Interview with US Commission on International Religious Freedom Chairman – Prof. Daniel Mark

Professor Mark was recently elected chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame, and a JWI Affiliated Scholar. We invite you to  read our interview with Dr. Mark.

You are the Chairman of USCIRF –  what does your commission do?

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom advises the White House, State Department and Congress on foreign policy with respect to religious freedom abroad.  Our mission is to ensure religious freedom remains a high priority in US foreign policy. USCIRF serves each as watchdog and as advocate of religious freedom; recommending strategies to advance foreign religious freedom and holding the US government accountable when religious freedom is violated or forgotten. The commission monitors the conditions of religious freedom around the world with special focus on the worst offenders, at times directly interacting with representatives of foreign governments.

How is religious freedom important in a diplomatic context?

Religious Freedom is deeply tied to our national identity. Just as we hold Religious Freedom dear for ourselves we should do so for others.  The United States is the world leader in the defense of human rights and as such ought to continue to work for the protection of Religious Freedom. Research shows areas with greater degrees of religious freedom correlate with economic prosperity and political stability. Restriction of Religious Freedom fosters religious fundamentalism and violent extremism. In this sense, Religious Freedom is not just an American interest, it is a human interest. 

What is the most pressing issue in the work for religious freedom today?

The restriction of Religious Freedom in the name of security or stability. It’s often a façade or excuse for authoritarianism.  We view diversity as a strength. Other governments claim civic peace is disrupted by new or smaller groups and it is important to change this mindset.  It is important to remember to look at the condition of Religious Freedom country by country.

Why did you chose religious studies as a political scientist?

As a political scientist and theorist, I try to think about how we organize ourselves in society through law and government. Religion is a key force that interacts with the State on a significant wide-scale level and one of the main driving forces of human action. To discern what is a just polity, state, or society we must think about the proper place of religion. Where it should, or shouldn’t, be a part of government, politics, and law is very important.   

How do you see the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of speech?

They are very closely intertwined. I would not say one completely includes the other, but one aspect of religious freedom is free speech. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion challenge the idea that those who dissent from the majority should be silenced, shunned, or penalized.   For example: Religious freedom includes the right to preach, to proselytize, or to discuss one’s belief with others – these are expressions of freedom of speech as well.  Both freedoms fundamentally depend on the same idea of the human being as a moral agent, and as such ought to be free to ask the important questions about life and to seek the answers. People must have the liberty to speak freely to explore the truth, in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience, to the best of their ability and to express these truths in speech or in deed.

How does your work inform how you see religious freedom here in the United States?

My work helps me keep perspective and remember that we have it quite good here in the US. Seventy-five percent of the world population lives with serious restrictions on religious liberty. The perspective we get from thinking on the international scale should lead us to be vigilant of our own religious freedom. The religious freedom enjoyed in the US, and generally in the West, is unique in history. This uniqueness is a lesson on how rare such freedom in the world is. We must continue to guard our religious freedom through our law and build a culture that will honor religious freedom.

There is an upcoming Supreme Court Case on religious freedom – Masterpiece Cakes v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  Do you have any thoughts?

People should be free to use their God-given talents as they see fit. I think we should be able to deny service in some circumstances. In this case a baker is being asked to use his artistry to endorse a message he can’t participate in or endorse – I think denying this request is within his rights.  Some circumstances are so exceptional that it becomes important for the state to intervene. In the Jim Crow cases people would travel up and down the interstate without being able to find a restaurant to eat. This is a situation where someone can’t get a wedding cake at one bakery but they can at multiple others in the same area. If customers aren’t being denied service systematically throughout society and have no recourse then there is an issue. But except those most exceptional circumstances we should work on fostering a culture and citizens that wish to make room for one-another rather than a culture in which every citizen’s starting point is trying to find if they can force other citizens to their view. 

There seems to be a deep divide in our culture on that point – do you have any thoughts on how to bridge the gap?

I don’t know if we can reconcile these two philosophies. I don’t think we will see a decisive defeat of one over the other any time soon. On the contrary, I think that persuasion takes place one person at a time. I don’t think we can achieve or should aim for a society in which there is complete agreement. We need to, as far as we can, promote an open and respectful dialogue. As long as people are willing to listen, discuss, and argue civilly there is hope for achieving a culture of respectful disagreement.  

Dr. Daniel Mark

Dr. Daniel Mark, Affiliated Scholar