One of the greatest achievements of Roger Williams, the founder of what later became Rhode Island, was his advocacy of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice.
For centuries, Europe and the Middle East had been ravaged by extraordinarily cruel and bloody religious wars, with different factions competing for power since the winning religion would be aligned with the might of the state.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made clear that there would be no state-chosen church in power here; rather, citizens would be free to practice the religion of their choice, generally without interference from the state. That took religion off the table as a cause of bloodshed. (Slavery was another matter.)
Unfortunately, the essential human right to freedom of religion is not respected everywhere, as the Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion, released on June 21, emphasizes.
Examining 198 countries during 2016, it found that the nations with significant limits on religious freedom rose from 80 to 83, representing 42 percent of all countries.
Twenty-eight percent of the world's governments, particularly Muslim states, persecuted people for their religious beliefs. Social hostility toward religious people also rose.
The study also found fault with "nationalist positions" in Western nations and the United States, as their people sought limits on immigration that might affect whether religious minorities, particularly Muslim refugees, may enter.
In some nations, religious minorities face abuse by both the state and its citizens. The study cites such countries as Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey.
In 2016, Christians faced harassment and discrimination in 144 countries, up from 128 countries in 2015. Muslims were harassed in 142 nations, up from 125 in 2015. Jews, who make up a tiny 0.2 percent of the world’s population, were the third-most harassed religious group. They faced harassment and persecution in 87 countries, reversing a 2015 decline.
The harassment was not just verbal. Pew's category includes "physical assaults, arrests and detentions, desecration of holy sites, and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education and housing.”
While the U.S. has limited power to influence other countries, Americans should speak out about the importance of human rights and model them to the world. And the best way for us to do this is to serve as a model by carefully supporting religious freedom.
Rhode Island has played a significant role in the advancement of this freedom over the years. In his famous August 1790 letter to the members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, President George Washington stated that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief. Quoting from the Old Testament, he wrote, "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
He added: "For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
Thankfully, those words still guide Americans to support the First Amendment and strive to make certain that our fellow citizens may celebrate religion freely, without fear.