At this time of tremendous national polarization, it might seem counterintuitive to turn to religious freedom for guidance on how to overcome the deep cleavages in American society. The introduction of religion might provoke thoughts of disagreement, conflict, and division, or seem like the last place we should look for solutions. Yet protections for religious belief offer a crucial lesson for strengthening American democracy and addressing growing societal rifts.
In diverse societies with strongly held, divergent views, it is the protection – not elimination – of each individual’s beliefs that ensures stability. Make no mistake: Religious pluralism poses challenges to societies. Diversity of thought is a given. The possibility of conflict is assumed. A desire to convert or convince “the other” is omnipresent.
But when religious freedom is upheld, the risk of conflict recedes. Free from fear of persecution, believers and nonbelievers can live out their values, and navigate differences without seeking to silence each other or even to overcome their differences.
In this way, guarantees of religious freedom are necessary for peace, understanding, and equality in a multi-confessional country and world. Religious freedom stands alongside freedom of speech and freedom of the press as part of the fundamental democratic framework that empowers and protects vibrant, pluralistic societies.
Striving to uphold religious freedom in the United States – despite falling notably short at times – has given way to a dynamic yet peaceful religious landscape, and a society where interfaith forums and ceremonies are woven into the fabric of civic life. If peaceful coexistence among devout communities of faith, as well as those of no faith, is possible, most certainly there is hope for communities divided by political or other beliefs if this diversity is also protected.
Of course, globally and in the United States, individuals and communities of faith and no faith disagree profoundly with each other on central doctrines, practices, and beliefs. For many, individual identities are predicated on an adherence to that which they hold to be true. Those beliefs often define not only one’s identity and belief systems but also the nature of their existence in the afterlife. These are profound, unresolvable disagreements.
But, as in multi-confessional societies in the United States and the world, multiple religions in a community do not inherently lead to conflict. Instead, limiting religious belief has led to conflict. Studies show that where groups practice their faith freely and without state or societal persecution, they are less likely to turn to violence, and more likely to be vested in and contributive to a society.
The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) and Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF) found in 2015 that countries with “greater religious freedoms are generally more peaceful, whereas countries with less religious freedom are generally less peaceful.” More recently, a November 2020 report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) found “religious restrictions can fuel conflict” and that religious discrimination can lead groups to choose violence as a means of overcoming their marginalization.
But where religious freedom is upheld, the rate of conflict is diminished and civic life is enriched. This is where American democracy can extrapolate the lessons of religious freedom to our divisive political debate. Allowing the free expression of different views and protecting the right to free expression offers a path to greater stability. By providing those with deeply held views the assurance that their views will be protected, we reduce insecurity and create common ground.
Democracy provides an invaluable framework for how to live with diverse views and navigate our differences. It requires, however, that we believe that the protection of individual beliefs, not the elimination of difference or dominance of one view, allows for that peaceable existence.
Many Americans seem to be wrestling with how to navigate these times of conflict, so let us remember the important lesson that religious freedom provides. Assurances that religious views will be protected equally reduce the likelihood of conflict and help create common ground.