leland Religious Liberty Award. The following is a transcript of the Leland Award Lecture on Religious Liberty by Dr. George. 

On the tombstone of John Leland, the following words are inscribed: “Here lies the body of John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”

Now, it would be naïve to suppose that tombstones never lie. But on this occasion a tombstone speaks the truth, for the man whose grave it marks truly did labor to promote Christian piety and, not unrelatedly, to protect the civil and religious rights of all men—the rights of Jews and Muslims, no less than the rights of Christians, and even the rights of unbelievers.

And John Leland’s concern for what we would today call human rights included the right of freedom generally. Leland was a fierce critic of slavery. Today, we may flatter ourselves with the conceit that we would loudly have opposed slavery had we lived prior to its abolition. But the truth, of course, is that very few of us would have done any such thing. But John Leland did it. He was an abolitionist when abolitionism wasn’t cool.

And so I can only say that I am immeasurably grateful to Dr. Moore and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for honoring my own efforts in the cause of religious freedom and other human rights with an award named for so great a hero—so great a Christian hero; so great an American hero.

Leland did more than raise his voice in support of the principles in which he believed. He was a citizen-activist. And so, for example, he played an instrumental role in guaranteeing that religious freedom would be enshrined in our Constitution through its inclusion in the First Amendment. His way of achieving that goal was wonderfully audacious: The good pastor informed his friend James Madison that he was prepared to run against him for public office unless Madison included a religious freedom provision in an amendment to the Constitution.

Although I’m not sure I would commend this particular approach to every pastor in dealing with our elected officials today, I would certainly endorse John Leland’s godly boldness as something every one of us can emulate as we petition those in power on a host of critical issues of justice and the common, including the great and foundational right of freedom of religion or belief.

That, of course, is exactly what the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has been doing since it was created. Richard Land and Russell Moore are men who walk in the footsteps of John Leland. As a Catholic, I can say they are my kind of Baptists! For a quarter century, first under Richard and now under Russell, the ERLC has been a force for justice and a voice speaking truth to power. As a co-laborer in defending the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and religious freedom and the rights of conscience, I am enormously proud of your dedication to causes that are central to human dignity and human flourishing.

These are vital and urgent causes here at home, to be sure, but they are no less vital and urgent abroad. And so this afternoon I want to focus my remarks on what we as a nation can and should be doing in the domain of international affairs to uphold what we rightly refer to as “the first freedom,” that is, the great human right of religious liberty. I do not on this occasion speak on behalf of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, but my remarks will certainly reflect my experience in working on the Commission.

First, I want to ask and answer as fully as I can in the few minutes we have together the question of why religious freedom matters. If we’re going to be the most effective advocates we can be for this crucial liberty, we must equip ourselves to give people the strongest possible arguments in favor of religious freedom so we can persuade them to join our cause.

Second, I want to focus on the sadly dire situation for religious liberty in so many places across the globe today.

Then, finally, I would like to emphasize how our nation can and must do a better job in its international diplomacy and foreign policy of defending religious freedom.

So why does religious freedom matter? Why should promoting and defending it abroad, no less than honoring it at home, be a high priority for our country?

Simply stated, religious freedom entails the right to be who we truly are as human beings. The fact is that as human beings, we are drawn to ponder life’s deepest questions and seek meaningful, truthful answers. Where do we come from? What is our destiny? Is there a transcendent source of meaning and value? Is there a “higher law” that pulls us above personal interest in order to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us?”

No matter how these questions are answered, one thing is indisputable: Human beings can’t stop asking them, and would be diminished precisely as human beings if they were to try to do so. And that suggests that the religious quest is a constitutive part of our humanity—an aspect of our flourishing as the kind of creatures we are, namely, rational, intelligent, and free actors.

And this, in turn, suggests that we must cherish and honor, preserve and protect, the right of persons to ask and answer these questions as best they can, and, within the broadest limits, to lead their lives with authenticity and integrity in line with their best judgments of conscience.

And so, both as individuals and together with others in community, religious freedom means the right to ponder life’s origins, meaning and purpose; to explore the deepest questions about human nature, dignity, and destiny; to decide what is to be believed and not to be believed; and, within the limits of justice for all, to comply with what one conscientiously judges to be one’s religious obligations—openly, peacefully, and without fear.

John Henry Newman once observed that “conscience has rights because it has duties.” We honor the rights of conscience in matters of faith because people must be free to lead lives of authenticity and integrity by fulfilling what they believe to be their solemn duties.

But authenticity and integrity are directly threatened whenever there is coercion or compulsion in matters of faith or belief. Indeed, coercion does not produce genuine conviction, but pretense and lack of authenticity Clearly, a coerced faith is no faith at all. Compulsion may cause a person to manifest the outward signs of belief or unbelief, but it cannot produce the interior acts of intellect and will that constitute genuine faith.

Therefore, it is essential that freedom of religion or belief include the right to hold any belief or none at all, to change one’s beliefs and religious affiliation, to bear witness to these beliefs in public as well as private, and corporately as well as individually, and to act on one’s religiously inspired convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship. And it is vital that religious liberty’s full protections be extended to those whose answers to life’s deepest questions reject belief in the transcendent.

Because the right to freedom of religion or belief is so central to human personhood, we would expect that in places where it is dishonored, societies would be less happy and secure. And according to a growing number of studies, that is precisely the case across the world.

These studies show that countries that protect religious liberty are more secure and stable than those that do not, and nations that trample on this freedom provide fertile ground for war and poverty, terror and radical movements.

In other words, not only do religious freedom abuses violate the core of our humanity, they do grave harm to the well-being of societies.

They do so politically – as religious freedom abuses are highly correlated with the absence of democracy and the presence of other human rights abuses.

They do so economically – as religious persecution destabilizes communities and marginalizes the persecuted, causing their talents and abilities to go unrealized, robbing a nation of added productivity, and reducing that nation’s ability to fight poverty and create abundance for its citizens.

They do so morally – since wherever religious freedom is dishonored, the benefit of religion in molding character is diminished, and with it, the self-discipline necessary to handle the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

And finally, they do so socially – since wherever religious freedom is abused, peace and security become ever more elusive.

For the United States, all of this has a direct bearing on our own security.

For example, of the four countries that hosted Osama bin Laden during his notorious life—– Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Pakistan—each is an incubator of terrorism in the form of violent religious extremism, and all have perpetrated or tolerated repeated religious freedom violations.

And as we all know, the 9/11 attacks on our country were plotted in Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban which originated in Pakistan, with 15 of the 19 attackers coming from Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, religious freedom matters greatly. And sadly, according to a recent Pew study, 75 percent of the world’s people—more than 5 billion human beings—live in countries with governments that significantly restrict this fundamental right.

For example, in Burma, sectarian violence and severe abuses against ethnic minority Christians and Rohingya Muslims continue with impunity.

In China, conditions continue to deteriorate for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims. To stem the growth of independent Catholic and Protestant groups, the government arrested leaders and shut churches down. Members of Falun Gong, as well as those of other groups deemed “evil cults,” face long jail terms, forced renunciations of faith, and torture in detention.

In Egypt, the government has failed to protect religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, from violence, while prosecuting and jailing people for “defamation” of religion.

In Iran, the government detains, tortures, and even kills members of religious minority groups, including Bahai’s and Christians, whose beliefs are viewed as a threat to the theocratic state and its draconian interpretation of Shi’a Islam, as well as targeting Shi’a reformers. Pastor Saeed Abedini remains in prison, in deteriorating health; and Iran continues using terrorism to export its extremism.

In Nigeria, protection of religious freedom continues to falter, as the terrorist group Boko Haram attacks Christians, as well as fellow Muslims who do not share their radical and violent interpretation of Islam. Nigeria’s government has failed to prosecute perpetrators of religiously-related violence that has killed more than 14,000 Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim, fostering a climate of impunity.

Saudi Arabia continues its absolute ban on all public religious expression besides its own extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam.

In Pakistan, religious freedom abuses have risen dramatically due to chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi’a Muslims and Christians.

The government’s continued failure to protect Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus, along with its repressive blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi laws, have fueled religious freedom abuses and vigilante violence.

In Russia, the government uses extremism laws against certain Muslim groups and so-called “non-traditional” religious communities, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, through raids, detentions, and imprisonment. In addition, massive violations of religious freedom and other human rights continue in Chechnya. Similar repression occurs across Central Asia as well.

And religious freedom violations are even occurring in Western Europe. France and Belgium bar students in state schools and government workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as the Muslim headscarf, the Sikh turban, large crosses, and the Jewish yarmulke. France also forbids people from wearing any headgear in official identity document photos. Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland have banned kosher and halal slaughter. In 2011, the Dutch parliament’s lower house also passed such a ban, but an outcry from Muslim and Jewish groups forced the government to forge a compromise allowing religious animal slaughter to continue.

After a similar outcry in Germany last year against a lower-court ruling criminalizing religious circumcision of male infants, the German parliament is considering a law permitting this practice.

In Germany and Sweden, government authorities have told Christian and Jewish parents that they cannot homeschool their children for religious reasons. And United Kingdom officials are forcing Catholic adoption agencies to shut down because they follow the moral criteria of their faith—criteria that are by no means idiosyncratically Catholic—in placing orphaned children in homes that provide a mother and father and not in same-sex headed households.

All of these abuses violate not just American religious freedom standards, but international standards and covenants as well, beginning with Article 18 of the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads as follows:

 

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

 

As an independent, bipartisan, federal advisory body, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is firmly committed to these standards.

As a key part of its mandate, USCIRF monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and to Congress.

Based on our monitoring of religious freedom conditions, we have seen a number of discernible patterns to religious persecution.

First, we have seen the following categories of religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by governments:

• state hostility;

• state sponsorship;

• state enforcement;

• and state failure.

The second pattern we have seen is that in each of these categories, Christians are among the persecuted.

And a third pattern we’ve noted is the persistence of anti-Semitism worldwide, including in the nations of Western Europe, where it again appears to be on the rise.

As to the categories of religious freedom abuses I just mentioned, state hostility involves the government actively persecuting people or groups on account of their beliefs.

State sponsorship refers to the government actively promoting—and sometimes even exporting—ideas and propaganda, often of a violent, extremist nature, that include hostility to the religious freedom of others.

State enforcement refers to the government actively applying laws and statutes such as anti-blasphemy codes to individuals, often members of religious minorities, thus violating freedom of expression as well as freedom of religion or belief.

And state failure means the government is neglecting to take action to protect those whom others are targeting due to their beliefs, creating a climate of impunity in which religious minorities or dissenters are threatened, intimidated, or even attacked and killed.

When it comes to state hostility toward religions, one of the worst persecutors is, as we’ve seen, Iran’s theocratic regime.

Regarding state sponsorship of radical ideology which targets the religious freedom of others, Saudi Arabia continues to export its own extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam through textbooks and other literature which teach hatred and even violence toward other religious groups.

Regarding state enforcement of laws and statutes that repress freedom of expression and religion, Egypt and Pakistan enforce anti-blasphemy or anti-defamation codes, with religious minorities bearing the brunt of the enforcement.

Regarding state failure to protect religious freedom, Egypt and Pakistan do not protect their citizens against religion-related violence. Ironically, both nations’ enforcement of blasphemy codes fuels some of the worst violence by encouraging vigilantes to target perceived transgressors. In Pakistan, both Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim who was Governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs and a valiant religious freedom advocate, were murdered in 2011 for opposing its blasphemy law.

In every country that I’ve mentioned today, one key fact stands out dramatically: Christians are among the persecuted. The sheer size and scope of this persecution is astonishing, as is the deep gravity of the situation faced in country after country for followers of Christ.

Each year at this time, American Christians look joyfully ahead to celebrating the birth of the Savior. Yet in many other places their fellow believers approach the season with a mixture of fear and dread. And the reason is sadly obvious. In many nations in which Christians are in the minority, Christmastime is a favorite time for violence against them.

Last year, five died in an attack in Nigeria on Christmas Day. A year before that, also on Christmas Day, bombs exploded in or around churches in five municipalities in Nigeria, with 40 people perishing in Madalla alone. The prior year, on Christmas Eve of 2010, also in Nigeria, a number of churches were attacked in Maiduguri, killing 6 and wounding 25.

That same year, on Coptic Christmas Eve, gunmen murdered seven Coptic churchgoers leaving a midnight mass in Naga Hammadi, Egypt.

And on the day before Christmas Eve, in 2009, bombs exploded in Iraq next to the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thomas and Chaldean Church of St. George in Mosul, leaving several people dead.

Ironically, it is in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, that both persecution and the flight of the persecuted cloud the future of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Unless circumstances change, many are asking whether a graveyard will one day replace the cradle.

In Egypt, violence against Coptic Christians, the region’s largest non-Muslim religious minority numbering 8 million, has reached alarming proportions. While Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by incendiary rhetoric leading to more violence both before and after his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a merciless military crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, several Copts have been murdered and Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.

In Iraq, violence against Christians has surged since Saddam Hussein’s fall. In the ensuing decade, extremists have raped, tortured, and murdered Christians or driven them from their homes. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has failed to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to approximately one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.

Many Iraqi Christians sought refuge in Syria, where fellow Christians and Muslims once had co-existed peacefully. President Bashar Assad, however, treated his people as members of sectarian groups that competed for his favor, not as individual Syrians with equal rights under the law. Once people demonstrated for their rights, Assad’s regime fired on them, while turning sectarian groups against each other. For Christians, the resulting civil war has been nothing less than catastrophic.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is mainly the government that severely represses Christians and other religious minorities. As we have seen, Saudi Arabia bans churches and any public religious expression that conflicts with its own interpretation of Sunni Islam. Iran subjects Christians and other religious minorities to harassment, arrests, intense surveillance, imprisonment, and even death. Pastor Abedini, whom I mentioned a few minutes ago, is an American citizen born in Iran who languished in prison for the “crime” of daring to participate in Iran’s underground house church movement.

Even a casual glance at the facts on the ground reveals that the forces of religious extremism are behind much of the persecution Christians and others endure today. These forces seek to defeat pro-freedom movements, dominate and radicalize the Muslim world, and curb or eliminate non-Muslim influence. Since Christians remain the region’s largest non-Muslim community, they are prime targets. The most violent among these extremists offer Christians and other religious minorities—such as Mandaeans and Yazidis in Iraq—three options: convert to their radicalized view of Islam, risk being killed or maimed, or leave their country.

In looking at the plight of Christians, especially those in the Middle East, those who know Jewish history see something hauntingly familiar. The three options I just mentioned as being offered to Middle East Christians are exactly what Czarist Russia in the 1880s offered Russian Jews. A leader in the Russian Orthodox Church at the time expressed the grisly hope that, and I quote, “one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country.”

In the end, one-third did leave, while the two-thirds that remained rarely knew a moment of safety and peace, as they and their children were subjected to horrifying pogroms. Only a few decades later, many of their descendants perished in the Holocaust.

And as for the Middle East itself, Iraq’s Jewish community provides a somber example of what the future may hold. Like Iraq's Christians, the Jews were there for more than 20 centuries. As of 1947, the country's Jewish population exceeded 50,000. Today only a handful of Jews remain.

People professed shock when it was revealed that in 2010, Mohammed Morsi, who was later elected Egypt’s president, depicted the Jewish people as “descendants of apes and pigs,” whom Egyptian children and grandchildren must be taught to hate “down to the last generation.”

Yet his comments were no worse than those of Iranian leaders, who have denied the Holocaust and permitted state-run media to broadcast anti-Semitic messages and hateful cartoons. Nor are they worse than the lies and defamations against Jews and Judaism that one finds in the media elsewhere in the region, including in Egypt itself.

Outside of the Middle East, in post-Soviet Russia, skinhead groups commit acts of anti-Semitism in the name of Russian nationalism. In Belarus, the anti-Jewish utterances of President Lukashenko and the state media are coupled by a failure to identify or punish the vandals of Jewish cemeteries and other property.

Even in Western Europe, anti-Semitism has been making a comeback. Since 2000, anti-Jewish graffiti increasingly have appeared in Paris and Berlin, Madrid and Amsterdam, London and Rome, and synagogues have been vandalized or set ablaze in France and Sweden.

In Malmo, Sweden, physical attacks have fueled a Jewish exodus. In France, according to a recent report by the security unit of its Jewish community, “unprecedented violence” took place last year. There were 614 anti-Semitic incidents in 2012, compared to 389 in 2011. Earlier this February, a woman was arrested in Toulouse after trying to stab a student at a Jewish day school where four Jews were shot and killed in March of last year.

Who are the perpetrators of these hateful acts in Europe?

Some are neo-Nazis. Others claim to act in the name of Islam.

Compounding the problem are four factors.

First, European officials remain reluctant to identify the ideological or religious motivations of perpetrators.

Second, surveys show that anti-Semitic attitudes among Europe’s population are shockingly widespread.

Third, these surveys confirm that some of this bias manifests itself in harsh and unbalanced criticisms of the state of Israel. While no nation is beyond reproach, when such criticism includes language intended to delegitimize Israel, demonize its people, and apply to it standards to which no other state is held, we must call it what it is—anti-Semitism.

And finally, as I’ve previously noted, a number of European governments and political parties have added fuel to the fire by backing restrictions on vital religious expression such as the donning of religious garb in public or the performance of kosher slaughter and circumcision. And as I’ve noted, they have proposed or enacted similar kinds of restrictions on practitioners of other religions, including Christianity and Islam.

What drives these governments and parties is an attempt to grant secularist ideology dominance in the public square by prohibiting or placing serious restrictions on religious expression or practice. It is an extremist view of state-church separation which seeks to relegate religion to the purely private domain of the home, church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, and establish secularism as the state religion, or pseudo-religion. And let me add that this is no different in principle from attempts by theocratic forces to grant monopoly power in the public square to one particular belief over others, including ideologies—such as communism—that reject any and all religious beliefs.

Both are a violation of the religious-freedom ideal of a free and open marketplace of ideas and beliefs thriving in the public square.

There is one more point I’d like to make about the persistence of anti-Semitism. It’s one that my dear friend, Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks has made. One of the ways in which hatred of Jews has endured is by expressing and justifying itself in terms of the dominant discourses of time and place. Thus in the medieval period in the West, the so-called “Age of Faith,” anti-Semitism (or anti-Judaism) was expressed in theological terms, with the Jews portrayed as having been rejected by God and being completely replaced by the church, in contradiction to the plain words of St. Paul in the New Testament. In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, when nationalism was in vogue, anti-Semitism was expressed in nationalistic terms, with Jews presented as universal, cosmopolitan enemies of the nations in which they lived. Today, when the dominant mode of discourse is the language of human rights, anti-Semitism is expressed by accusing Jews of violating human rights in the name of national aspirations embodied in Zionism, or by the practice of male infant circumcision.

Thus far, I’ve shared with you reflections on why religious freedom matters and what the landscape for religious freedom looks like across the world. I’ve discussed the main kinds of violations of religious freedom that USCIRF has been concerned with. And I’ve discussed the nearly universal persecution of Christians and the stubborn persistence and resiliency of anti-Semitism.

All of this leads to the question: What is being done about religious freedom abuses worldwide?

Here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

In 1998, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, which created our Commission—and with it, a religious freedom office in the State Department headed by a religious freedom ambassador-at-large—it charged us not only with monitoring the status of religious freedom overseas, but with making concrete policy recommendations—to Congress, to the Secretary of State, and to the President.

Most of our recommendations focus on how Washington can prod or encourage countries to improve their religious freedom records. But in addition to charging us with making these recommendations, Congress also gave the IRFA law some real teeth through a groundbreaking enforcement mechanism. It required annual review and designation of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” religious freedom violations. These nations are by definition the world’s worst religious freedom abusers.

Measuring each nation against this objective standard, USCIRF’s job in the process is to recommend, based on its review, which countries the State Department should designate as CPCs. Once the State Department agrees on a designation, the IRFA law allows for the possibility of sanctions to be imposed on such nations. While the law provides any administration, including the current one, with flexibility in how it will pressure these countries, the review and designation process is not discretionary. Simply stated, the IRFA law requires every administration, without fail, to engage fully in the job of designating countries. Whatever one’s view of appropriate penalties for violators, there can be little disagreement on the imperative of bearing witness to abuses. And that is what the designation process is—at minimum—supposed to do.

Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders. The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once during its first term, in August 2011—more than three years ago.

The result is that some of the world’s worst violators—such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Vietnam—are escaping the accountability that the IRFA law is meant to provide. This is not acceptable. It is the President’s solemn duty to see to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. And the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act are among the laws of the United States. Fulfilling these requirements is not optional.

And there is more: Even those countries which currently are designated as CPCs are escaping accountability on the sanctions end. Under the law, while CPC countries remain designated until removed from that status, any corresponding penalties on these nations expire after two years. This past September, when the administration failed to take action, IRFA related sanctions attached to Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan expired. And while these countries are subject to sanctions under other U.S. laws, allowing the religious freedom sanctions to expire sends the disturbing message that the United States will not implement its own law on religious freedom.

And let me reiterate that partly as a result of being religious freedom violators, some of these same countries are notoriously unstable places and incubators of terrorist ideology, so clearly, we have a national security interest in holding their feet to the fire on this pivotal liberty.

To be fair, the Obama administration through the State Department has taken a number of positive steps which underscore the importance of religion to foreign policy, including the establishment of a new working group, a new faith-based office, and a new strategy. But the problem is that all three of these initiatives are about religious engagement alone. None of them address the question of how to stop gross religious freedom offenders from persecuting people. By letting the process of designating offenders atrophy, the United States surrenders its leverage against offending governments.

We at USCIRF take our role and obligations under the International Religious Freedom Act seriously. Those of us who are commissioners, irrespective of party affiliation, and our extraordinarily able and dedicated staff, review the religious freedom records of countries diligently and with great care before making our recommendations. It is time for the executive branch to take its own IRFA obligations and responsibilities seriously by making designations and doing so in a timely manner.

Once it does, I truly believe it can make a difference. When combined with diplomacy and other tools, the prospect or reality of being designated a CPC and being sanctioned can move repressive governments to make changes. In the past, we have seen that happen with countries like Vietnam and Turkmenistan. Because a CPC designation is rightly perceived as a statement by the United States about its relationship to an offending nation, it can create political will for reform where none would otherwise exist. And it can strengthen the hand of reformers, thus providing what London School of Economics graduate student Rachel George calls an “anchor” for the promotion of human rights.

And so, let me conclude by saying that for those of us who care about religious freedom, we have a job to do.

First and foremost, each of us as citizens needs to make the case to our fellow Americans on behalf of supporting religious freedom abroad. We need to explain why this matters for our country and for our world.

We must tell others the story about what is happening to victims of religious persecution around the world. We must not let them be forgotten or let their plight be ignored.

And then, as we increase our numbers on the ground, we can move Washington to do the right thing by supporting religious freedom. We must make it clear to those in public office that we expect them to honor religious freedom both at home and abroad, and that we intend to hold them electorally accountable if they fail to do that. We must insist that religious freedom be given the priority it is due under the International Religious Freedom Act in the conduct of our international diplomacy and foreign policy. Trade considerations are important; geopolitical strategic considerations are important; but religious freedom is important, too. It is not a second-class concern—at least not since IRFA became the law of the land.

I have not spoken much today about domestic religious freedom issues. I do not want to close, however, without saying this: The first and most important way in which the President of the United States can promote religious freedom abroad is by honoring religious freedom here at home. Again, speaking for myself, and not on this occasion as Chairman of USCIRF, I call on President Obama to withdraw the HHS mandates that threaten religious freedom in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act—and to do so before being compelled to withdraw those mandates by the Supreme Court in the lawsuits now pending. Indeed, the administration should—across the board, at home and abroad—embrace a robust view of religious liberty, one going beyond the mere “freedom of worship’—one that respects the right of religious believers and religious institutions to honor the requirements of their consciences without governmental interference, except in those circumstances—mercifully rare in our own country—where restrictions on religious freedom are necessary to protect the religious freedom of others or to prevent violence or other intolerable harms.

In thinking about the challenges and opportunities before us today in advancing the cause of religious freedom and the rights of conscience, I thank God for the work and witness of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and for the other organizations—some affiliated with particular faiths, others non-sectarian—that are standing shoulder to shoulder with the ERLC in the front lines of the battle: I commend the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown, the Manhattan Declaration, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, and all who have dedicated themselves to this great cause.

Over two hundred years ago, one citizen made a historic difference for religious liberty in our country. Let us follow in the footsteps of John Leland and stand tall for religious liberty—truly America’s first freedom, and the birthright of every member of the human family.

Thank you, and God bless you.

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