A common theory about freedom of religion suggests that such a value is grounded in a modus vivendi, or compromise: People agree to respect each other’s freedom in order to avoid religiously motivated strife. But the modus vivendi theory obscures the deep ground of principle on which the right of religious liberty rests and the true reasons for respecting the religious freedom of others.
As a Republican and a Democrat on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, we are committed, with our colleagues, to advancing religious liberty around the globe. One of our goals is to make clear that such liberty is not simply a matter of sensible social compromise, or just an American ideal or a Western value, but an essential element of human dignity.
We humans reflect on our condition and inquire into the origins of the cosmos and the meaning of our lives. We seek answers to the deepest questions: Where do we come from? What is our destiny? Is there a transcendent source of meaning and value? Is there a “higher law” that obliges us to rise above our personal interests and desires in order to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”?
Many of us grasp the point of this quest because we experience ourselves as more than merely material beings tied to nature’s necessities. Our most immediate and intimate experiences of ourselves are as free and rational creatures—agents capable of choosing, thus helping to shape our world. We sense that we are responsible for our own actions, and we judge that others, by the same token, are responsible for theirs.