Economic freedom, that is, the granting of property rights and the ability to enter into contracts with others, is taken for granted in the United States and in most developed countries. Countless studies demonstrate the importance of property rights and contracts, as well as good institutions and democracy more broadly, to economic growth and development. What if economic freedom was a luxury that only arises in the presence of something even more fundamental: religious freedom?
Using data from over 146 countries since 1996, my research shows that increases in religious freedom precede and help explain increases in economic freedom. The logic is simple: since religious freedom fundamentally involves granting individuals the autonomy to think and worship in whatever form they choose, it is arguably the most basic of all freedoms. Property rights are of little use if those who hold them do not have the freedom to think what they want and practice what they believe.
Unfortunately, this freedom is under threat. Religious freedom has declined sharply over the past decade, especially in countries as heavily populated as China and India. The decline was also concentrated in countries that traditionally rank high in economic freedom and property rights. Even the US, UK and France saw declines. Consider a recent case involving Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinette College, who distributed Christian pamphlets to fellow students and sought to discuss the gospel on campus. After being forced by the college to only speak in the college’s two “speaking areas”, Chike was later told to stop sharing his faith altogether. The Alliance Defending Freedom took up Chike’s case, and it prevailed in the Supreme Court, but its story reflects growing attacks on religious practitioners in the United States.
This result may surprise some analysts, policymakers, or scholars who disagree that the religious freedom of certain groups is under threat in the United States. For example, some cite the Roberts Court’s increasingly friendly disposition toward mainstream Christians and the court system’s comprehensive defense of religious freedom. But as I have documented, government restrictions are only part of the equation when assessing religious freedom in any given society; the level of social hostility is another critical element. Moreover, these legal victories could also be consistent with an improvement in the legal acumen of religious liberty advocates, or even an increase in the rate of unwarranted abuse.
Religious freedom is fundamental. Even committed lay people should care deeply about this. If the right to think and worship freely eludes him, economic freedom will follow.
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