“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”
FDR included the right to worship as the second of the four freedoms America would miss if it had to live in a world where tyranny reigns. At first glance, this right may appear narrower than the other three on FDR's list: speech, want, and security. Historically, however, this has not been the case. Religious freedom and tolerance are intimately bound up with the rights to free thought and free speech, and to free association and peaceful assembly.

Modern ideas about religious liberty are said to date back to the last major religious wars in Europe, known as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). A partial solution to help end these devastating civil wars lay in the terms set out in the peace treaty of Westphalia, which specified the nation-state as the highest level of government. Sovereignty meant that each state could choose its own religion without outside intervention, thus putting to rest the idea of the Holy Roman Empire having dominion over the entire Christian world. In addition, the treaty called for the protection of Catholics in Protestant states and vice versa.1

Despite Westphalia, intolerance continued to rage on the European continent. Puritans and other religious dissidents fled to the British North American colonies in hopes of being able to practice their faiths without persecution. Eventually, they would set up a new republic based on the idea that enforced religious belief was a tool of oppression and a cause of bloodshed. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that Congress cannot establish a state religion or show preference for one religion over another, nor can it prohibit religious freedom.

America as Moral (and Christian) Nation

Paradoxically, however, religion still lies at the heart of American politics. One of the nation's greatest (and perhaps least understood) ironies is that religion continues to play a pivotal role in motivating and shaping the way America views itself and its mission in the world. As the journalist John Judis observed at an Eckerd College address in October, George Bush's rhetoric of good and evil, his insistence that Americans have been “called” to spread “the Almighty's gift” of freedom to every man and woman in the world, has often been attributed to his ties with the religious right, but in fact reflects a centuries-old tradition. “This very same vision runs through American foreign policy from the beginning—even before America became its own country,” Judis told the Eckerd audience. “It goes all the way back to the Puritan settlers, who saw themselves as God's chosen people, with a mission to establish the kingdom of God on earth.”

Judis went on to qualify this statement by pointing to a crucial difference between then and now. Whereas the Puritans wanted to create “a city on the hill”—one that would set a moral example for the rest of the world—today's America is interested in “actively transforming the world.” President Bush may have framed this mission in largely secular terms—those of spreading democracy; but his statements on democracy promotion hark back to the pro-imperialists of the late nineteenth century—to the missionaries, adventurers, and soldiers who felt compelled to shoulder the “white man's burden” in places far from home.

Judis suggested that in this sense Bush resembles Theodore Roosevelt, who, as vice president, embarked on campaigns in the Philippines and Mexico, justifying this expansionist policy on the grounds that America had a “calling” to take its religious beliefs to the world.2 The Progressives of Roosevelt's era believed that it was God who wanted the United States to dominate the Western Hemisphere. “He has marked us as his chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world,” remarked Senator Albert Beveridge in 1900. Likewise, America's sense of mission in the twenty-first century remains embedded in a system of predominantly Christian values.

President Bush has taken care to stress the nation's tradition of religious tolerance, stating in his second inaugural speech that the edifice of the American national character “is sustained by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.” Nevertheless, the tenor of many of his statements about the “war on terror” suggests that the United States is engaged in a moral struggle against those of other religious persuasions. Examples include Bush's own use of the word “crusade” shortly after 9/11 and Lt. Gen. William Boykin's now-infamous remark: “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” 3 President Bush retracted his “crusade” remark and eventually reprimanded Boykin for his outspokenness. Yet the animosity expressed through these words still rankles and, according to polls, has damaged the image of the United States abroad, particularly among Muslims.

New Threats to Religious Liberty

In FDR's day, the greatest challenge to religious tolerance entailed resolving long-standing tensions among people of various Christian faiths, and between Christians and Jews. The mid-twentieth century was, after all, a time when people would argue whether a Catholic or Jew would ever become president. Now we have had a Catholic president and a Jewish vice-presidential candidate. Despite this progress, religious freedom faces new challenges.

With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act following the attacks of 9/11, FBI agents were given broader powers to monitor religious and political groups, and visit houses of worship without any evidence that a crime has been committed. They have used these new powers to pay close attention to what is being preached in America's mosques—an activity sanctioned by significant numbers of Americans.4 In the words of conservative social activist Robert Spencer: “Many American mosques receive funding from Saudi Arabia. Isn't it reasonable to suspect that the noxious ideas preached in Saudi mosques have followed all this Saudi money to America? And if so that terrorists acts might follow? Unless we're paying attention to what the American imams are preaching, we may never know the answer until it's too late.”

Likewise in Europe, religious liberty came under pressure with the discovery of al-Qaeda cells in Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Politicians across the continent have been pushing for laws reining in Europe's burgeoning Muslim community as well as sterner measures against Islamic radicals—a movement given impetus by the bombings of the public transport systems in Madrid and London, and by the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker who criticized Islam.

The debate over limiting rights to free speech and religion has yielded an important outcome in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim community and now acknowledges the failure of its “republican” approach to integration, whereby immigrants were supposed to blend harmoniously into society and not exist in separate communities. France recently passed a law banning conspicuous displays of religious symbols in state schools, including the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. This secularist credo, which enjoyed 80 percent public support in France, is a new stretch for the European Union's human rights laws pertaining to the freedom of religion.5

As Michael Smith noted at the March Eckerd meeting, the notion of freedom to worship has become so besieged that it is sometimes difficult to remember why religious pluralism became the established norm in the first place. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one's religious beliefs. World leaders agreed to this article because of having witnessed firsthand the ethnic and religious massacres of two world wars. They believed that the only way for people of various backgrounds to live together in relative peace was by cultivating an attitude of religious plurality. Since no religion can claim to teach the sole or absolute truth, people of various faiths (or no faith) should respect and tolerate one another, and should interact without conflict or pressure toward assimilation.

Growing Religious Diversity—and Extremism

Smith acknowledged, however, that the forces of globalization have complicated the picture since FDR's time. Thanks to the ease of international travel and migration, as well as to demands for cheap labor, an estimated 3-6 million Muslims live in North America today, and 35- 50 million in Western and Eastern Europe. These new demographics lend urgency to the age-old question: to what extent does a liberal society have to tolerate illiberal minorities? Answering that question is particularly difficult when such groups insist upon educating their children in separate schools. The United States faced this issue last century when a group of Amish people made the claim that state education was detrimental to Amish religious values. In a landmark Supreme Court decision of 1972, the Amish were granted the right to remove their children from compulsory education after the eighth grade—a decision hailed as a victory for religious liberty in America.

But the Plain People, as the Amish are known, are a Christian sect, preaching peace and the virtues of simple living. Would Americans feel comfortable if any religious group were to argue that the same freedom applies to them, and then sent their children to religious schools preaching hatred of the West?

At the same time that globalization has led to religious diversity beyond anything FDR or his contemporaries envisioned, it has also spawned a new wave of religious extremism in reaction to the spread of modernization and secular values. Michael Smith noted that this second trend has become apparent not only in the Muslim world but also in the United States, where fundamentalists of various faiths have joined forces to wage a political battle for control of the American identity. The composition of Bush supporters in the 2004 election suggests that Christian fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics have united against their progressive counterparts—secularist, reform Jews, liberal Catholics and Protestants—as each side struggles to shape the values governing the family, art, education, law, and politics.6

Thus whereas in FDR's time, struggles centered around the issue of whether Christians of various sects could coexist with one another and with Jews, a chasm has now opened up between Americans who would prefer less separation between church and state, and those who do not wish to see this principle further eroded.

Eckerd speakers repeatedly stressed the need for both the United States and the world community to find their way back to religious pluralism. Judis urged American leaders to study the results of the nation's previous attempts at empire building in the name of God. Such efforts have not served us well in the past. Instead of Americans seeing themselves as a “chosen people” and a “Christian nation,” Judis suggests that we would be better off projecting an understanding and an acceptance of the great diversity of the world's religions.


1) In 1995, the U.S. Congress established an independent bipartisan commission on international religious freedom, along with an ambassador at large to represent this issue on behalf of the U.S. government. The formation of this body reflects a commitment to promoting religious liberty at home and abroad that goes back to FDR's freedom of worship. Should the United States government be lobbying for religious freedom in other countries? What action should it take in response to violations? Should it also be highlighting positive examples?
2) Significant funding for al-Qaeda came from the al-Farooz mosque in Brooklyn. How much religious freedom should be granted to Muslims living in the United States? Is it right to monitor their places of worship?
3) Do believers have the right to offer their children a one-sided education in private religious schools, excluding all points of view that may conflict with their beliefs? What happens when the right to education, as enshrined in Article 26 of the UDHR, comes into conflict with Article 18, the right to religious freedom?
4) Could a non-believer or atheist be elected president of the United States? If not, why not, and what does that say about separation of church and state in this country?



Feiler, Bruce. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. William Morrow, 2002. Chapter 1, “Home,” is available at http://www.amazon.com.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press, 2000. Chapter 1, “Terror and God,” is available at http://www.amazon.com.

Smith, Michael J. Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger. Louisiana State University Press, 1986. See in particular his chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr.
Stern, Jessica. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Ecco, 2003.

Study Guide: “Freedom of Religion or Belief.” University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, 2003. Available at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/studyguides/religion.html.

Edited Speech transcripts on CarnegieCouncil.org

Ash, Timothy Garton. “Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West.” Merrill House Programs, 2004.

Kepel, Gilles. “The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West.” Merrill House Programs, 2004.

Klein Halevi, Yossi. “Religion, Reconciliation, and Conflict in the Holy Land.” History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program, 2002.

Sacks, Jonathan. “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.” History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program, 2003.


1. For the full text of the Treaty of Westphalia (October 24, 1648), go to http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/westphal.htm.
2. Roosevelt lost his enthusiasm for the imperialist experiment after becoming president, however, concluding that the attempt to take over the Spanish empire had been unsuccessful.
3. Boykin made this remark in an address to a church congregation in 2003. He was referring to his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, which had taken place ten years before.
4. Nearly half (44%) of the respondents to a recent Cornell University survey said that they favored some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.
5. See Charles Bremner, "Stoned to death… Why Europe is starting to lose its faith in Islam," in The Times of London(4 December 2004).
6. See the special report on America's religious right in The Economist of 23 June 2005, which explains that religious people of all faiths tend to be anchored in the Republican Party.