The Constitutional Roots of American Global Leadership on Religious Freedom

Spring 2019 Colloquium Series

The theme of University of Oklahoma David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science Allen Hertzke’s February 22nd public talk at the Kinder Institute was a “paradox of our age”: the value of religious freedom and yet its ebbing international consensus. However, behind this paradox is a promise, a historic moment to realize (or re-realize) today. Recent events on the ground as well as empirical studies have allowed political scientists and advocates of the inseparable concepts of religious freedom and liberty of conscience to underscore the significance of the freedom to pursue and express fundamental dignity to both the mass public and numerous governing bodies. On one hand, the United States is an important part of these contemporary conversations about the global promotion of religious freedom because the U.S. has long been such a crucial actor in this freedom’s global protection. Equally important, Prof. Hertzke noted, is remembering how the U.S. became a major champion of religious liberty because of its constitutional heritage. And the historic thread binding the free exercise of religion to American life, he added, is drawn through the stories of people: Mary Dyer, executed in Boston in 1660 for persistently advocating for her right to live and express her Quaker faith; or Roger Williams, who fostered “soul freedom” in the 17th century. Although people have embraced this constitutional heritage in the past, Prof. Hertzke conveyed that, today, this legacy is fraying. What is the great concern stemming from this phenomenon? When the battle for religious freedom is lost in the U.S., the U.S. sacrifices its ability to encourage religious freedom around the world, meaning the cause for religious freedom is down one of its most important allies.

With the context of this legacy of religious freedom and of U.S. involvement in the struggle to protect it set in audience members’ minds, Prof. Hertzke then raised the question of “how American constitutional heritage [has] shaped our global role?” He offered his answer in four parts: the American model, the American experience with the Catholic Church, American global leadership, and research, advocacy, and infrastructure.

The U.S. developed its global role in religious freedom, Prof. Hertzke first argued, by establishing and practicing a model for countries to replicate and follow. At its inception, this American model of religious freedom was unprecedented. People looked toward the U.S. and saw something they believed impossible: an institutional framework in which people could shape their own religious lives. Religion and liberty coexisting—and mutually thriving—in the U.S. empowered global activists to share this model with their own countries and nations, and it rippled out to other parts of the world, as the U.S. continued to protect religious liberty at home. For example, in the early 2000s, the American model demonstrated its domestic commitment to religious liberty by protecting Nashala Hearn’s right to express her faith. A school district in Oklahoma had prohibited Nashala from wearing a hijab in school, and after Nashala took the district to court, the Justice Department intervened to settle the case so that Nashala’s constitutional rights were not infringed upon. President Obama would go on to cite Nashala’s case and America’s promise of religious toleration while speaking in Cairo in 2009, a point of reference, Prof. Hertzke noted, that allowed him to connect more genuinely with his audience about the importance of religious freedom on a global scale.

Decades earlier, the American experience with religious freedom provided a foundation for the U.S. to sway another significant global actor, the Catholic Church, toward religious toleration. John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest from the U.S., contributed to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s by advocating for the Catholic Church to adopt Dignitatis Humanae, the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, and its focus on the dignity of the human person transformed the Catholic Church and, with it, international relations. Before the Second Vatican Council, 70% of Catholic countries were authoritarian. After it, the last great wave of democratization took hold of the world.

Prof. Hertzke then showed how American leaders have likewise influenced the global sustenance of religious freedom by utilizing their global voices and platforms to bring people from diverse religious backgrounds together. Before World War II, fascism began eroding religious liberty, a condition that both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt used their privileged position and power to fight against. FDR, for example, promoted the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt led the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a seminal document which in Article 18 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” The global role of America in advancing religious freedom continued during the Cold War. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 would further people’s commitment to religious liberty; Ronald Reagan and John Paul II would work together during the 1980s to promote this liberty and unseat Soviet communism from Europe and around the world; and the International Religious Freedom Act, the collaborative legislative work of people from diverse ideologies and religious backgrounds that was passed by Congress in 1998, was similarly instrumental in securing and protecting religious freedom abroad.

Within Prof. Hertzke’s four-pronged argument, the final way that American constitutional heritage has shaped the United States’ global role in the fight for religious freedom can be seen in the advocacy networks this heritage has facilitated. Scholarly institutes for international lawyers and researchers have allowed the U.S. to widely assist in the promotion of liberty of conscience, and the American constitutional DNA has similarly led private citizens to travel abroad to protect religious liberty. Additionally, through resources such as U.S. State Department records and Pew Research Center data, scholars from across the world can now analyze the implication of religious restrictions on other parts of society, such as women’s rights, economic development, and terrorism, to show that freer religious societies lead to the protection and expansion of what Americans consider other positive aspects of human dignity.

Although this historical overview may appear a reason for optimism, Prof. Hertzke soon explained the “troubles in the cradle of religious liberty.” Religious liberty may appear fundamental; however, religious restrictions in the U.S. have more than doubled since 2007, a fraying of constitutional heritage that stems from both the secular left and the right. From the left, Prof. Hertzke argued, religious liberty is put “in scare quotes.” From the right, we have seen a rise of ethnic nationalism and attacks on synagogues and mosques, especially in the last few years. This erosion and repression of religious liberty is echoing around the world as well, fueling religious violence and war and creating a global crisis that the U.S. should be concerned with precisely because of how essential religious freedom is to sustaining “democracy and peace.”


Allen Hertzke is David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at University of Oklahoma and Faculty Fellow in Religious Freedom for OU’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage. He is the author of Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights and Echoes of Discontent, among many other books, and most recently the co-editor of Cambridge University Press’ two-volume Christianity and Freedom project. He also serves as Associate Scholar of Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project, Distinguished Senior Fellow for Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and as an editorial board member for the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion and The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He received his M.S. from Cornell University and his Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin, and from 2008-2010, was lead consultant for the John Templeton Foundation’s efforts to develop strategic recommendations for advancing religious freedom around the globe.