Book Reviews: Promoting religious freedom in an age of intolerance
Promoting religious freedom in an age of intolerance
Barbara Ann Rieffer-Flanagan
Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2022, 244 pp. ISBN: 9781803925868, £85.00 (hardback)
A pandemic is sweeping the world. But not just COVID-19. A pandemic of persecution is targeting women and men for what they believe (or don’t). For the last quarter-century, the United States, like many other states, have worked to promote religious freedom and prevent religious repression. But persecution continues like a plague.
Studies from the Pew Research Center indicate that 84 percent of the global population believes in God or a higher power. However, roughly two-thirds of humanity lives in countries with significant restrictions on faith practices. This is a recipe for rampant human rights violations and unrest as people struggle to peacefully live out their faith. Some people in the field of religious freedom are producing new resources, trying to chart innovative pathways forward. For instance, the Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism and Global Engagement, edited by Chris Seiple and Dennis Hoover, has offered a range of new ideas and solutions. But religious persecution will not go quietly into the night.
The year 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that mandated religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority and created special offices, reports, and designations to spur reforms. However, while U.S. efforts have helped the persecuted and brought some positive change, they have not stemmed the seemingly inexorable rise of restrictions identified by Pew every year.
With the International Religious Freedom Act and its various mechanisms turning 25, silver anniversaries are natural inflection points. Consequently, the timing of Barbara Ann Rieffer-Flanagan’s book couldn’t be better. Promoting Religious Freedom in an Age of Intolerance highlights past efforts in the field while elevating examples to pursue further.
Rieffer-Flanagan addresses building up religious freedom, multilateral approaches, education reform, government leadership, civil society engagement, new ideas of human dignity, and other topics. She explores “efforts to develop a religiously tolerant society and then ultimately one where the right to freedom of religion or belief is institutionalized in norms, dispositions, laws, and policies” (20). Rieffer-Flanagan understands the progressive nature of human rights work and recognizes that building on a firm foundation of respect for others can establish a basis for defending different communities’ religious beliefs.
Rieffer-Flanagan has pursued these ideas over a decade of research and reflection. She credits many leading voices with providing insights. Although much of what she extols will feel familiar to those steeped in the world of international religious freedom advocacy, her book is a useful introduction for those wanting to learn more. As the book is of manageable length, it provides a concise over-view of past challenges without going into the history of legislation or various theologies.
But the downside of brevity can be the loss of context. Such a relatively short book on this complex topic may not fully achieve her stated goal, which is “to understand the various policies and institutions a society needs as it evolves from an intolerant society where persecution exists to one where individuals are recognized, respected, and protected” (20). However, she effectively explores “how civil society, educational policies, domestic political leadership, international organizations, and foreign policy can make progress on the issue” (20).
Overall, Barbara Ann Rieffer-Flanagan has written a useful and timely book on an issue of international concern. She gives readers a sense of the challenge, information about past efforts, and ideas for a way forward. Hopefully, policy-makers and activists will engage and consider her book.
Knox Thames formally served as the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities at the State Department. He is currently writing a book on ending religious persecution. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.
 Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape,” 18 December 2012. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/.  Pew Research Center, “Globally, Social Hostilities Related to Religion Decline in 2019,” 30 September 2021. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/09/30/globally-social-hostilities-related-to-religion-decline-in-2019-while-government-restrictions-remain-at-highest-levels/.  Chris Seiple and Dennis Hoover, The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism and Global Engagement (London: Routledge, 2022).