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Os Guinness: Liberals and Conservatives Are Getting Religious Freedom Wrong
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Os Guinness is passionate about religious freedom. The legendary social critic is the author of the Williamsburg Charter, the Global Charter of Conscience, and many other works on the issue. In his latest book, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity, Guinness offers a clarion call for protecting and promoting religious freedom as both a fundamental human right for all individuals and a foundational principle for any flourishing civil society. Judd Birdsall, who served from 2007-2011 with the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, spoke with Guinness about the possibilties and challenges of securing religious freedom in a multi-faith world.

Why write a book about religious freedom now?

Religious freedom is one of the world's most urgent issues at this moment in history. For a start, it is the guarantee and protection of the foundational human right that best allows us the freedom to be human. Also, it is under assault around the world as never before, whether through brutal government oppression (think of China and Iran) or horrifying sectarian violence (think of Nigeria, Egypt, and much of the Middle East). But what makes the situation worse is the failure of the West to live up to the best of its heritage, and therefore to fail in demonstrating an alternative. This is especially tragic in the U.S., where the founders' settlement, which James Madison called the "true remedy" to the problem, is steadily being destroyed by fifty years of culture warring. And all this is happening at a time when the challenge of "living with our deepest differences" has become an urgent global problem.

There are of course endless academic studies of the issue, and many individuals and organizations have stood courageously against the violations of religious freedom, but where are the constructive proposals that lead to a better way? And where are the statesmanlike leaders addressing the issue? I hope my book will contribute to a new Western debate reaffirming the foundational importance of religious freedom. I hope too that it will challenge Americans not to squander their heritage foolishly as so many are doing now.

Americans employ the term "religious freedom," while Europeans prefer the roughly synonymous term "freedom of religion and belief." In the book, you suggest something deeper and broader with the term "soul freedom." What is "soul freedom"?

"Soul Liberty" was Roger Williams's magnificent term for religious freedom. It stands over against those who confuse religious freedom with mere toleration, or shrink it to mean only the freedom to worship. It challenges those who view it simply as "freedom for the religious," or think that when religion is dismissed, religious freedom can be ignored. As Article 1 of the Global Charter of Conscience declares, religious freedom is "the right to adopt, hold, freely exercise, share, or change one's beliefs subject solely to the dictates of conscience and independent of all outside, especially governmental control." Seen this way, freedom of religion and belief (which covers secularist worldviews too) is essential because it involves nothing less that our freedom to be human.

You call "soul freedom" the "golden key" to building a free, just, and equitable public square. How so?

Religious freedom is a foundational human right that should be guaranteed and protected simply for its own sake. But over and above that, numerous studies show that when religious freedom is respected, there are many social and political benefits, such as civility in public life, harmony in society as a whole, and vitality in the entrepreneurial sectors of civil society. Violations of religious freedom, such as the recent health care mandates hitting Catholic hospitals and other religious employers, are therefore not only wrong, but blind. As such requirements spread, they will cramp, if not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. One day our brave new government officials will go out in the morning and find there is no golden egg—and therefore they must spend more, and grow government even larger, to cover the gap created by the diminishing of the faith-based organizations.

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