Religious and Economic Freedom: Inseparable & Indispensable

Nearly four centuries ago, Francis Cooke was literally sailing for his life.  In a 100-foot boat with over 130 other passengers, he spent five months at sea sailing from one side of the Atlantic to the other.  Storms and severe sickness would not deter him or his shipmates; they knew there was no turning back.  And no going home.  Who was Francis Cooke?  He was a religious refugee.  And his ship was called the Mayflower.

On November 21, 1620, 41 leaders of this pilgrimage, including Francis Cooke, pledged their lives to a contract known as the Mayflower Compact.  It provided a basis to “enact, constitute and frame…just and equal laws…for the general good of the colony.”

Like the Mayflower Compact, the Constitution of the United States provides a powerful framework for governance.  It outlines the right to not only believe but also act on personal religious faith. Our Constitution has enabled a pluralistic landscape where multiple religions, cultural preferences, and free enterprise can live in harmony with each other.

Sadly, not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

Religious freedom, in principle, has been accepted worldwide as a part of the UN Declaration of Universal Rights; however, it varies significantly in its adoption.  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, the highest ranking countries for religious freedom include the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Philippines, Japan, U.K., Italy and South Korea.  At the bottom of the list are North Korea, Iran, China, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and the Sudan, where suppression and persecution of religious minorities are all too common.

With this baseline for religious freedom, we can make this striking comparison about the economic prosperity of these countries:  the average GDP per capita for the top ten countries for religious freedom is roughly $22,000, while for the bottom ten countries it’s just roughly $4,500 – a difference of 5:1!

Economic data and historical patterns indicate that religious freedom and economic development are inseparably linked.  I believe this connection is based upon three major principles.

  • The free exchange of ideas, whether they be religious or not, sparks free enterprise.
  • The moral and ethical foundation provided by religion limits corruption and keeps free enterprise free.
  • The freedom to believe and act according to the dictates of conscience produces a confident self-identity, and consequently boosts productivity.

Let’s look at the first principle: The free exchange of ideas sparks free enterprise

Globally we have major challenges to tackle…poverty, disease, pollution, conflict, to name a few. If each of these challenges is like a giant lock, then the free exchange of ideas is like a key grinder, shaping the solutions to unlock them.  If we are forced to scale back the free exchange of ideas, either through intimidation or political correctness, the variety of ideas available to tackle complex problems will diminish and with it, the potential solutions we seek.  The suppression of ideas suppresses innovation and economic opportunities.

The ability to think, believe, and act freely enables the “invisible hand” to guide free market behavior.  As ideas are allowed to grow so does free enterprise.

Let’s consider the second principle: Religious freedom provides a foundation of ethics and morals that limits corruption and helps keep free enterprise free.

Corruption is the great tax on economic prosperity.  Religious freedom and economic freedom prosper when there’s a social conscience:  a willingness to engage in behaviors that are morally civilized but unenforceable…like kindness and honesty.  Throughout history, religious beliefs and institutions have played a defining role in establishing this moral and ethical foundation.

As George Washington stated in his farewell address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. “

The Founding Fathers understood that religious freedom is critical to national prosperity.

The third principle is that confident self-identity as a result of religious freedom boosts productivity and entrepreneurship.

The relationship between religious freedom and economic freedom is easier to conceptualize when viewed through the lens of human motivation.  Over 70 years ago Abraham Maslow created a theoretical model to explain why people do what they do, known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  This model starts with basic physiological needs—food, shelter, air, and clothing—then moves to higher order needs, including safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem and finally something Maslow described as self-actualization.  That is the point at which we are in harmony with any religious or higher purpose in life and fully able to express talents and ideas.

People running for their lives, like Francis Cooke on the Mayflower and 65 million refugees today (that’s roughly 1 out of every 100 people on earth), are not thinking about self-actualization.  They’re thinking about survival.  It is common sense to recognize that there is a relationship between a lack of basic human needs being met and economic productivity.  If people are starving and under the threat of death, their economy will suffer.  People oppressed or silenced are no different.  The expression of one’s true identity, including religious identity, is at the very heart of human motivation to achieve.

Today, religious freedom is facing significant challenges, including in the United States.  It’s increasingly common for people of faith to be marginalized in their ability to act upon their beliefs.  We need to transcend differences in order to preserve a free and prosperous society.

So what are some practical things we can do? Here’s a simply starting point:

  • Become educated about religious freedom and understand our rights.
  • Build relationships in your community with people of diverse opinions and backgrounds
  • Find ways to protect the rights of everyone to act upon their beliefs, including people of faith.

Let’s continually affirm our right to agree and disagree, believe or disbelieve.  What binds us together is greater than what divides us.

Francis Cooke fought for these ideas and was a pioneer of the greatest expansion of human rights and liberties in history, ultimately resulting in what we now know as the United States of America. His impact is incredibly personal to me because I am his 12th great-grandson.

In conclusion, religious freedom and economic prosperity are intrinsically intertwined.  No nation on earth can reach its full economic potential if it limits the freedom to think and to believe.



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