Event Summary: ‘Threats to Religious Liberty: Theocratic and Secular’


by Martin Wickens

On the 29th of March, the Henry Jackson Society hosted Professor Robert George, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who talked about his work to promote religious freedoms, and the threats that religious liberty currently faces.

Professor George summarised his approach to tackling threats to religious liberty with a quote by Sun Tzu: “Know thy self, know thy enemy”. He argues that understanding the threats to religious liberty makes it easier to defend, but that defining religious liberty requires careful thought. It is not merely the “right to worship”, which is an important tenant, but it extends much further. It is the right of people to enter the ‘public square’, to think as they wish, and to believe or not to believe.

He went on to emphasise that religious liberty is all-encompassing, and that it is not the province of any one religion. The right to religious freedom is held equally by all, and therefore the Commission on International Religious Freedom advocates on behalf of every religious belief, including non-believers. He also emphasised the internationalism of the organisation, and that it is not simply an imposition of Western values. He pointed to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted throughout the world, as evidence that it is an international issue.

Professor George stressed that religious freedom could only be achieved with the collaboration of governments and faiths. He stated that he doesn’t believe in the inevitability of history, and that the challenge is global and must require inter-governmental and inter-faith collaboration. Finally, he expressed his hope that more voices will lend themselves to this cause.

In response to a question from the audience, he argued that it would be possible to have an Atheist President of the United States. Many Americans see their freedom as being handed down from God, and could not imagine an Atheist upholding these rights. However, due to demographic change, there is an opportunity for an Atheist President to appeal to non-believing voters. On the debate regarding Jewish university students, he argued that Israel was being held to an unrealistically high standard.

Addressing the ethics of applying force to promote religious freedom, he said that typically religious leaders say “there is another way”. However, Pope Francis has implied that force may be required to defeat ISIS, and Professor George agreed. Finally, he addressed the right of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children, which he considers to be an important part of religious liberty. He said that Europe should be influenced by the approach the United States has taken in ensuring that parents can raise their children as they wish.


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