Putting Things in Context: Toward a More Robust Understanding of Religious Freedom

Before saying a final farewell, we invited our graduating research assistants to reflect on their time working with the Religious Freedom Project. We asked them to comment on how their experiences with the RFP have affected their success at Georgetown and how an understanding of religious freedom has influenced their perspective on certain issues in fields such as political science, economics, and theology. 

By: Viet Phuong Dao

Who in the West dislikes religious freedom? If I were to conduct a Jimmy Kimmel-style interview in Time Square, on the Champs-Élysées, or under the Brandenburg Gate, I would probably—if not, almost definitely—find that the average citizen in Western democracies thinks that religious freedom is a pretty good idea. Ask those same people what religious freedom actually means, and I bet their answers will be vague and confused, filled with “uh” and “um.” If I wanted to take things a step further, I might ask them if the freedom of religion trumps privacy rights or the freedom of speech. The responses I get—if I get any at all—will probably be punctuated with nervous laughter and uncomfortable side glances. Everyone in the liberal West likes religious freedom, until someone confronts them with the complexities of lived human experience.

Few conversations that I have had the privilege to hear underscore the difficulty of situating and applying the principles of religious liberties in the real world more than the dialogue between Ruth Messinger and Rick Warren, the keynote conversation of a larger event on proselytism and development hosted by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown in March. Ms. Messinger’s argument boiled down to a simple statement: Proselytism by a Western faith-based development organization can have the effect of coercing the conversion of those receiving help, given the inherent unequal power dynamic of the aid-giving process. Put it differently, in certain circumstances, one person’s freedom to practice religion becomes implicitly oppressive of another person’s liberty to do the same. Rights claims associated with conscience and faith do not exist in a vacuum. In the lived human experience, religion—while central to the identity and purpose of billions—very often intersects with power. To engage in a full discourse about religious liberties is to address that very intersection.

Interestingly, a week or so after this event, this very topic came up in my seminar on “Sexuality and Power in the Islamic Tradition.” The discussion of the day, as decided by our professor, was the veil ban in France. Someone in the course of the class had brought up the point that since the ban was on face coverings in general, and not specifically Muslim face coverings, the regulation was neither oppressive nor discriminatory. The problem, if one applies Ruth Messinger’s argument to this situation, comes when power is considered as a factor. The ban is passed by a parliament constituted mostly of Christians in a Christian-majority country. It affects mostly women belonging to a single religious minority. This is the reality of laïcité, the French equivalent of separation of church and state, as applied in the real world.

In the larger context of religious freedom in France, laïcité is problematic not only because, by certain standards, it constitutes a violation of religious liberties in general. It is problematic because it hardly curtails free exercise for the majority group, while imposing onerous restrictions on a particular minority. Given the Christian roots of French culture as well as the fact that Catholics constitute the largest religious community in France, one can easily advocate for public policy inspired by Christian ethics without needing to explicitly evoke the Gospels. The common language of public discourse is already rich with Christian symbolism and ideas. Thus, without ostensibly violating the principles of laïcité, a Christian in France can still, to a large extent, “spread the good news” in the public square. Meanwhile, for a Muslim to do so would, quite simply, be unthinkable.

Without a doubt, religious freedom constitutes a central pillar of an open society. However, Georgetown has taught me that in our complex existence, deeper understanding and more profound discovery happen at the intersection of things. Religious liberty, then, must be conceptualized and advocated for in a robust way that takes into account the involved intersectionality of individual and communal identities, of rights and power, of freedom and justice. An advocate for the freedom of religion that does this would do well to stare down any adversary and triumph.

Viet Phuong Dao graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2015 with a degree in international political economy and a certificate in international business diplomacy.

This piece was originally authored on May 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/12/putting-things-in-context-toward-a-more-robust-understanding-of-religious-freedom