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Response from Charles M. Kester

Discussion Question: How Involved Should The United States Be In Issues Of International Religious Freedom?

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations. It is currently under review for re-authorization. How important is it to continue to support this body? Is the U.S. overstepping its authority by monitoring the state of religious freedom outside its borders? Should we be concentrating our resources and efforts here at home?

In one sense, the answer to this question is easy: The United States should very involved in issues of international freedom. Exactly how the U.S. should be involved is rather more complicated, but I would propose that a least common denominator as to the “how,” would be that the U.S. should avoid arrogance or belligerence in its approach to these important issues.

The U.S. has, from its inception, been a nation founded upon the principles of religious freedom. According to popular history, the “Pilgrims,” who are generally described as Puritans, objected to enforced conformity with the Church of England, and chose a perilous exile over a compromising of conscience. At about this same time, the Dutch, with their differing (often Calvinistic) religious views were populating New Amsterdam, which became New York. Within a couple of decades of the famed Plymouth Rock landing, George Calvert established the Roman Catholic colony of Maryland, named after the Catholic wife of King James I of England, who was the same King that prompted the exodus of the Pilgrims. Through the years, there have been countless migrations, immigrations, and emigrations to this country for reasons of religious freedom and tolerance, and this spirit is, at least arguably, embedded as part of our collective national DNA.

Indeed, the United States has almost certainly been among world leaders in the establishment of new denominations and faiths. Perhaps the first was the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. Religious diversification has continued unabated: Joseph Smith, who founded the LDS Church, was American. So was L. Ron Hubbard. So were the founders of countless Baptist, Non-Denominational, Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian derivations, and other more esoteric faiths. An interesting book by Frank S. Mead and Samuel Hill, titled Handbook of Denominations in the United States, has gone through at least eight editions, and spends more than 300 pages listing variants of American religious belief and practice, and is by no means exhaustive.

Although the United States may be one of the hotbeds of post-enlightenment religious diversity, that is not to say that our practice has always lived up to the lofty goals that our founding fathers laid out. There have been riots, political campaigns and other forms of antagonism, hostility and oppression by U.S. citizens against U.S. citizens who do not share the beliefs of their oppressors. Could we do a better job of protecting religious freedom at home, as the framers of our Constitution intended? The answer is surely “yes.” But, just because we are not perfect does not mean that we cannot (or should not) make the effort to improve our own behavior and that of any others whom we may be able to influence. USCIRF is one method by which this influence may be exerted.

A second reason to involve ourselves in issues of international religious freedom is that our history is reflected in our current demographics. The most recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that “constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents.” The survey “confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations.” This trend appears likely to continue, if not accelerate, in the future.

There remains the question of how America’s involvement in issues of international religious freedom should occur. USCIRF is one method. USCIRF may be effective, or it may not be. But the overriding consideration in dealing with issues of religious freedom beyond our borders should be to lead by example rather than by force. Joseph Nye once referred to this type of activity (in a different forum) as “soft power.” I think God likes “soft power.” It allows God to provide. When we attempt to arrogate that power to ourselves, we are left with the hard blade of the sword, which is not only ineffective but counterproductive.

Photo of Charles M. Kester

Author: Charles M. Kester

Managing Member, Kester Law Firm

Charles M. Kester is the managing member of the Kester Law Firm, with an active litigation practice in the areas of civil rights, labor and employment law, including religious discrimination and accommodation. He regularly appears before a wide range of state and federal agencies, as well as state and federal trial and appellate courts. Mr. Kester has published in legal journals and has lectured extensively on employment law issues in public and private employment. He is a member of numerous professional organizations and Bar Associations, including the National Employment Lawyers Association, and has served as an officer and Chair of the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Arkansas Bar Association. Mr. Kester served as lead trial and appellate counsel in Sturgill v. UPS, which was featured in the November/December 2006 and January/February 2009 editions of Liberty.

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