Donald Trump’s recent war of words with Pope Francis is just the latest expression of his aggressive approach toward religion. It calls for an examination of the practical dangers of a few of Mr. Trump’s most hostile proposals to date. Although he has added a touch of nuance to his initial statements, Mr. Trump has never repudiated his claim that “we have no choice” but to place restrictions on Muslims simply because they are Muslims.
Government and religious leaders of all stripes have rejected Mr. Trump’s religion-based proposals as assaults on our fundamental freedoms. But the practical reasons for objecting to his proposals may be even more compelling.
Extensive research and 200 years of common American experience tell us that undermining fundamental rights for some religious groups endangers every American’s freedom and security. If implemented, Mr. Trump’s proposals would ultimately become self-inflicted wounds leading to more violence and less safety.
Both parties’ presidential candidates are right to confront the destructive spread of ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq to Paris and San Bernardino. Indeed, polls show national security driving many voters’ concerns. Yet only Mr. Trump is making such extreme and counter-productive statements.
Why counterproductive? Research clearly shows that nations protecting all religions fully and equally have a significantly higher likelihood of being stable, long-lasting democracies with fewer domestic hostilities and a lower incidence of violent conflict. These findings from 2011’s The Price of Freedom Denied have also been shown to be predictive of better socio-economic outcomes for all—minorities and majorities, women and men.
These results should not surprise any savvy observer familiar with the benefits of religious liberty protections in the United States and other countries. The history of modern Japan provides an excellent case study of these dynamics. Before World War II, the government favored Shintoism, the traditional Japanese religion, at the expense of its citizens who followed “foreign” religions. The ruling party’s political rhetoric not only demonized all other religions—it coopted Shintoism into the service of an imperial war machine.
By contrast, since World War II the Japanese people have enjoyed robust protections for religious freedom. Religious diversity has proliferated, but violent religious persecution has been extremely rare. When Japan has experienced religion-motivated terrorism, it has upheld its religious liberty policy while vigorously pursuing all terrorists.
Even after members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious group committed deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, Japan resisted placing restrictions on the entire religion. Rather than creating new domestic enemies and “martyrs,” Japan eliminated the violent and criminal elements within Aum by following the rule of law and ensuring equal protection and freedom to the non-violent.
Turning to the United States, Pew Research Center data illustrates the same dynamics happening here as seen around the globe. By 2010, government restrictions on religion in the United States had for the first time increased from “low” to “moderate.” Not surprisingly, the incidence of social hostilities involving religion in the United States during the same period increased from “low” to “moderate.” Examples range from openly anti-religious opposition to building churches, synagogues, and mosques to shootings and other acts of violence. While Mr. Trump’s war with Pope Francis may have simmered down, his unrepentant anti-Muslim hostility is consistent with this trend.
The data are abundantly clear—security and stability result from religious freedom. Mr. Trump apparently fails to appreciate that protecting the peaceful practice of all religions is a proven strategy for reducing conflict and violence.
When freedom is protected for all religions equally, leaders in government and society are far less likely to choose words and deeds that add to religious animosity and divisions. This prevents the cycles of rising religious tensions and violence playing out in nations across the globe today.
It is a fact of life that any president today must combat threats of terrorism. But the tactic of picking and choosing whose freedoms will be protected based on religion is a dangerous one and almost certain to backfire. As Americans choose the next U.S. president, we must remember that the path to strength—even if inconvenient and uncomfortable—is through protecting our fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.
Indeed, we have no other safe choice.
Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography. Brian W. Walsh is the president and founder of the Civil Rights Research Center.
This piece was originally authored on February 26, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.