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2009-01-02
Washington D.C., USA
US Baptist Leader: Religious Liberty can aid Foreign Policy
by Baptist Press Staff

A commitment to religious liberty can pave the way for an American foreign policy with widespread backing, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land said at a Washington panel discussion.

Speaking at a forum on the influence of religious leaders on foreign policy, Land said a "focus on religious freedom" and "its consequent emphasis on individual dignity and individual human rights is the foundation for a bipartisan foreign policy that all Americans can support."

The United States is especially qualified to promote a foreign policy based on religious liberty by virtue of both its devotion to such freedom from its founding and its pluralism, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

In the Bill of Rights, "religious freedom was the first freedom enumerated," Land said, according to a published transcript of the discussion. "This right is, in the American construct, not merely a right among others but the necessary precursor for all other rights, because all other rights are sourced from the Creator."

The influence of religious leaders and adherents provides a "foundational starting point for a bipartisan foreign policy in that America is an intensely religious place," he said. "Indeed, among the developed nations of the world, it is the most religious. And it is emphatically the most religiously pluralistic country on the face of the earth.

"It isn't that other nations don't have religious freedom," Land said at the December session of the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum. "Many of them do. But there is arguably no other nation whose experience, identity and values are so thoroughly shaped by our dedication to the cause of religious freedom. And there is no other nation at this point in history better positioned to advance the cause, because we have lived pluralism."

His experience the last seven years as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) provides him with the hope that various religious communities can work together on human rights issues, Land said. The current nine-member commission consists of three Protestant Christians, two Roman Catholics, an Orthodox Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a Hindu, Land told the audience.

"When it comes to first principles about basic human freedom and religious freedom and human rights, we have been able to come to amazing agreement," he said of USCIRF. "Now we have robust discussions, but there is not [a] discernable Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu way to advance human freedom -- no uniquely Democrat or Republican way to achieve our goals.

"There is simply more that binds us together in our views on these issues than those things that drive us apart," Land said. "And even when we do disagree, it is not necessarily due to our theologically or politically divergent perspectives."

Other panelists at the Dec. 9 discussion were Marc Gopin, a George Mason University professor and Jewish rabbi, and Ahmed Younis, senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Joseph Montville, diplomat in residence at the Center for Global Peace at American University, moderated the discussion. All the panelists stressed the possible benefit of religion in international relations.

There is a "great cultural inhibition to considering religion," Montville said. "There's a fear verging on terror among certain academic professors. And the students they produce to later populate government agencies don't know how to deal with religion.

"The goal of the people on this panel would be fulfilled if we could just get acknowledgment that religion as a factor can certainly be manipulated to cause great destruction but is also a great potential asset for peace-building."

Younis called for a "great literacy movement" among Americans. They need to be more literate about U.S. history and the world's religions, he said.

"That literacy is a necessary prerequisite for leading global movements for change and to leading governments and communities around the world to really get their act together on things that are central to human dignity, [such] as religious freedom for all people in all countries, regardless of their religious identity," Younis said.

"Religion is also a significant tool in combating terrorism," Younis said. "In those communities where there is religious education, there is literacy; they are able to read the newspaper and engage in a global economy; they are able to go online, and there is literacy of the religion in order to combat the ideas of the people who are coming and claiming to be the carriers of authenticity or the carriers of a classical understanding."

The "single greatest catastrophe in human history" is the union of "governmental and religious power," Gopin said.

"More and more of my friends in the Middle East, from muftis in Syria to high imams in Iran, are coming to that conclusion," he said.

Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press (BP)
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