What fascinates me most about these religious freedom conversations—within the U.S. and between America and the world—are the words we use. Some words, even with the very best of intentions, mean very different things to different audiences. Assuming we have been careful about our diction, what “we” say nevertheless is often not what “they” hear, and vice-versa.

For example, I don’t like the term “secularism.” It rings of laïcité, which perhaps works for the French, but is certainly not germane to the American experience. Meanwhile, for my Muslim friends, “secularism” suggests a godless society—something inconceivable to them, and, for that matter, to me.

On the other hand, I sometimes use the phrase “secular fundamentalism” to suggest that secularism can become its own religion, and that when it does, it has not always been so tolerant of other religions. Some friends of mine really don’t like that term, instead suggesting “secular extremism” to describe those who wish to vanquish religion from the public square.

I prefer “pluralism,” which suggests that everyone has a seat at the public table, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, as long as all are respectful of deep and often irreconcilable differences (whether political or theological).

Here’s another term that is more complicated than it seems: “Cairo Speech.” I was in Pakistan recently, and a thoughtful person told me that he was tired of Cairo speeches. Between Condoleezza Rice’s speech there in 2005, which I had forgotten about, and Barack Obama’s speech in 2009, nothing had fundamentally changed. (Note my thoughts from before and after Obama’s speech). There’s something to this observation: no matter who’s in the White House, America continues to be perceived as a hegemonic and hypocritical power that does what it wants because it can.

Meanwhile, the terms-of-reference contest goes on: tolerance vs. respect, interfaith vs. multifaith, religion vs. faith, and proselytism vs. sharing. (I’ve also written about this issue at On Faith.)

So what about “religious freedom”? This term reeks of cultural imperialism in many parts of Asia. Obviously, I’m not against the phrase “religious freedom.” But if its use prevents its promotion—well, perhaps we should think about different conversation starters.

This raises yet another dictional dichotomy: punish vs. promote. The International Religious Freedom Act was originally drafted as a means to punish those who infringed on others’ religious freedom. It was re-written into its present form, however, to allow for the promotion of religious freedom.

Nevertheless, according to our human condition and busy schedules, it is altogether too easy to reactively punish rather than preemptively promote. The latter requires patience, listening, and the careful and ongoing cultivation of relationships with government and grassroots leaders alike. Promotion also demands an approach that understands self-interest (instead of one that centers on making well-meaning statements about the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, international covenants, and Thomas Jefferson—which can be taken as platitudinous or gratuitous, depending on the context, as well as the person speaking).

At the Institute for Global Engagement, for example, we like to say that we build religious freedom at the intersection of culture and the rule of law. Every culture has a mechanism—from cultural understandings of hospitality to various tenets of local religions—for engendering and ensuring respect for the other. These are the anchor points for solutions to religious freedom violations. If the local culture doesn’t own the solution, it will never be sustainable. Giving credit to that culture can go a long way.

That said, the inviolability of a local culture can sometimes be invoked as an excuse to resist the perceived cultural imperialism of America’s religious freedom watch, and therefore it is also important to anchor advocacy of religious freedom in a country’s self-interest.

The rule of law, which transparently protects and promotes religious minorities, is in the twofold self-interest of countries that violate religious freedom. First, in general, the rule of law provides the contract law necessary to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Similarly, increasing rule of law enables eventual membership in the WTO and thus lower tariffs. Both of these consequences make job creation more likely in countries with a tremendous youth bulge, which, in turn, helps maintain stability. In other words, unemployed youth, motivated by political entrepreneurs who manipulate religion for their own ends, cause instability for the state.

I have found over the past several years that there are government officials overseas who understand these points quite well. Likewise, they also understand that the repression of religious freedom also creates the very instability that their group-based societies fear (repelling FDI). Moreover, such officials increasingly recognize that if religion has been a part of the problem, it can and must be a part of the solution. In general, there is nascent recognition that a properly taught and well-understood faith produces citizens who self-police those who would use misguided religious views to validate violence.

In other words, I say to governments everywhere, including my own: work with the religious water flowing down the mountain, instead of trying to dam it up. Even the U.S. government is beginning to understand this approach. USAID, for example, recently released its “toolkit” for religion, conflict, and peacebuilding. Much welcomed, this “starting point” only reflects the reality that Americans overseas encounter every day. Our military chaplains, for instance, are right in the middle of this on-the-ground reality, and are, in many ways, a test case for how America is finally going to engage the elephant in our global room.

The key to the success of this ongoing discussion, however, is that scholars and practitioners alike must not compartmentalize the conversation to considerations of religion and religious freedom alone. In the real world, religious freedom is part and parcel of a “bundle” of different issues that are intricately intertwined. Similarly, it is critical that U.S. government officials—and human rights activists—do not treat religion/religious freedom as “special” issues, important only in their own contexts, but as issues that are quite relevant to the wider context of U.S. foreign policy.

So where does this leave us? First and foremost, the conversation must continue. While some of us have been working on these issues for a long time, they are only now coming to the fore in the policy-making and public arenas. The terms of reference we use, in particular, need renewed assessment, preferably by teams of scholars from around the world, who can provide different and respectful perspectives.

Second, scholars and practitioners alike should also consider anew how best to practically promote religious freedom.  Critical to this process, as Allen Hertzke so compellingly argues, will be serious research “to test the range of assumptions” related to these issues. In so doing, perhaps we can enable common sense to become common again, as we engage the world as it is, a world where faith matters.