An Economic Case for International Religious Freedom


On President’s Day, Americans awoke to news that 21 Coptic Christians had been beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Libya. The world rightly and roundly condemned the killings, responding in ways ranging from prayers and statements of solidarity to military airstrikes. My friends on this blog have written a thoughtful reflection and a prayer. I encourage you to read them, along with this powerful interview with  Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom. Bishop Angaelos packs great wisdom into his brief statement. I will focus on his thoughts about international religious freedom:

“I would like to see us all start to work towards human rights generally, because when we’re divided into different departments or organizations any change will be fragmented…as a Christian, I will never be comfortable just safeguarding the rights of Christians. We need to help everyone.”

Indeed; the only way to halt persecution over the long term is to help build societies that respect freedom of conscience or belief – for all faiths and none.

Emerging research suggests that religious freedom is not just a critical human rights issue, but plays a crucial role in economic development.

This linkage is important in its own right, and should be contemplated by policymakers, business leaders, and opinion shapers; it also gives religious freedom advocates a compelling, data-driven argument to wield in their work. At the forefront of this research is Dr. Brian Grim, who heads the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation.

In a recent article for the World Economic Forum and in a TED Talk,

Grim notes that while studies do not “prove” that religious freedom causes economic growth, the strong associations between the two must be considered.

Grim highlights five economic effects that appear to be (at least partially) boosted by respect for freedom of religion or belief:

  • Reduced corruption. According to Grim, research finds that laws and practices that exclude religion are related to higher levels of corruption; nine of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world have high or very high governmental restrictions on religious liberty.
  • More peace. This fact is both crucial and intuitive: where religious freedoms are not respected, violence and conflict often occur. Majority religious groups persecute minorities (officially or unofficially) while minority groups, who often have no legal standing or options, turn to violent tactics. Grim notes that business is disrupted, local and foreign investment is driven away, and sustainable development is undermined.
  • Less harmful regulation. Grim explains that some religious restrictions can directly affect economic activity, creating legal barriers for import and export industries, such as religiously-sanctioned foods (e.g. halal or kosher). In other cases, restrictive anti-blasphemy laws have been used to attack business rivals.
  • Reduced liabilities. In countries with more developed legal systems, businesses that practice religious discrimination are susceptible to financial and legal consequences. Grim cites the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, which allegedly refused to hire a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.
  • More diversity and growth. Grim points out that religious freedom can contribute to a “rich pluralism” that helps foster economic growth. He notes that the world’s 12 most religiously diverse countries each saw greater, or more rapid, growth between 2008 and 2012 than the global economy at large.

Innovative Strength

Grim’s points about religious freedom and diversity are being tested by one critical, massive case study: China. And other observers seem to agree. In an article in First Things Grim notes that while religion is still highly restricted in China, the country is more open than it was during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, and home to the world’s second largest religious population after India. Yukong Zhao, a China expert at Siemens Corporation, states in Forbes that China’s people and their largely Confucian values are key drivers of China’s economic success, along with Western learning and pro-growth government policies.

Meanwhile, using provincial data from 2001 to 2011, academics Qunyong Wang and Xinyu Lin have found that robust economic growth occurs in areas of China where Christian congregations and institutions are prevalent.

There is much more to be said, discussed, and debated about the links between economics and religious freedom. Again, as Dr. Grim advises, research does not prove that religious freedom causes economic growth (though few things, if any, can be “proven” in science, especially the social kind). But the links between these issues cannot be ignored; indeed, they should be further explored and publicized. I urge you to do so as we seek to safeguard the rights of Christians and people of all faiths and none.

Michael Searway lives in Virginia and attends Grace Downtown.



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