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Barbara L. Salisbury, For the Deseret News
Byron Johnson, left, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, looks on as Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center, talks on Friday, May 9, 2014. The two schools have formed a partnership to help promote and expand religious freedom.

What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke actually has a hopeful ending: An evangelical Protestant and a Roman Catholic walk into a conference room ... and two major universities join together in an effort to preserve religious liberty.

The burgeoning partnership between Byron Johnson, who directs the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and Tom Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, is bringing together two separate camps in Christianity that, for centuries, had often opposed each other.

Baylor in Waco, Texas, often billed as the world’s largest Baptist university, and Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Jesuit and Roman Catholic university, weren’t direct rivals, but their sponsors, historically, were. For centuries after the Protestant Reformation, cooperation between Catholic and Protestant groups was often viewed as aiding and comforting the ecclesiastical enemy.

But in the face of increased threats to religious liberty at home and abroad, a joint venture between the two institutions isn’t a punchline, it’s almost a necessity. Whether it’s the plea of a Christian-owned firm to be allowed its conscience in providing health care benefits to employees, the continuing debate over same-sex marriage’s religious liberty implications, or the persistent global imbalance of religious rights abuses in some parts of the world, the question of religious liberty cuts across theological and denominational borders.

"There's plenty of data to indicate religious liberty across the globe; the loss of religious liberty is on the upswing," said Johnson, who described himself as an evangelical Protestant.

Farr describes the current global religious climate "a political crisis of religious freedom. I think most Americans are simply not aware of what’s going on 'out there,' so to speak. ... They’re only episodically aware of the terrible suffering of Christian minorities and some Muslim minorities, and Jews and others out there, Tibetan Buddhists and Baha'is, and all the other minorities around the world. They’ve really suffered terrible harm frequently, sometimes on a daily basis."

Friendship spawns alliance

So how do people from a Catholic university and a Baptist one end up partnering on religious freedom? It starts with friendship, both men said. They met while serving on an advisory board at the Templeton Foundation.

"We became friends just because of so many common interests," Farr recalled. "It wasn’t too long after that that we began to say, 'You know, we should be cooperating together on the issue of religious freedom, because we share this passion for it. We’re from two different parts of the Christian tradition, but we come together on many things, and this is one of them.'"

Farr said informal talks on developing a joint program began in 2013 and the formal partnership "was sort of signed, sealed and delivered in early 2014."

Johnson recalled, "The more time we spent together, and the more we began to compare notes, and, (while) I haven't done research in the area of religious liberty, per se, but a lot of the work I do, studying prison reform, and the faith-based programs and the efficacy of the faith-based programs, where they're allowed to flourish and maybe where they're not allowed to flourish, what are the implications — those are all somewhat religious freedom issues."

Thus far, the joint venture — which doesn’t have a formal name — has organized two major events. A December 2013 conference called "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," was held in Rome, where the range of presenters included Baylor president and former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr.

Then in March, the two groups sponsored a daylong symposium, "Everybody's Business: The Legal, Economic and Political Implications of Religious Freedom," on the eve of Supreme Court arguments in Hobby Lobby's lawsuit over the Obamacare contraception mandate, with speakers as diverse as Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz and George Washington University's Ira C. Lupu confronting arguments from Hobby Lobby advocates, including one of its lawyers, Kyle Duncan, general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Johnson, a sociologist and criminologist by training who became interested in religious studies while doing research on correctional programs, said the Baylor University Press plans to publish two volumes of documents arising from the Rome conference. He meets frequently with the Georgetown team, Farr especially, to map out future events and strategies.

"We feel religious liberty is such a critical issue and such a timely one that it deserves our best," he said. "We will develop a Baylor presence in Washington even beyond the Georgetown partnership, even thought that's definitely an anchor for us," Johnson added.

Not everyone is smiling, however. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, also blasted what he said was the "increasing manipulation of religious freedom by conservative religions" and groups such as the Georgetown and Baylor joint venture.

"I see efforts like this as just another attempt to erode support for separation of church and state — albeit dressed up in a fancy academic gown," added Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

An agnostic's 'conversion'

Although many secularists disapprove, others see some benefit to the religious liberty cause for both believers and non-belivers.

Take program manager for the Berkley Center Claudia Winkler. She described herself as an "agnostic," and said that even working among many believers at the center, she's not tempted to join the faith camp.

"What I really appreciated about this particular project was the fact that I think civil discourse is lacking, particularly in issues related to domestic issues, in particular, religious freedom and the rights claims, and those kind of butting up against each other," she said. "There’s really an effort made to have educated discussions about these issues, and to be civil, to be informed, and to make sure that other people are informed on these matters."

Winkler is captivated by the idea of religious freedom and the notion that freedom of conscience protects non-believers as well. Speaking at the Berkley Center's offices on a busy northwest Washington street a few blocks from the Georgetown campus, she said the Baylor-Georgetown seminar on the Hobby Lobby case expanded her thinking.

"I’m not necessarily any more persuaded that on this particular issue; Hobby Lobby’s religious claims outweigh other important issues," she said. "But I have a better understanding of where they’re coming from, a better understanding of legally what their protections are or should be, and thus, were the case to go in their favor, would be certainly less surprised and outraged by it."

Even an agnostic can find value in promoting religious liberty, Winkler said. "Religious freedom applies to everybody, and that means people who do believe or don’t believe. It gives them the right to, basically, freedom of conscience at the end of the day. So I’m protected from having anybody’s religion forced on me, under religious freedom, just as somebody who is religious is protected in order to be able to practice their religion as they see fit."

Events such as the Rome conference and the Washington symposium are part of the partnership's future plan, Farr said, to link religious liberty with the development of better societies in terms of economics and growth. It's one thing to claim that religious freedom benefits a nation, but Farr and Johnson both want to demonstrate that with research.

"We know that we’re going to be doing at least two major public conferences per semester, so probably four a year plus whatever we end up doing in the summer," he said. "Many of them, not all of them, will be related to ... the relationship (of religious liberty) with economic development and the relationship with political development. So we’ll be bringing in experts, scholars, political leaders and others with some propositions on the table to debate. And we’ll have a public discussion."

While the groups haven't set specific benchmarks, Farr indicated the continued study of the subject, joint meetings and symposia will have some overall goals.

"What we’re doing over the next three years is to sort of narrow our focus to a couple of themes, and one of the big themes that’s more defined, if you like, than what we’d been doing, is to investigate in great detail the relationship between religious freedom and economic development and (what) all that means — economic freedom, poverty, women’s rights within the idea of economic productivity," he said.

Farr said another "aspect is the relationship between religious freedom and political development. Democracy, for example. … We think that there is objective evidence that you cannot have a stable democracy without religious freedom including, and especially, its public aspects. This is a very hard sell in Islamic countries, where the whole idea of religious freedom is viewed as a sort of western cultural imperialism."

Cooperation bridges divide

Neither Baylor nor Georgetown are alone in studying and advancing the cause of religious liberty.

Along with many grassroots efforts and those of specific denominations, Brigham Young University's International Center for Law and Religion Studies has a 14-year history in the field, with extensive work in promoting religious freedom overseas; the Religious Liberty Clinic at Stanford University's Law School gives students a chance to work on religious freedom law cases; and Andrews University's International Religious Liberty Institute, which seeks to "study ... the principles of religious liberty and church-state relations," are three programs at both church-owned and secular schools on the subject. For 10 years, Wake Forest University's divinty school operated its Center for Religion and Public Affairs, which closed after its director, Melissa Rogers, was named to head the Obama administration's office of faith-based programs.

"Religious people are not just a bunch of snake handlers and, emotionally, people who need therapy," Farr said. "There are some very deep and important philosophical, political and economic realities behind the issue of religion and of religious freedom. And we need to have a more serious conversation about it."

Starting that conversation between two scholars — one Protestant and one Catholic — is already leading to those more serious conversations, it appears. Where it will end is uncertain, but both Johnson and Farr note the effort has at least boosted awareness at what may be the highest levels of religious thought and action.

As Farr described it, during the Rome event in December, "I introduced Ken Starr to the pope and I said, 'This (conference) represents a Catholic-Baptist alliance of religious freedom.' And the pope responded with his big smile. It was striking, because he smiles a lot, but this was striking, and we got a photo of it. This was, to us, kind of the pope putting his blessing on our partnership."

According to Johnson, a photo of Pope Francis smiling with Baylor president Ken Starr stayed on the university's home page "for several days."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner