09/21/2012 05:52 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Does Religious Freedom Matter?

The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life has released its third report on global restrictions on religion, "Rising Tide of Religious Restrictions." This report, like the ones preceding it, presents a quantitative measure of government and social restrictions on religion to assess the state of religious freedom around the world. It documents the diverse--and often severe--ways state and societal actors restrict religious groups in every region of the world, and suggests that these restrictions have been intensifying in recent years.

But how much does religious freedom matter? Attention to this topic is certainly great among religious groups, some human rights activists, and--maybe--the US government. With the exception of some culture war debates, though, religious freedom has rarely been a prominent topic in this election season. It is often compartmentalized as a niche issue, approached warily as a cover for right-leaning partisanship, folded under general political rights, or just ignored. But restricting religion does result in unique--and often severe--effects on politics due to the powerful nature of religious beliefs and the veneer of morality it gives to state efforts. While normative debates over religious freedom will continue to rage, these empirical aspects of restrictions on religion mean religious freedom should be of concern to everyone, not just religious communities.

Religious freedom deals primarily with the ability of religious groups to practice as they see fit, without interference from government actions. This includes preaching, religious rituals, conversion and proselytism, as well as freedom from religion, such as the ability to not worship or no join the majority faith.

There are some debates about the definition of religious freedom. Does religious freedom reside in individuals or communities? What happens when a religious group's practice clashes with a society's norms? And does political activism by religious groups support or undermine a society's religious freedom?

There are also debates about its desirability. Some see religious freedom as a Western value that fails to respect cultural diversity. Others see it as a partisan--specifically right-wing--issue. And still others believe it matters, but that it is indistinguishable from general political repression, which should be our main focus.

Most of these debates will never be resolved. Whether religious freedom is a Western or universal value is not something I am qualified to address. And as I've noted , religious freedom can become a partisan issue, although it does not inevitably have to be one.

But as to whether religious freedom can be combined with other rights--and whether religious repression can be seen as "just another" type of repression, without any unique aspects--a growing body of evidence indicates this is not the case. Restrictions on religion have two specific effects on politics that are distinct from other types of repression.

First, they can increase political violence in society. As some academic studies have shown, government restrictions on religion increase social conflict. And the Pew report notes that states that favor one religion over others tend to have more intense social hostilities. It is easy to see why: when a state favors one religion and restricts others, it exacerbates existing tensions between majority and minority groups and radicalizes elements of the favored community. This can be seen in Pakistan, where state support for conservative Sunni Islam led to intense violence against minorities--such as the schismatic Muslim Ahmadiyya sect--and Sri Lanka, where official favoring of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese helped provoke a disastrous civil war with the minority Tamil population.

Second, they expand the authoritarian toolkit. Authoritarian regimes control societies through various means, including outright repression, co-option through subsidized resources, and distraction through the championing of popular international and domestic causes. Restrictions on religion serve all of these functions. States can arrest people for violating religious norms, gain the support of religious communities through favorable policies, and support religious causes to win public approval. For example, the Belarussian government has detained anti-regime activists for purportedly illegal religious activities. And Saudi Arabia has long subsidized conservative Islamic activities in the country and abroad. Moreover, many states--Muslim and non-Muslim--have internationalized their domestic restrictions on religion by supporting a ban on religious defamation in the United Nations.

Restrictions on religious practice by states do have negative consequences for societies. They increase societal tensions, making states more unstable. And they enable authoritarian regimes to repress domestic dissent. While legitimate concerns exist about religious freedom's normative value or specific ways in which it is applied, everyone concerned about state failure and political freedom should pay attention to restrictions on religion around the world.