Brian GrimAfter leading Pew Research Center’s work on global religious restrictions for nearly eight years, Brian J. Grim left Pew in early February to launch the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. Why the switch? The stats man noticed a correlation. Where religious freedom is restricted, jobs and economic growth often are too.

Pew’s latest report in January showed that 5.3 billion people—76 percent of the world’s population—live under harsh religious restrictions. Grim is now working to convince businesses and governments that they can help bring that number down while bringing revenue up.

Fresh off a trip to Brazil where he launched the new foundation, Grim discussed the state of religious restrictions in several key countries and described why businesses should care about religious freedom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Pellot: What motivated you to leave the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and establish the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation earlier this month?

Brian J. Grim: For the past decade I’ve been measuring the rising tide of restrictions on religious freedom around the world. I’m always asked where the success stories are and what can be done to roll back the tide. As a data person, I saw that the business and sports communities were missing from the religious freedom field. I know how much religious freedom helps economic progress and how much it suffers without. That’s one of the reasons I launched the foundation.

BP: More NGOs and governments seem to be paying attention to religious freedom issues. Why do you think that is? Is the same trend true in the business community?

BG: I think there are two things at play. First there’s definitely been an increase in religious restrictions and hostilities around the world. Secondly there’s more data out there documenting these restrictions and examining motivations behind them.

The world is filled with diverse people that look at things with different glasses depending on their interests. But religious restrictions and hostilities have an impact on all spheres of life. They impact human rights, economies and national security. Business people don’t usually discuss religion and business in the same sentence. But it’s one of the biggest problems facing economies.

Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law you can be put to death for suggesting something derogatory toward the divine. There have been cases of one business accusing another of blasphemy to undermine its rival. In Egypt, the struggle between Islamists, non-Islamists and religious minorities is driving away tourists, businesses and foreign investors, which hurts the economy.

A Turkish business leader told me that half of the country’s women wear headscarves, but only a fraction of them have jobs. They don’t get hired because it’s perceived as being bad for business. They’re cutting half of the labor market out of the picture. Once people see these connections, I think they’ll start to see how religious freedom benefits businesses.

BP: What about China? Business is booming amid some pretty harsh religious restrictions. Does the relationship between freedom and growth hold true in that context?

BG: Cardinal Orani Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro asked me the same question: “If religious freedom is good for business, what about China?” China has some of the highest restrictions on religion in the world, but look at China relative to itself. There have been great strides in the past 50 years.

In the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, all religions were supressed. People who identified with a religion were subject to beatings. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone willing to admit they were religious in that time. Today, half of people in China identify with a religion. The country is home to the largest Buddhist population, the seventh largest Christian population, and the seventeenth largest Muslim population in the world. China’s economic success would not have been possible had the country kept religion and other forms of identity completely suppressed.

I’m not making the argument that religious freedom was what launched the country’s economic success, but if draconian restrictions on religion and other things had not been lifted, the level of success we see today would not have been attained.

BP: I understand that you’re pegging the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s work to Olympic and World Expo events and host countries. How does Russia fare on the religious freedom front?

BG: Russia has gone from being a communist country where the goal was to eradicate religion to a country where religion has gained a place in society in just a few decades. Within the country’s mix of religions and amid the breakdown of the Soviet Union there has been a greater sense that religion and nationality are somehow helping to define the way forward. Religion has come back as part of how Russians define themselves.

That being said, there are certainly religious freedom challenges and negotiations playing out. Part of the new blasphemy law is Russia trying to define itself as a country with certain values. From their perspective, not putting up with people defaming religion in the public sphere is a way to protect religious sensibilities. From others’ perspectives, that may just add to religious hostilities.

BP: Brazil’s up next, hosting the Summer Olympics in 2016. Is that why you launched the foundation there earlier this month?

BG: Much of the focus on religious freedom has been trying to solve problems. When I looked at the data at Pew, I flipped it. I started looking at the most populous countries where there are very low restrictions on religion, countries like South Korea, South Africa and Japan. Topping that list was Brazil. Then I thought, what opportunities might arise in looking at religious freedom in a positive way.

Brazil is an emerging economy with lots of enthusiasm for businesses. In the past few decades it’s gone from a country where nearly everyone was Catholic to one where only two-thirds are Catholic. The shift has largely been towards other faiths, with people becoming Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc. These religious changes happened with virtually no violence or social strife, which is almost unimaginable in other contexts.

I was also just blown away by the Brazilian people’s support for religious freedom. They view it as a core part of their national identity. The response from religious groups and businesses has been equally enthusiastic.

BP: Some employees in the U.S. and the U.K., where I’m based, complain about religious restrictions in the workplace. Will your foundation focus on America and Europe, or look more towards developing economies?

BG: Our focus is global. Rather than trying to take negative stances and just say we need to let people in businesses say “Merry Christmas,” we’ll host events where people can express how faith and business can work together. Religion is often an awkward topic, but if people are motivated by faith in their business, that’s OK to talk about. We don’t need to shun religion to the corner.

BP: Your role at Pew was pretty objective. Do you envision the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation being more of an advocacy organization?

BG: In my new role, I’m taking the position that religious freedom is good for business. I dont know if that’s necessarily advocacy, but having looked at the data there is a positive message to be said about religious freedom, not just negative messages about the problems.

8 Comments

  1. The business case for religious freedom is very simple. Business and religion are two different things. Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and no one has any right to inflict their religious views or practices on another in business. That works in both directions. Business may not force workers to submit to their religious or non-religious views, and workers may not demand that businesses subscribe to their religious or non-religious views. The solution in business is the same as with the state, unless your business is religion, religion should be kept out of business.

    • In other words, according to gilhcan, every individual business owner’s, and every congregation-related business’s, constitutional freedom of religion and conscience has just been REPEALED, courtesy of the gay marriage activists.

      Only those Christian businesses (and Christian social agencies, and Christian colleges) that cooperate with the Official National Gay Marriage Religion shall be allowed to have constitutional religious freedoms forthwith!

      • You don’t read so well. Businesses should not be inflicting religious views on anyone. Employee or customer.

        There is no act of religious conscience to engage in business discrimination. There never was a religious right to discriminate against others in public activities.

    • gilhcan,

      Not sure I agree with your contention that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. As a First Amendment matter the two are mutually exclusive. For if you have a right to be free from my religious expression then I cannot at the same time have the right to freely express mine. The Constitution guarantees the freedom to not the freedom from.

      I believe that this so-called right to be free from religion has led to all manner of upside down court rulings, such as prohibiting cheerleaders from displaying a religiously themed banner at a football game just because someone got offended. The Constitution does not guarantee the freedom from offense…for any of us. The further we go down that road the further our religious freedom is eroded until ultimately it becomes completely marginalized and privatized. Some in our society would love to see that happen.

      Indeed, I agree that to “inflict” others with our religious views and practices is wrong and IMO inconsistent with how Jesus wants his followers to live in this world. We are not called to be obnoxious, rude, or disrespectful. We are called to quietly live under his Lordship, full of both grace and truth, and always in love.

      Peace

      • Religious freedom never involves compulsion to abide by religious ideas. If one is not willing to respect the right not to believe in any religion at all, you cannot really respect the right of people to believe in different god(s) than your own. I suspect people like yourself really don’t even like the notion of religious freedom if it applies to faiths other than yours.

        Without the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause cannot exist. Government must always be neutral in matters of faith in order to respect all of them. Removing religion from public endorsement is one way. Embracing all faiths (including atheism) is a fair minded and ecumenial manner is another.

        What you call “upside down” court rulings are mostly misrepresentations of fact on your part and a lack of understanding of what your religious freedoms are. In every case it involves religious people hijacking the apparatus of government to further their sectarian, exclusionary religious agendas. The Separation of Church and State protects both. Nobody should have to pay taxes to support the religious faith of others. A government which shows favoritism towards a faith shows exclusion to others.

        Essentially someone who tells me they oppose secularism and the separation of church and state is telling me they want their religion to control our government and openly despise other religious ideas.

  2. If you incorporate a business in the U.S., you receive certain legal protections and the business incurs certain legal obligations. For instance, owners are not personally liable for legal judgments made against the company – they are separate legal entities. But the business is obligated to follow laws regarding hiring, nondiscrimination, etc., regardless of the owner’s personal beliefs.

    Now some business owners want to extend their personal religious freedom protections to their business to release that distinct legal entity from certain legal obligations. It seems to me that they want their cake and to eat it to. They want all of the personal protections for themselves and to limit the obligations that incorporation imposes on their business.

    Perhaps they should have the option to give up the personal legal protections that incorporation affords in return for release from the obligations their business incurs. But I really don’t think they can have it both ways.

    In other words, if it hurts, quit doing it. If your business’s legal obligations are more than you can personally bear, don’t own a business.

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