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Jay Evensen: Is it possible to get past politics and unite behind religious freedom?

Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedown during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedown during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

It shouldn’t sound as difficult as it does.

During his recent visit to Provo to speak to the International Law and Religious Symposium at Brigham Young University, Sam Brownback seemed to wonder why the plight of people being persecuted, tortured and killed worldwide for their beliefs hasn’t generated more outrage in the United States.

Human trafficking, after all, has developed a grass-roots synergy in recent years that raised awareness, changed laws and put a spotlight on problems worldwide.

But religious freedom?

“This needs a movement on college campuses,” said Brownback, a former senator and governor who now is President Trump’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom. “Bring a group of people of faith or no faith together and say we will stand for religious freedom.”

Maybe on some campuses, such as BYU, but it sounds a bit far-fetched for many others.

Why is that? Because it’s hard to objectively see human suffering, or much of anything else for that matter, when politics gets in the way. And Americans have, unfortunately, begun to equate religious liberty with political agendas.

That has to end if this nation is to continue being the beacon for a freedom that is fundamental to liberty and personal dignity, or as Brownback put it, “the right to do with your own soul as you see fit.”

In this country, courts are busy sorting out the intersection of religious principles and personal freedoms, arguing over things such as whether a baker has a right to refuse service on religious grounds or nuns should be forced into insurance plans that also provide contraceptives. These may be important questions in the intersection of rights, but our intense focus on them brings little comfort to the millions worldwide who are suffering, and sometimes dying, for their beliefs.

The Pew Research Center recently released its ninth annual report on global restrictions on religion. The news isn’t good. Official government restrictions on religion continue to climb worldwide.

The report used figures from 2016. It found 83 countries had “high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion — whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups.”

This was up from 80 countries the year before, and 58 in 2007.

You don’t have to look hard to see the worst examples. Coptic Christians in Egypt reportedly were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year because of their patience in the face of near daily attacks. The 2018 Open Doors report said 128 Egyptian Christians died in attacks last year and another 200 or more were forced to leave their homes.

But it also includes Western European countries working toward laws that ban Islamic asylum seekers or forbid certain religious clothing.

Much of the political problem in the United States results from a basic lack of understanding about the Constitution and its protections. A study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center last year found 22 percent of Americans unsure whether Muslims enjoy the same constitutional protections as everyone else. Another poll a few years ago by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs found 82 percent of Americans saying it is important to protect liberty for Christians, but only 61 percent felt the same about Muslims (and 67 percent for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

If Americans remain ignorant of the reasons to protect religious liberty for all, how can they influence others to end more heinous practices worldwide?

The problem also isn’t confined to college campuses or the ranks of average Americans. As I watched a video of Brownback’s speech, I couldn’t help wonder about President Trump’s recent glowing words toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite reports that his nation puts Christians in labor camps and prisons, often torturing or killing them.

Trying to change the behavior of other countries is hard when your own is sending such mixed signals. This isn’t just true for the Trump administration. Previous presidents put little emphasis on religious liberty in foreign policy.

And yet there are some reasons to find hope.

Brownback has taken positive steps, helping to host an international ministerial on religious freedom.

And he offered one suggestion in Provo that, if followed, could break down political barriers.

Civic groups, churches and other organization should reach out to persecuted people in other countries and find ways to personally help them, he said, referring to a diocese in Arizona that is paying to rebuild houses for persecuted people in northern Iraq.

Personal service tends to change the lives of both the served and the server. Come to think of it, that may be the answer to a lot of problems.