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A Duty to Speak Out


Baylor faculty members work to advance the cause of religious liberty

In his Letter from Birmingham jail

, Dr. Martin Luther King responded to critics who questioned why he – an “outsider” to the city of Birmingham – was becoming involved in nonviolent protests by African Americans against the town’s business and government leaders. Wouldn’t it be better, the critics suggested, for him to use his influence in other areas? But for King, remaining at home in Atlanta and ignoring events in Birmingham was simply not an option. To remain silent, he felt, would give tacit approval to injustice.

“We will have to repent in this generation,” he wrote, “not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Just as King felt an obligation to speak out for victims of discrimination in Birmingham, many scholars now feel a duty to shine light on the problem of religious persecution around the world.

Violations of religious liberty can take many forms ranging from restrictions on religious practices to more severe persecution that can place adherents of a particular religion at risk of losing their jobs, their property or even their lives. According to the Pew Research Center, over threefourths of the world’s population live in areas with high levels of government restrictions and social hostilities toward particular religious groups.

In the face of these dangers, Baylor faculty members from a variety of disciplines are conducting research and advocacy aimed at protecting the freedom of religious groups around the world.

A multidisciplinary perspective

Dr. Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, originally came to Baylor to teach classes and conduct research as part of the university’s Institute for Church- State Studies, which functioned as a think-tank focused on issues that arise between religion and government. He is currently affiliated with Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where he is one of dozens of scholars who examine issues of faith from a wide range of perspectives. That multidisciplinary background, he says, allows for more nuanced understandings than could be reached in a less diverse environment.

“I think a multidisciplinary approach is important because we can get perspectives from one discipline that we don’t get from another,” explains Beckwith, who holds a master of judicial studies degree from Washington University in St. Louis in addition to his Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham University.

By blending legal and philosophical perspectives with social scientific analysis, Beckwith and his ISR colleagues can tackle broad philosophical questions without missing the day-to-day concerns that often plague issues of religion and society.

“Lawyers have practical wisdom that helps them anticipate pragmatic concerns that philosophers may not see. Philosophers can illuminate the understanding of lawyers when they think about big questions; social scientists can ask questions about the day-to-day experiences of believers that wouldn’t occur to philosophers.”

While a community of scholars studying issues of religious liberty is valuable on its own, Beckwith says the true benefit of Baylor’s work in this area occurs only when it translates into results that make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.

“Great movements begin with talking,” he says, “but they have to reach a critical mass and get people’s attention. All the academic writing in the world won’t help unless it is put in front of people with political or religious power. I write law review articles because they end up being picked up by judges and legislators. That’s when these ideas ultimately get attention.”

A partnership for success

Baylor’s advocacy for religious liberty isn’t limited to work on the Waco campus. The ISR partners with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs as part of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP), the nation’s only university-based program devoted exclusively to analysis of the state of religious freedom.

RFP was founded at Georgetown in 2011 with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion became a partner in 2014. Scholars affiliated with the partnership conduct research on the current state of religious liberty around the world as well as broader studies on the impact of these freedoms and their restriction on society.

The partnership between Baylor – the world’s largest Baptist university – and Georgetown – the nation’s oldest Catholic Jesuit university – is a natural fit, according to Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and the co-director of Baylor’s ISR.

“We don’t think it’s an accident that C atholics and Protestants are working together on these issues,” he says. “When you bring these two groups together, we can do more than we can separately.”

Johnson is careful to point out that while the two universities are both Christian, their inquiry and advocacy are intended to improve conditions for members of all faith groups.

“We don’t conceal the fact that we’re Christian, but we think freedom to believe is important for everyone – whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or have no religion at all. There’s a real need to produce good, peer-reviewed research that reasonable people can look at to understand the current state of religious liberty around the world.”

In addition to publishing academic work, RFP also holds conferences and meetings where scholars present their findings. Their events, often held in Washington on Georgetown’s campus, draw attendees and participants from around the world, including legal experts, policy analysts, and religious leaders from a wide range of faith traditions. Johnson says that reaching these audiences, as well as journalists and government officials who attend the meetings, is critical to help spark discussion on religious liberty issues.

An obligation to help

Frank Wolf didn’t consider human rights his most important legislative priority when he first won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1980, when voters from Virginia’s 10th Congressional District sent him to Washington, he was most concerned with issues related to transportation and infrastructure. But when a close friend in Congress, Representative Tony Hall from Ohio, invited him on a trip to Ethiopia in 1984, Wolf had what he calls a “life-changing experience.” Seeing conditions in the famine-stricken country first-hand left him with the conviction that the United States could not remain idle in the face of such profound human suffering.

Retiring in 2014 after his 17th term in Congress, Wolf was named Baylor University’s Jerry and Susie Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom. In that role, he continues his outspoken support for religious liberty by engaging in diplomacy, research and teaching.

Throughout his nearly 35-year career in politics, Wolf worked tirelessly to advocate on behalf of victims of persecution and discrimination around the world and to make the promotion of human rights and religious freedom a greater priority in America’s foreign policy. He authored the International Religious Freedom Act – legislation which created the International Religious Freedom Office at the Stat e Department and established the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom – and he chaired the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives charged with promoting, defending and advocating for international human rights.

He continued to travel extensively in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, meeting with dissidents and members of religious minority groups. Around the world, he says, he encountered people who suffered because of their faith (or because of their lack of faith) and who felt that the international community was ignoring their plight.

“On a trip to Iraq I met with a group of Catholic nuns who asked me, ‘Does the church in the West care about us?’ On another trip in the 1990s we sneaked into Tibet and met Buddhists who couldn’t understand why the West wasn’t doing more to help them. They feel abandoned, and I believe we have a moral obligation to help.”

To carry out that obligation, Wolf believes it is incumbent on people of faith to advocate strongly on behalf of religious freedom, not just for those who share the same faith, but for all people. To do that, he says, it is essential for researchers like those at Baylor and their RFP colleagues to document accurately the state of religious freedom in various places. With that information in hand, Wolf believes American diplomats can use their leverage to press for reforms.

“Ronald Reagan said that the words in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a covenant with the entire world, not just those who were in Philadelphia in 1776. I believe that extends to the students who protested in Tiananmen Square and to the Yazidis currently being persecuted by ISIS. Religious freedom is important both domestically and internationally, and if we lose that freedom, we will have a very different society.”