Poland Shows Democracy and Religious Freedom go Hand-in-hand

This is a transcript of Judd Birdsall’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the 2015 Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy.


I would like to offer a few thoughts on the relationship between religious freedom and democracy.

Poland is a great place to discuss both of these issues because Poland provides a model of how religious freedom and democracy go hand in hand, reinforcing each other.

Poland has a long tradition of religious tolerance, going back to the Warsaw Confederation of the 16th century, and perhaps earlier. Thus the Polish tradition of religious tolerance is far than the United States itself. So, I’m humbled to be here as an American discussing these issues today.

And in contemporary Poland there is a very high level of religious freedom. The U.S. State Department, where I used to work, just released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom last week, and you’ll see that the chapter on Poland is very complimentary of the Polish government and society.

On Wednesday many of us went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and I want to thank the conference organizers for including that in the agenda. It was a sobering and instructive experience. I was struck by the many elements of faith throughout the museum, reminders that the church helped to sustain the Polish people through very difficult times. And there’s a video playing of the Pope’s visit to Warsaw in 1979. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Catholics in Poland used their expanding religious freedom to push for democratic reforms.

So, Poland shows that religious freedom and democracy can go hand-in-hand.

But we often still talk about them quite separately. We treat them in isolation.

In the West it seems to me that there are two unhelpful ways of divorcing religious freedom from democracy.

First, there is the danger of championing freedom of religion without linking it to democracy and a broader range of human goods. Some activists treat religious freedom in isolation, and their appeal to combat persecution is often entirely humanitarian or sectarian.

Second, there is a danger of promoting democracy without incorporating attention to religious freedom. Religious freedom is treated like a luxury that is nice to have after democracy has been secured. Or, perhaps religious freedom is viewed with suspicion; there’s the fear that if we give religious people and groups too much freedom they might threaten democracy.

Now I will try to elaborate on each these two dangers and then offer a critique.

So, first, promoting religious freedom in isolation from democracy.

For many years this was a challenge for American international religious freedom policy. The U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom was created by an Act of Congress in 1998. If you read the Act, it frames U.S. promotion of religious freedom as a humanitarian objective largely disconnected from broader strategic goals.

The act grounds U.S. IRF promotion in America’s historical experience, international human rights documents, and the gruesome realities of persecution in the modern world. All important motivators. But it does not detail how promoting religious freedom might advance other U.S. goals, such as democracy, civil society, economic development, or counter-radicalization.

And so the religious freedom office initially had very little impact on America’s broader democracy strategy. Rather than advancing a robust account of how religious freedom can bolster civil society and democratic governance, the IRF Office was essentially the Anti-Persecution Office.

I would argue that many so-called religious freedom organizations are really anti-persecution organizations. They raise awareness of persecution and advocate on behalf of the persecuted and provide aid to the persecuted—all very important activities—but that that is not the same thing as advancing a robust account of religious freedom.

Fortunately, things are changing. There is now a wealth of qualitative and quantitative research linking religious freedom to democracy, development, security, and other goods.

And we’ve seen an evolution in the way the United States and other governments, as well as NGOs and think tanks, are talking about religious freedom. The Obama Administration, for instance, has become increasingly sophisticated in how it talks about religious freedom as not just an American value and universal human right but as an essential ingredient of its overall democracy, development, and security agenda.

And now the Canadians have a religious freedom office and a number of European governments are enhancing their capacity to advance religious freedom abroad.

And yet, in some of the calls to, for instance, save Middle Eastern Christians—an urgent cause indeed—we are seeing a return to some of the unhelpful ways of treating religious freedom issues in isolation from other issues.

The second temptation—promoting democracy without incorporating attention to religion and religious freedom. There is a widely-held view in the West that suggests religious freedom is something separate from democracy. At best religious freedom is add-on to our democracy agenda, if there is extra time and money for it. At worst religious freedom is treated as a threat to democracy.

To be sure, there are too many religious individuals and groups that abuse their freedoms. Even in the United States the phrase “religious freedom” is becoming tarnished by some who are perceived to exercise their religious rights to the detriment of others.

But on the whole, we see that religious freedom is an indispensable foundation for liberal democracy. As Georgetown University’s Tom Farr and others have argued, full religious freedom requires freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and a range of other freedoms that are essential for the emergence and consolidation of democracy. Religious freedom limits state power because it allows citizens to acknowledge a power above the state, to provide social services that would otherwise be provided by the state. In other words, religious freedom delimits the state from above and below.

It’s no surprise that the Catholic Church’s embrace of religious freedom for all people at Vatican II proved to be a major impetus for the third wave of democratization. And Poland was key part of that third wave.

So, in conclusion, we have to guard against these twin temptations—to promote religious freedom in isolation from democracy and to promote democracy in isolation from religious freedom. We know from the historical experience of places like Poland and from a growing body of global empirical data that the two go hand-in-hand.


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