Cliff Owen, Associated Press
Secretary of State John Kerry, with Rabbi David Saperstein at the State Department.

Recent scholarship indicates that religious freedom is an important contributing factor for much of what the world yearns for — peace and economic prosperity. As described in Brian Grim and Roger Finke’s book, “The Price of Freedom Denied,” religious freedom is not only strongly correlated with other freedoms and civil liberties, but it is also an important factor in other universally desirable goods such as lower levels of armed conflict and poverty, along with higher levels of income and better lives for women.

Conversely, the lack of religious freedom leads to increased hostilities and constrained liberties sometimes shocking to the human conscience. For example, a Sudanese woman was recently forced to give birth while shackled in chains in prison for refusing to renounce her Christian beliefs. In Pakistan, a woman was recently sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad during an altercation after her co-laborers refused to receive water from a Christian. In Burma, Muslims are being mercilessly run out of their country even as the majority Buddhist population emerges from years of repression. And in Nigeria, the group Boko Haram holds a nation hostage by kidnapping children and bombing schools as it attempts to enforce its religiously intolerant vision.

The consequences from such abuses of religious freedom do not stop at our borders. For example, over the past few months we have watched in horror as the so-called Islamic State enslaves women, decimates minorities and beheads nonbelievers in Syria and Iraq while dragging the U.S. into a military contest with enormous potential costs in lives and money. Thus, religious freedom is both a moral and national security imperative from which our country cannot escape.

To address this crisis, we must immediately renew our resolve to promote international religious freedom. The long vacant post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was finally filled on Dec. 12 with Senate confirmation of Rabbi David Saperstein. Longer term, we must reset our U.S. religious freedom policy by implementing the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) as originally intended. In addition to sticks, we must use carrots to encourage international religious freedom.

IRFA mandates the use of sticks by requiring the State Department to annually identify the worst offenders of religious freedom — “countries of particular concern” — and sanctions on those countries to encourage change. Yet new countries of particular concern have only been identified sporadically over the past 16 years and only rarely have unique sanctions been imposed. Such a limited use of sticks suggests that, aside from calling out religious freedom abuses in its annual reports, there are few practical consequences to limiting religious freedom. In response, many have called for a renewed, consistent use of sanctions to impose real costs on the most egregious perpetrators of religious intolerance.

But even if sticks are more consistently imposed, they are meant primarily for the nine countries currently designated as countries of particular concern. That still leaves nearly 190 countries unaffected. To make a meaningful difference in the 95 percent of countries that are not the worst offenders, we must also use carrots. We must focus on “countries of particular opportunity” and incentivize them to take the sometimes difficult steps necessary to improve religious freedom.

Fortunately, this positive approach is already envisioned by IRFA. IRFA already requires the government to identify foreign countries making “significant improvement in the protection and promotion of religious freedom” and it already allows positive incentives. These incentives include public commendation, cultural and scientific exchanges, diplomatic invitations for cooperation and the incentivizing use of assistance funds. The U.S. already gives away nearly $50 billion annually in assistance funds as humanitarian, developmental and military aid. If we linked that aid to improvements or good records in religious freedom, we could greatly incentivize religious freedom with little or no additional costs.

By resetting our own resolve to positively encourage countries to protect international religious freedom ideals, a more nuanced national and foreign policy could advance our economies, improve our national security and promote a range of important social goods while reaffirming the intrinsic value of religious freedom itself.

Brian J. Grim is founder and president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, and is an affiliated scholar at Georgetown and Boston Universities. Robert T. Smith is managing director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young Universtiy.