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The business case for religious freedom: Q&A with Brian J. Grim

We often hear about religious freedom in the context of human rights and national security. Brian J. Grim, founding president of the new Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, argues that religious freedom is just as important for mom and pop shops and global economies.

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.

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