A Conversation with Kent Hill

By M.A Student, Sarah Thomas

The Catholic University of America’s master’s students in human rights met with Dr. Kent Hill. Dr. Hill is a Catholic scholar and practitioner who exemplifies positive Christian witness in society. He has worked in a variety of settings, holding senior roles over the course of his career at Eastern Nazarene College, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, World Vision, the Religious Freedom Institute, USAID, and the John Templeton Foundation. 

Dr. Hill gave us an overview of his richly varied professional experiences. During his doctoral research, he had a firsthand encounter with religious persecution in the Soviet Union. This went on to impact the future trajectory of his professional work as he became more involved with religious freedom. For example, while he was working at the John Templeton Foundation, he helped co-found the Religious Freedom Institute. Drawing on his experience with religious freedom, Dr. Hill offered insights on religious freedom and how to defend it. In his articulation, “religious freedom is important because religion is important.” Further, if all human beings are created in the image of God, he said, one cannot do anything to take away that dignity. 

Dr. Hill also engaged with the observations and questions of several students. One student raised an insightful observation: there is a paradox that Christians in the Middle East must often strategically ally with liberals and atheists rather than highly religious Muslims to safeguard their religious freedom. Another student asked about how Dr. Hill’s approach to religious pluralism has evolved over the course of his career. Dr. Hill responded that when making the case for religious freedom, one should make the case for why religion matters and is a force for good that counters vice and cultivates virtue. He pointed in particular to the example of the life of Jesus Christ and advised us to show how religion can unleash forces of generosity and forgiveness. Dr. Hill also highlighted the work of the Religious Freedom Institute’s American Charter, a prime example of the achievement of religious pluralism. 

Another student discussed his experience in Nigeria, explaining that Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden,” and as a result, even beginning to discuss the renewal of religion in such a context seems daunting. Dr. Hill responded that while religion is generally a force for good, it can also be corrupted. People must be courageous. This turned into a discussion of democracy more broadly, as another student highlighted problems with the absence of the rule of law and liberal democracy. Dr. Hill said that there’s a common misunderstanding about what democracy means. It doesn’t simply involve fair elections; we must also have minority rights that safeguard values like religious freedom. Regrettably, the discussants highlighted how there’s a corruption of democracy in Nigeria. 

Dr. Hill concluded our meeting by advising us not to despair about the situation in the world. In his view, motivation and the grace of God can accomplish much. People seemingly motivated by evil can be transformed by encountering truth, goodness, and generosity. Overall, this was an illuminating meeting that made me think more about how virtues such as hope, love, and generosity can renew Christian witness in society and contribute to a healthier religious pluralism that safeguards the human right to religious freedom for the good of all.