​The Hope of Peaceful Coexistence

There is strong empirical evidence in favor of a close connection between religious freedom and peace. That is amply demonstrated in an important book by Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century,1 and supplemented by subsequent research by the Pew Research Center.2

Based on a rigorous worldwide study of government laws and policies, as well as social attitudes and practices toward religious belief and practice, Grim and Finke conclude as follows: “Violent religious persecution and conflict rise as government and social restrictions on religion increase.”3 The reverse is also true: “We have demonstrated the pacifying consequences of religious freedoms. We have found that when social and government restrictions on religion are reduced, violent religious persecution is reduced.”4 They also discovered a close statistical correlation between religious freedom and other freedoms and social well-being: “Wherever the level of religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, and better educational opportunities for women.”5

“Religious freedom” is defined for them by the standards inscribed in such international human rights instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Those standards guarantee rights to the freedom to express and exercise fundamental religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices, to freedom from discrimination imposed because of the beliefs either of the victim or of the perpetrator of the discrimination, to special protection for minorities endangered because of their beliefs and practices, to protection against hate speech that incites to violence and discrimination, and to ensuring the opportunity of parents or guardians to the religious education of their children or wards.6

One set of examples of “religious persecution,” as Grim and Finke use the expression, would be government restrictions that violate human rights standards, such as laws and policies that outlaw blasphemy and apostasy or proselytizing and conversion, or that discriminate against unconventional or nontraditional religions by imposing unfair burdens or limiting access to public benefits, or that prohibit certain forms of religious attire, worship, or instruction. A second set of examples would be social restrictions that violate human rights standards, such as unofficial, popularly inspired acts of violence or discrimination against selected religious groups, including acts of terrorism and other forms of injurious harassment.

One striking example of a widespread social restriction is what Grim and Finke call the “religious intolerance gap.” That is the large statistical discrepancy between people who favor freedom for their own religion and people who favor freedom for all religions. In nine out of 10 countries studied, including the United States, “large majorities consider it ‘very important’ to live in a country that protects ‘my’ religious freedom. . . . When it came to the freedoms of others, however, support consistently fell.”7

For Grim and Finke, their most distressing finding is the pervasiveness of violent religious persecution around the world. “Of the 143 countries with populations of 2 million or more, . . . 86 percent (123 countries) have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of a lack of religious freedom. . . . [Moreover,] persecution is evident in every region of the globe. As expected, the highest rates and most severe levels of persecution are found in the Middle East and South Asia. . . . Whereas high levels of violent religious persecution are noticeably less frequent for Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere, some level of abuse or displacement related to religion is present in the vast majority of countries in each region.”8

These observations date from 2011 when Grim and Finke published their book. A more recent study by the Pew Research Center concludes that as of 2015, after a three-year period of relative improvement, the number of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restriction and harassment of religious groups, and of social hostility and intimidation toward religious groups on the part of private individuals or organizations, has risen somewhat. That is particularly true in two of the areas described by Grim and Finke as enjoying higher levels of religious freedom. They are Europe, particularly in Russia and France, presumably as a result, in part, of increases in immigration, and the growing threat of religiously related terrorism; and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the tolerant climate encouraged by Sufi Islam has been under pressure from more extreme Muslims and other political forces.9

If we are heartened, as I am, by the proposition that religious freedom and peace are closely connected, then the evidence, at present, of declining protection of religious freedom and, concomitantly, of rising levels of hostility and violence related to religion raises rather urgently the question of how best to advance peace by encouraging and cultivating religious freedom.

Grim and Finke suggest two answers. The first is that religious freedom rights do not stand alone. They “are embedded in a much larger bundle” of human rights that are best guaranteed, they imply, by constitutional democracies.10 Religious freedom thrives when a broad range of other civil, political, and economic rights are also protected, a conclusion that conforms well with something known in political science circles as the “liberal peace.”11 Based on extensive empirical study, the liberal peace holds that the orderly and properly sequenced development of robust liberal political and economic institutions, including “a whole panoply of institutions to insure the rule of law and [equal, constitutionally insured] rights,” is a critical condition of national and international peace.12 Robust liberal democracies have lower levels of internal violence, and do not go to war with one another.13 By contrast, illiberal or ethnically and religiously exclusivist institutions increase the probability of either institutionalized violence, as in authoritarian regimes where the police and military enforce intolerant and discriminatory laws, or violence outside institutional control as caused by rebellion or insurgency.

The connection between human rights and the cultivation of prosperity and peace have been robustly reaffirmed in a recent U.N. report, “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights,” which chastises the World Bank for deliberately and mistakenly divorcing human rights from its development efforts around the world. The bank’s failure to make the connection “contradicts and undermines the consistent recognition by the international community of the integral relationship between human rights and development. It also prevents the Bank from putting into practice much of its own policy research [in regard to] development.”14

In the light of these conclusions, we should be troubled, I believe, by the spread of authoritarianism around the world, which means increasing resistance to constitutional democracy and the protection of human rights, including religious freedom. A recent book on the subject, entitled Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy, states that authoritarian regimes, like Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, “have achieved a dismaying degree of success in reshaping international bodies founded to promote human rights and democracy into forums more favorable to regimes that have scant regard for either.”15 There is therefore an urgent need to redouble our efforts in support of policies that oppose the spread of authoritarianism at home and abroad.

In the four countries mentioned, we should remind ourselves, the violation of religious freedom rights is especially severe. Authoritarians are particularly adroit at using the threat of terrorism as a way of suppressing and mistreating religious groups and others. That is not to say the terrorist threat is not real in today’s world. But it is to say that because the threat is so easily abused, all appeals to national security that compromise democratic institutions and the protection of rights, including laws against discrimination based on religious belief or identity, must be held to the strictest scrutiny. Otherwise, we permit the erosion of the very institutions and rights necessary to the advancement of peace.

The second suggestion of Grim and Finke addresses how best to cultivate religious freedom specifically as a path to peace. Unfortunately, it is not as inspiring as the first suggestion, and needs to be amended. For them, religious freedom works rather like the free market. It is based on deregulation and a large number of competitors, thereby preventing either the government or any single competitor from attaining a monopoly over others. This approach is especially necessary in the case of religion, they say, because the natural impulse of all religions is to gain advantage over others, and the best way to prevent that is to maximize competition. In believing themselves superior to others, religions invariably think of their competitors as “dangerous and wrong,” and as such in need, where possible, of repression. Accordingly, religious freedom as a means to peace is best achieved by externally imposing on religious groups a system of deregulation and extensive competition so as to prevent the inherent monopolistic impulses of religious groups from being realized.

Grim and Finke admit that these views, so deeply suspicious of religion in general, are derived from such Enlightenment figures as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Voltaire. To be sure, the views are not altogether mistaken. It is quite clear that the dangers of domination by one religion over others, often resulting in persecution and violent conflict, is reduced by a vibrant system of fair and open competition among religious groups such as we have, comparatively speaking, in this country.

However, this general characterization of religious attitudes toward freedom and peace is drastically one-sided, and in that way seriously deficient. While some religious groups in the Western tradition and outside it have often, and still continue, to seek to dominate and repress others, by no means is that true of all religious groups. We have but to mention, for example, the “free church” tradition in Western Christianity, embodied in the Protestant Reformation by many Anabaptist groups, and then by radical Puritans, like the Baptists and Quakers, in seventeenth-century England and colonial America, and later by numerous American Protestant groups dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Moravians, the Church of the Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Mormons. These groups have all represented, in their own ways and, to a greater or lesser degree, a commitment to religious freedom for all, and not just for themselves. They embrace the right of religious freedom, we may say, on principle, rather than as an expedient or as a device imposed upon them against their will by a government suspicious of what it suspects is the inherent thirst for power of all religious groups. Moreover, we may also say, they embrace religious freedom quite self-consciously in the name of advancing the cause of peace.

Groups like these resolutely sided with the minority opinion in what Grim and Finke called the “religious intolerance gap,” cited earlier: the huge statistical discrepancy between people who favor freedom for their own religion and people who favor freedom for all religions. Speaking for such groups, Roger Williams, founder in 1636 of the Rhode Island colony and himself an early apostle of religious freedom, acutely detected the stark inconsistency involved in the “intolerance gap.” Religious people who seek freedom for themselves and not for others are, he said, like members of a ship’s crew who are “so partial as to persecute when they sit at the helm, and yet cry out against persecution when they are under the hatches.”16

It so happens that this same Roger Williams is a rich, and, in my view, compelling source of thinking on the subject of religious freedom and peace, and is therefore an appealing representative of the constructive approach to the subject embodied in the free church tradition. He is a distinctive representative because, along with advocating for religious freedom, he managed against great odds to establish in practice “the first commonwealth in modern history to make religious liberty a cardinal principle of its corporate existence and to maintain the separation of church and state,” in the words of a distinguished historian of American religion.17 This is important because Williams began to grapple in a serious way not only with the theoretical challenges to designing political and legal institutions capable of accommodating a radically new understanding of religious freedom, but also with the practical difficulties involved in actually implementing such institutions.

Williams shared with members of the free church tradition many of the same scriptural references taken to be the foundation of religious freedom. He, like so many others before him, drew on two classical texts: Mark 12:17, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” and John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and, consequently, for the complete desanctification of the state. “There is a sword of civil justice, being of a material nature [designed] for the defense of persons, estates, families, [and] liberties of a city or civil state, . . . which cannot, now that it is under Christ, when all nations are merely civil, extend to matters of the spirit and soul.”18 Williams leaves no doubt about what he means: Although God ordains the need for earthly governments, “the power, might, or authority” of particular civil governments, “is not religious, Christian, etc., but natural, humane, and civil.”19

Thus, when a given government arrogates to itself the authority to enforce the Christianity upon its subjects or citizens, it is doing no less that crucifying Christ Himself. In shedding “the blood of so many hundred thousand of poor servants [of Jesus] by the civil powers of the world, pretending [thereby] to suppress blasphemies, heresies, idolatries, superstition, etc.,” the persecutors of conscience, writes Williams, are unquestionably guilty of spilling “the most precious blood” of Jesus Himself.20

It is a persistent theme throughout all Williams’ writings that religious freedom is a key ingredient of peace. He appeals to the “lamentably true experience of all the ages”: that “persecution for cause of conscience has always proved pernicious,” exhibiting “the lance that hath pierced the veins of kings and kingdoms, of saints and sinners, and filled the streams and rivers with their blood.”21 This is true, he contends, for Christians and non-Christians alike. “Among those that profess the same God and Christ as Papists and Protestants, or the same Muhammad as the Turks and Persians, . . . civil peace would [not] be broken . . . were it not for the bloody doctrine of persecution, which alone breaks the bonds of civil peace, and makes the spiritual causes the causes of their bloody dissensions.”22

Williams’ thoughts on religious freedom and peace are grounded not only in Christian Scripture, though that is a very important source for him, as it is for all the members of the free church tradition: he also grounds his thoughts in nature and reason, consistent with his claims about the purely “natural, humane, and civil” character of earthly governments. His position is simply a logical extension of the free church theory of the separation of church and state. If political authorities are not religious authorities, and therefore ought to refrain from organizing and conducting earthly government according to religious teachings, then their authority must rest elsewhere, namely, on what is “natural, humane, and civil.”

Everything rests, for Williams, on the fact that having a conscience is essential to being human. It is part of the natural makeup of human beings, and as such is prior to and independent of any specific religious beliefs a person may have. What is more, the essence of conscience is inward consent based on a conviction of truth and right. Physical force, in and of itself, cannot produce that. Belief depends on reasons based on arguments, evidence, and emotional appeals, and the threat of force, as in a case of robbery or rape, is not a reason in the proper sense, because it lacks justification. Thus, the only “weapons” suitably employed in the inward forum are “spiritual,” namely, appeals and arguments subject to commonly understood standards, whose object is consensual or heartfelt agreement. Accordingly, “forcing the conscience of any person,” Williams writes, is equivalent to “soul rape,” to “defiling,” he says—“the very nature of a common honest conscience.” It is action that violates and deforms conscience, thereby predictably inciting resentment, resistance, and, frequently, violent conflict on the part of the members of any society, Christian or not.

Williams believed it was the principal function of civil government to protect the “natural right” of free conscience, along with other natural rights, like self-defense, and the rights against theft and fraud. While he did not develop an elaborate theory of government, he supported a rudimentary form of constitutional democracy, agreed to by the citizens of Rhode Island in 1647. That is a government, he said, that “springs [from] the people’s choice and free consent,” and is one that includes “a set of criminal laws roughly conforming to the second table of the Decalogue, a court system (both trials and appeals), a set of legislative procedures based on majority vote, and an elected executive system.”23

There are three crucial implications of Williams’ thinking: 1. All civil governments, authorized to implement the law by means of physical force, ought to be prevented from using force to instruct or punish conscience, thus ensuring freedom of conscience or religious freedom, which come to the same thing. 2. Governments that ensure religious freedom encourage peace; those that do not encourage violence. 3. Governments best designed to protect religious freedom also protect other basic rights within the framework of constitutional democracy.

In conclusion, we must hasten to add that the Rhode Island colony that Roger Williams founded and tried hard to help administer throughout much of the seventeenth century did not by any means achieve immediate peace and tranquillity. Returning from England in 1663 carrying a charter that included an astoundingly broad provision for religious freedom, Williams encountered “a community so torn with dissension as to be virtual anarchy,” as one historian puts it.24 Despite such difficulties, however, Williams never changed his mind. Against huge odds, he persevered indefatigably to stand up for religious freedom and the separation of church and state as cardinal principles of a well-ordered government.

Both the conditions Williams encountered and his own response are important to remember. They remind us that creating and maintaining a political order that guarantees religious freedom is not easy. Living with a diversity of dearly held beliefs and practices appears persistently to rub human beings the wrong way. Grim and Finke were not altogether mistaken: The thirst for dominance among religious groups, as among all other aspects of human life, is very intense, as their depressing evidence of widespread intolerance demonstrates.

However, in response, Williams’ ardent commitment to religious freedom against all odds is enormously inspiring. In the thick of the alarming conditions he witnessed, he made a kind of impassioned wager that in the long run religious freedom and peace actually do go together, and placing that bet was of urgent significance for understanding the moral and spiritual foundations of human society. Here the positive evidence of Grim and Finke is very relevant. Their impressive case that heightened provision for religious freedom does in fact go closely together with the reduction of violence turns out to be strong confirmation of Williams’ wager.

Williams also accurately intuited that the best hope for securing a system of peaceful coexistence is guaranteeing the right of religious freedom and other basic rights by building and maintaining constitutional democracy.

Promoting peace, by embracing religious freedom as of value in itself and as part of a broader system of rights assured by constitutional democracies, is surely enhanced by the efforts of people fervently dedicated on principle to the cause, and not just reluctantly driven to it by outside forces. That, at least, is something worth considering.

1 Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

2 Restrictions on Religion, Pew Research Center pew research.org.

3 Grim and Finke, p. 212

4 Ibid., p. 210.

5 Ibid., p. 206.

6 See ibid., pp. 26, 27.

7 Ibid., p. 42.

8 Ibid., pp. 18, 19.

9 See Restrictions on Religion.

10 Grim and Finke, pp. 205, 216, 218, 220.

11 Michael W. Doyle, Liberal Peace: Selected Essays (New York: Routledge, Taylor, & Francis Group, 2012).

12 Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), pp. 316, 317.

13 Bruce Russett and John R. Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations (2001), pp. 115, 70.

14 Philip Alston (special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights), “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights,” U.N. Document A/70/274 (Aug. 4, 2015).

15Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker, eds., Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), p. 11.

16 Cited in Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition (New York: Atheneum, 1962), p. 140.

17 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 182.

18 Cited in Miller, p. 133 (Italics supplied.)

19 Roger Williams, Bloody Tenent, Complete Writings, Vol. III, p. 398.

20 Roger Williams, Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody, Complete Writings, Vol. IV, p. 325.

21 Williams, Bloody Tenent, Complete Writings, Vol.III, p. 182.

22 Cited in On Religious Liberty: Selections From the Work of Roger Williams, ed. James Calvin Davis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 183.

23 Sumner B. Twiss, “Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience and Religion as a Natural Right,” in Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 70.

24 Miller, p. 221.


From a speech delivered at the International Religious Liberty Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on August 22, 2017.

Article Author: David Little

Dr. David Little is a Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He has had a distinguished career at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Virginia.