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America’s Heritage of Religious Freedom Matters to the World



Mike Pompeo served as Secretary of State under President Trump and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he focuses on promoting U.S. national security, technological leadership, and global engagement. Follow him on Twitter at @mikepompeo.


The framers of the Constitution recognized that foremost among America’s founding principles were property rights and religious liberty. The reason for this was simple — no person can enjoy the pursuit of happiness without being able to retain the fruits of their honest hard work, and no society can retain a virtuous and worthy character if its people cannot worship as they see fit.


Alexander Hamilton wrote,


“The sacred rights of mankind are written as with a sunbeam by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”


Yet throughout the current pandemic, state and local governments have treated religion as dispensable, abridging the free exercise of religion with careless disregard for its necessity. In the early days of the pandemic, California, Maryland, Virginia, and other states issued statewide prohibitions on religious gatherings, deeming them “non-essential,” while liquor stores and abortion clinics were labeled “essential” and remained open.


There is no right more fundamental to a free society than the free practice of religion. Behind walls of prisons and persecuted before our very eyes in places like China, Iran, Cuba, and North Korea are tens of thousands of people whose only crime is to worship God in their own way.


No country that denies religious freedom can ever rightly claim to be good in some other way.


And no person can ever be true to any faith that believes in the dignity of all human life if they do not act out of concern for those whose dignity is assailed because of their faith. Sadly, our religious freedoms are being eroded here at home.


Our preservation of religious freedom has crucial implications for our foreign policy, because whether we are committed to our founding principles at home affects our ability to engage with and lead our allies and partners around the world — our ability to be that “shining city on a hill.”


As Secretary, I formed the Commission on Unalienable Rights to examine just this connection. I asked a diverse set of scholars who agreed to serve on the Commission, led by Mary Ann Glendon, to furnish advice on human rights policy grounded in both our nation’s founding principles as well as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Commission’s final report reminded Americans of what is best in our country’s traditions, while also inviting other peoples and nations to draw on their own heritages in order to renew a shared dedication to human rights. Just months after the Commission’s report was published, I traveled to Indonesia and met with Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest independent Muslim organization in the world, to discuss with them the common ground of the report’s findings.


Unfortunately, today there are numerous authoritarian governments that violate their people’s rights to religious liberty. In China, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, we see a modern-day example of a government that cares little for the inherent freedoms of its people and dismisses their unique dignity. Thin claims of religious extremism have been invoked by the CCP to justify the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities among their own people. The most egregious example is the ongoing, shocking, and horrifying treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang that has included, among other atrocities, slave labor, and forced sterilization.


During my tenure as Secretary of State, the State Department designated CCP activity in Xinjiang as genocide. It is a good thing that the current administration has confirmed this important designation. What we see in Xinjiang today echoes the tyranny and persecution the CCP inflicts on the province of Tibet and what we also have seen from them in Hong Kong.


Christians throughout China continue to suffer under the CCP’s rule as well. Congregations that are not sanctioned and monitored by the CCP are outlawed and any scripture not approved by the party is deemed illegal. China’s example should clarify for all that a society that lacks regard for religious liberty will soon see its political liberties disappear.


To address the assault on religious freedom both in China and around the world, I convened the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom for three straight years. These were the largest human rights events ever held at the State Department. The Ministerial brought together leaders from every corner of the globe to discuss the issues threatening religious freedom and to find solutions together. It proved that religious liberty matters to so many around the world and that it is an issue where America can and must lead.


President Reagan once said, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape. This is the last stand on earth.” I saw that as your Secretary of State around the globe. I am confident that the American star will shine across the heavens so long as we keep a proper understanding of our God-given rights at the center of our unending quest to secure freedom for our own people and all of mankind. 


This article is part of the Standing for Freedom Center’s Spring journal, Equality: A Dream for Patriots, a Mask for Tyranny.