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Private business has an important role to play in the functioning of religious freedom in society, one which is mutually beneficial to both religious freedom and business. This intriguing message was advanced by Dr. Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom Business Foundation at a noon presentation of the Family Research Council on October 22.
Dr. Grim was introduced by noting that “the Religious Freedom Business Foundation educates the business community on how religious freedom is good for business … [and] to promote respect for freedom of religion.” It was noted that Dr. Grim has specialized in the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography.
Grim began by asking “why is religious freedom important?” The answer is that the great majority of the world’s people (84%) adhere to some religious faith. Even many of the remainder continue to entertain religious ideas, Grim said. And looking to the future, he compared statistics on the median ages of various world religions, pointing out that the median age of religiously unaffiliated persons (34) is significantly higher than the global median age (28), while Muslims and Hindus have median ages lower than the global age (23 and 26 respectively). Religious belief and commitment can therefore be expected to flourish or even become more prevalent in the future. Dr. Grim further noted that according to Pew Research Center, currently 43% of the world’s countries have high or very high restrictions on religious freedom, and that these countries account for 76% of the world’s population. Many of these people are undoubtedly unaffected by such restrictions, as they do not disagree with the prevailing doctrine held by their governments. It is religious minorities, or those holding disfavored opinions, who suffer disadvantages and penalties under these regimes. This is a dramatic increase in restrictions on religion, since as late as 2007, just 30% of the world’s countries had high or very high restrictions. “By any way of looking at it, this can be considered a global crisis,” he said.
That religious tension is intertwined with economic considerations is shown by the ongoing crisis in northern Iraq. Grim noted that in the year before the ISIS offensive, unemployment and economic stagnation were the top concern there, outstripping concern about corruption, religious conflict, and ethnic tensions. He thus suggested that support for and recruitment to ISIS was greatly aided by this circumstance. While bad economic conditions should not be seen as causing terrorism, they give terrorists an “open door.” His research also disclosed that of two dozen factors, religious freedom was one of only three that was associated with economic growth “controlling for everything else.”
Regimes of religious freedom tend to promote freedom, prosperity, and general wellbeing, according to Grim. High levels of education and democracy have been found to be associated with non-western societies where “proselytizing Protestant missionaries” had gone in the 1800s and 1900s. Religious freedom also fosters innovation, as Grim claimed is shown by the origin of the Kellogg corn flakes cereal, which was originally a Seventh Day Adventist substitute for the overly greasy late nineteenth century American breakfast.
Contrary to popular misconception, the endeavors of religious organizations or religious individuals acting specifically on the basis of religious considerations have demonstrably had the effect of overcoming social divisions. Dr. Grim pointed to the MegiTours partnership in Israel, begun by a Jewish entrepreneur and Muslim entrepreneur that take Jewish and Muslim tourists to see the other community. Also, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission in India promotes a waste disposal industry in India which helps Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) out of poverty. In Indonesia, prayer rooms are provided by businesses for different religions. Finally, he noted that the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a meeting of business leaders to look at how business can help promote religious freedom and prosperity.
Grim noted that government restrictions on religious freedom in the United States are increasing (they have dramatically risen since 2009). Formerly, America could be considered a world leader in religious freedom (now Brazil is number one). More than one third of U.S. workers say they have encountered religious discrimination on their jobs. To counter this, the nation should aim to make the workplace “FoRB friendly” (a European acronym for “freedom of religion and belief”). In a question and answer session, Dr. Grim said that the kind of restriction on religious liberty that has been dramatically increasing in the U.S. includes zoning issues (such as where churches can be built) and accommodation of religion in the public arena (such as public schools banning only religious groups). Barriers to building houses of worship in the majority of cases involve Christians, but disproportionately minority religious groups are affected.
The economic instability that the world has known since 2008, and the increasing political instability and military conflicts present or threatening in many parts of the world as America’s post-Cold War role as the world’s lone superpower recedes into the past, make it all the more important that the world see greater religious freedom, including recovery of religious freedom that has been lost, both to relieve existing religious tensions, and to contribute to the diversity that will promote free and prosperous societies.