Between Global and Local

Fifth in a seven-part series on international religious freedom

The world seems to be getting smaller.

Technology allows us to connect easier. Social media accelerates the flow of ideas and bridges distances. More and more people think, work and live in a common information space. Trade and commerce stretch human activity across political and economic borders. Different religions and worldviews interact and collide. International organizations promote standards for rights, freedom and democracy around the world.

Yet despite these trends, local ways of life have not disappeared. People appreciate the uniqueness of their own cultures all the more. They want to preserve the values, traditions and beliefs that make them who they are. Mexico and Malaysia, for example, participate in the international system but do not wish their national life to be directed by New York or London. Small still matters.

Political scientist Joseph Nye wrote: “We should not expect — or fear — that globalism will lead to homogenization. Instead, it will expose us more frequently and in more variations to the differences that surround us.”[1]


Regardless of where we travel, visit or settle, we lead our lives in particular places that have particular personalities, customs and cultures. The affections we share with neighbors and fellow believers help form our character. Responsibilities we inherit from ancestors instill a sense of duty in our work. The landscapes of our countries tie us to the ground. The histories of our peoples give meaning to our struggles. All places are different.

Local populations often feel threatened by the reach of international organizations. The various councils, conventions, sanctions and resolutions are seen as large, impersonal forces that lessen local autonomy. Such bodies set rules for behavior among nation-states and pursue a common purpose. But what they intend as a moral norm is often perceived as a moral imposition. The values of small places such as faith, family and community cannot be watered down without fraying the social fabric. These little things can get lost in the big arena of international politics.

The tension plays out in a number of ways: laws against blasphemy collide with free speech; attempts to ban discrimination conflict with freedom of association; rights of religious conscience clash with LGBT rights; traditional gender roles contend with gender equality; liberal morality quarrels with conservative morality; religious dress standards challenge secular sensibilities; and personal freedoms rub against the good of the community.

Ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places can feel distant from the elite discourse of international organizations. The progress of human rights is often measured in terms of government action. But global practitioner Michael Ignatieff doubts whether the language of human rights has “reached into … the common practices of trust and tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation that are the essence of private moral behavior.”[2]

Nevertheless, this is not a story of good versus bad. International organizations act on principles and ethics too. They value equality, dignity and peace and accomplish much in settling disputes and minimizing conflicts. Both sides seek what seems right to them and should recognize the good each has to offer. Through civil dialogue the differing parties can come together to promote human rights while also respecting the independence of local culture.

To this end, sociologist Jose Casanova envisions the emergence of a “global civil society,” insisting that a lasting consensus between global and local “will need to be grounded in broader norms, which find resonance in the moral, cultural, and religious traditions of the diverse peoples who constitute global humanity.”[3]

Disagreement and dialogue are not signs of weakness. They show that people care about the good of their communities and the world.

Conversation keeps us out of our bubbles.


[1] Joseph Nye, “Globalism Versus Globalization,” The Globalist, Apr. 15, 2002.

[2] Michael Ignatieff, “Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues,” Ethics & International Affairs, Mar. 10, 2017.

[3] Jose Casanova, “Globalization, Norms, and Just Governance,” in Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: The Challenges Ahead (2016), 29.

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