Over four decades working abroad and at home, I’ve seen the benefits when both societies and businesses allow people within them to live out their faith and the consequences when they impose restrictions on religion or belief.
As a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and former chair of the World Economic Forum’s global council on the role of faith, I’ve documented the opportunity and growth that takes place in countries that embrace religious freedom and the stagnation that results when social groups and governments, like in China or Syria, severely restrict religious practice. More recent research has shown those same principles apply in the corporate world when companies create a culture that accommodates a religiously diverse labor force.
Even without today’s empirical data to back it up, countries around the world recognized the benefits of religious freedom since the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights nearly 75 years ago. Those who’ve been devoted to advancing conscience rights have the declaration’s Article 18 seared into their own conscience: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The fight for that right has developed two philosophies, according to foreign policy and religion expert Chris Seiple, who has drawn attention to the pros and cons of the two camps he calls “advocates” and “builders.”
Advocates often focus on the moral and legal responsibility to protect the human right of freedom of religion or belief. They aggressively monitor religious freedom violations and push governments to address them. They’ll use the courts and call to account governments and groups that restrict the ability of anyone to live out their deeply held beliefs.
Builders also seek to advance the human right of freedom of religion or belief, but they avoid legal and political arenas to instead engage with local communities, seeking to foster what is referred to as covenantal pluralism — what Seiple describes as the “the social harmony that is possible when citizens of multifaith and multiethnic countries are equipped to mutually engage and even respect one another across deep difference.”
Having experienced both camps, I’ve found advocates and builders to be more interconnected than conflicting in their methods to champion freedom of belief at home and abroad. But a few anchor points in my career have steered my approach toward builders, finding their organic, bottom-up approach more inclusive in bringing about long-lasting change.
Religious freedom is highly correlated with socioeconomic well-being, one of three factors that statistically predict future economic growth.
The first anchor was dropped in summer 1991 in the Soviet Union, where as co-chair of an organizing committee of the ruling Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic’s Supreme Soviet, I coordinated the first large-scale, people-to-people festival organized in a republic without Moscow’s oversight. Three hundred American Christians — ranging from astronauts and surgeons to business leaders and musicians — spent two weeks with tens of thousands of people across Kazakhstan.
At the time, I was a Southern Baptist aid and development worker (I’ve since become Catholic) and also served as vice president of the faith-based Central Asian Foundation. Being the only American co-chair of an organizing committee gave me access to travel to former nuclear testing zones and the dying Aral Sea — both regions of this Central Asian Soviet republic facing urgent medical needs.
The Kazakh-American festival’s name, Senim, meant “trust.” The event not only fostered trust in a communist land where religion was largely taboo and nearly persecuted out of existence, but it also built religious freedom, through a series of collaborative endeavors between U.S. believers from various professions and their Kazakh counterparts.
The good works of these two groups ranged from rebuilding an earthquake damaged school to performing lifesaving surgeries as American and Soviet doctors worked side-by-side. Thousands attended joint concerts by Sound Theology and A Studio (a popular Soviet rock band at the time.) Hundreds of Kazakh elite participated in a business conference on opening the economy to market forces, with faith perspectives shared. This led to an invitation to help establish a western-style business school, which continues to operate today.
All of these people-to-people activities built religious freedom by expanding the space where faith was welcome. Indeed, having faith-motivated collaboration and assistance be on display in the workplaces, schools and marketplaces of this officially communist land was a first, opening the door for religious organizations into the country, not just individual believers.
As part of the Senim festival, the Muslim mufti of Kazakhstan, the archbishop of Alma-Ata’s Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the heads of the Seventh-day Adventist and Russian Baptist churches signed the country’s first-ever multifaith declaration on religious freedom, stating that “the government should not interfere in any religious confession — either by restriction or favoritism.” After the religious leaders shook hands and posed for pictures, a Russian Baptist pastor called this show of openness “a real miracle.” Previously, Protestant leaders feared imprisonment for practicing their faith in Kazakhstan. Now their pictures appeared on front pages of newspapers as they shared their newfound interfaith camaraderie openly with television, radio and newspaper reporters.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Alma-Ata to recognize Kazakhstan as an independent country. At a press conference with Baker, the new Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev committed to each of the religious leaders in the room, some of whom had signed the religious freedom declaration, that they would have religious freedom. He pointed last to me, saying “and for you and your group, too.”
One way to look at the impact of the 1991 sea change in Kazakhstan away from totalitarian control of religion is through religious demographics. Religious populations have grown from being less than half the population in 1970 to now accounting for approximately 95 percent of the country’s population. As a participant-observer of those days, I can attest to the great movement towards religion set free by the openness to religious freedom in 1991.
Unfortunately, religious freedom is facing new challenges today in Kazakhstan. It may be that another initiative to build freedom of religion and belief for all could be effective again.
Religious employees lacked not only a voice, but a sense of belonging, which led some to take their talents elsewhere.
The second anchor point is 2006 when I began the global tracking and reporting of restrictions on religious freedom at the Pew Research Center.
The journey to get to 2006 includes living and working in other religiously restrictive countries. From 1982 to 2002, in addition to working in the Soviet Union, my wife and I were educators in the western Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China, where our four children took on Uyghur names, as well as in the Persian Gulf region.
Our final posting was in the United Arab Emirates, where I coordinated academic studies at Zayed Military College, their “West Point.” We were there when the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. There were 20,000 Afghani workers in the city near the college, and two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE. One response was to have all the cadets come to class with their bayonets and man guard posts with loaded weapons, which didn’t make me feel any safer.
The attacks of 9/11 made clear to me that religious freedom was not only restricted by governments, but also the actions of groups such as al-Qaida. As the world experienced, such social forces can cross borders and change the temperament, security and freedoms of the entire planet.
Coming back to live in the United States in 2002 as a 43-year-old doctoral student had its challenges, but I needed to upgrade my skills and knowledge to test theories about the world and events I had been part of. I felt that a deeper ability and understanding were critical if I was to be of service going forward.
The 9/11 understanding of the power of social forces to restrict religious freedom informed my doctoral dissertation at Penn State University that measured and analyzed the detrimental impact of restrictions on religious freedom in countries around the world. That led to Roger Finke and I publishing further research (Religious Persecution in Cross-National Context: Clashing Civilizations or Regulated Religious Economies?) in 2007 and a book (“The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century”) in 2010.
Our research was the first time that restrictions on religious freedom had been rigorously measured and scientifically analyzed. It also moved discussion of religious freedom out of the realm of conjecture to the domain of facts. And perhaps most importantly, it showed that societal restrictions on religion can trigger government restrictions on religion and vice versa: Government actions can also trigger or reinforce societal prejudices. We showed that the two forces, when acting in tandem, can create a cycle of violent persecution and conflict.
The direct implication of the research is that if we hope to successfully address violations of religious freedom we must not only work with governments, where “advocates” focus much of their attention, but we must also work with influential sectors in society such as business, the arts and education. The civil society and private sectors are where “builders” make a particularly important contribution to religious freedom because they place a priority on engaging with society, communities and people.
At the Pew Research Center, I was director of cross-national data and directed the first annual reports on global restrictions on religion that began monitoring trends in 2006 and continue to this day.
The data were so eye-opening that major national and international bodies invited briefings, including the State Department, Pentagon, Congress, United Nations, British Parliament, the European Parliament and the U.N. Human Rights Council. The basic statistic that nearly 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high government or social restrictions on religion soon became the beginning point for many advocacy arguments to take violations of religious freedom seriously.
Pew Research data make it clear that advocacy efforts alone are not enough to advance religious freedom.
The Pew trend data, however, made it clear that advocacy efforts alone were not reversing a rising global tide of restrictions on religious freedom.
As we continued to collect, analyze and mine the data, a third anchor point emerged: Religious freedom was highly correlated with socioeconomic well-being, one of many factors that statistically predict future economic growth. The publication of these findings with Greg Clark and Robert Snyder in “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” and my further analysis in a piece for the World Economic Forum, “The link between economic and religious freedoms,” resulted in my founding of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, where our mission is to make the case to the business world that religious freedom is good for not just the economy, but also for business.
While the foundation has been active since 2014, a watershed moment came in 2020 when we released the first-ever index measuring the degree to which Fortune 100 workplaces are faith-friendly, aka religiously inclusive.
The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s Corporate Religious Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) Index found that a trend of global corporations accommodating religion in the workplace is propelled by company-sponsored, faith-oriented employee resource groups and other programs. Google, Intel, American Express and others score highly on the index for supporting such initiatives. American Airlines’ chief flight dispatcher is a priest and company chaplain. Tyson Foods has chaplains on staff across America serving the needs of all employees regardless of faith or belief.
Why do these companies do it? It’s good for employees. It gives them a competitive advantage. And that’s good for society.
This 2020 finding came thanks to Kent Johnson, who had just retired from Texas Instruments after a career as senior counsel. While at Texas Instruments, he founded the first faith-based employee resource group more than 20 years ago. When he retired, he joined our foundation as a senior corporate adviser to keep this faith-friendly movement going.
What Johnson helped me see was that religion can be a welcome part of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programs, given that religion is also protected by Title VII like other protected characteristics.
To give one example, Google’s Inter Belief Network employee resource group gives employees of faith an official channel to have their voice be heard within the company. Prior to the network, religious employees lacked not only a voice, but a sense of belonging, which led some to take their talents elsewhere. In addition, the group educates the broader Google workforce on religious freedom issues, such as the rapidly rising level of antisemitism and other forms of religious hatred at home and abroad.
As I reflect on a lifetime of building freedom of religion and belief through innovative programs, tools and approaches, I can identify four key elements of a “builder’s approach” to religious freedom.
First, its motivation is love. Because love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things, a builder’s approach is positive, lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness. It affirms goodness and highlights what works. It is optimistic, not adversarial. It celebrates and finds God in all things and all people.
Second, it evaluates. A builder’s approach learns from data-driven evaluation and anticipates that change is constant and acts on information, intuitively connecting dots. It moves on from things that don’t work. It learns from failures. It is humble.
Third, it creates. It builds creatively. It invents. It is expansive. It creates something out of nothing. It sees a need and fills it. It’s entrepreneurial. It requires risks. It doesn’t always work as expected, but often exceeds what could be asked or imagined.
Fourth, it procreates. It builds collaboratively. It builds on itself. It emancipates and draws in others. It doesn’t try to own its efforts but pushes them from the nest. It’s catalytic. It’s not controlling. It is self-interested but selfless. It’s a calling, not a career.
All it takes to build religious freedom in your community and workplace is to put into practice love of neighbor and the Golden Rule: In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. It’s that simple and profound.
Brian Grim is founding president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation.
This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.