There is a strong relationship between economic prosperity and religious liberty
November 13, 2009
Several years ago a group of Arab intellectuals came together to study the economic malaise—fueled by high unemployment, massive illiteracy, and anemic GDPs—that grips much of the Muslim and Arab world. Their 2002 study, “The Arab Human Development Report: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations,” remains one of the most sober self-assessments of what has gone wrong with Arab economies and why. The report’s authors lament the “bridled minds” and “shackled potential” of nations which deny their citizens basic civil liberties.
Their candor, however, cannot disguise a fundamental evasion: There is no admission of the cultural hostility toward religious freedom and pluralism that infects Arab societies. This mental state of denial prevents Muslim leaders from recognizing the strong relationship between economic prosperity and religious liberty.
Christian reformers of the seventeenth century, in fact, were among the first to grasp the importance of freedom of conscience to the stability and economic well-being of the state. Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), an early leader of the English Baptists, produced the most principled defense of religious liberty in his day. His Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612) insisted that a man’s religion was no business of the king, and that people of all faiths—“let them be heretiks, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever”—should be left alone. If every sect were granted freedom of worship, he reasoned, there would be far less strife and contention. “Behold the Nations where freedome of Religion is permitted,” he wrote, “and you may see there are not more florishinge and prosperous Nations under the heavens then they are.”
Some of the most provocative pro-toleration statements came from lay people whose vocations exposed them to the benefits of pluralism. Henry Robinson (1605-1664), a merchant and son of a wealthy London tradesman, traveled widely on the Continent. In works such as Liberty of Conscience (1643), Robinson regarded the right of private judgment in matters of faith as essential to human flourishing, akin to the right to private property or private enterprise. These rights were connected, and the repression of religious freedom produced blowback in the economic realm. A persecuting state, he wrote, forced Puritans to leave England and “carry with them their gifts, arts, and manufacturers into other countries, to the greatest detreiment of this commonwealth.” Economic ruin, he predicted, would be the fate of nations that seized their citizens’ property or drove them into exile over religion.
These were radical ideas in Europe in the seventeenth century. The Treaty of Westphalia had ended the religious wars on the Continent, but only by creating a system of national church establishments, which were free to harass and penalize religious minorities within their borders. Catholics were the first to develop both the theory and machinery of religious persecution; Protestants, though not as brutally systematic, followed the same dreary pattern. Both traditions predicated political and social stability on religious conformity: dissent was viewed as an incubator of sedition…