Five Questions for Thomas Farr

Thomas F. Farr's article "A Freedom Deferred" led off America's special issue on religion and international affairs. Prof. Farr makes the persuasive case that the United States must be more vigorous in its promotion of religious liberty abroad: "Social science is confirming what history and common sense suggest: religious freedom is necessary if self-governance is to yield political stability, economic growth, social harmony and peace. It is certainly necessary if nations are to rid themselves of religious extremism and terrorism, including the kinds of terrorism that have been exported to the American homeland."

In the interest of continuing the conversation, we asked Prof. Farr to respond to a few questions sparked by the second article in our special issue, "Christians and Statecraft," by Dennis Hoover. Hoover describes the advent of a new kind evangelical internationalism, which seeks to fight human trafficking, slavery, and the spread of AIDS. Prof. Farr also weighs in on the recent appointment of Suzan Johnson Cook as ambassador for International Religious Freedom. Our thanks to Prof. Farr.

What role can U.S. evangelicals play in promoting religious libery abroad?

Evangelicals can play a major role by reengaging on the issue. I have the impression that evangelical leaders, and the broader evangelical public, were heavily involved during the debate over the International Religious Freedom Act. Once that statute was passed in 1998, however, there seemed to be a "mission accomplished" feeling among some of the leaders, and they simply moved on. But in the ensuing 12 years that statute has not been vigorously enforced by any of the three administrations (Clinton,Bush, Obama) under which it has operated, and Congress has paid very little attention. So we need evangelicals to pay greater heed to an issue which is a "natural" for them. They should write their members of Congress and urge their leaders to get involved.

What role if any has Rick Warren played in defending religious freedom abroad?

I suspect that Rev Warren has done some vigorous personal advocacy abroad, and that he has had some success. During the Saddleback presidential discussion, Rev Warren asked candidate Obama a question on religious persecution in China and elsewhere. Obama indicated that he took this issue very seriously. But 18 months into his presidency, there are reasons to question his commitment. I would hope Rev Warren would press the President privately, and publicly, to live up to his own rhetoric.

Because of their political clout, do pastors of mega churches play too large of a role in advising presidents on these matters?   

Absolutely not. America's founders said over and over again that the health of American democracy required a moral citizenry, and that morality, in their view, derived from religion. Madison famously described religion as "the duty we owe the Creator." He wrote that the performance of that duty was prior to any other in civil society, and that, above all, freedom was necessary for carrying  it out. That understanding has unraveled a bit over the last two centuries, but this much remains true: religious freedom includes the right of religious actors of all persuasions--Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and others--to enter into the public square with their religion-based arguments. This is a staple of American democracy, without which the nation would be intellectually and politically impoverished.

How would you try to persuade the new evangelicals that religious liberty is as important as fighting against AIDS, slavery or human trafficking?

I would remind them that their voices--and the voices of their co-religionists abroad--cannot be heard on any subject without religious liberty. I would suggest to them that their fruitful work in the 1990s to pass an international religious freedom law remains unfulfilled, and that they need to get back into that fight.

What concrete steps could Suzan Johnson Cook, the newly appointed ambassador for International Religious Freedom, take to push for greater religious freedom abroad?

She could insist on being given the same status of other ambassadors at large at the State Department, i.e., the ambassadors at large for women's issues, counter terrorism and war crimes, all of whom report directly to the Secretary of State. As presently arranged, Dr. Johnson Cook will report to the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human
Rights and Labor, a lower ranking official several layers removed from the Secretary. This placement will signal to foreign governments and American officials alike that U.S. religious freedom policy is not a priority and can safely be ignored.

She can also insist that the IRF staff, which she by law heads, not be taken away from her, with its director reporting to another official rather than to her. That too is part of the administration's current plan.

Such decisions may seem like inside baseball, but in fact they are merely the bureaucratic dimension of what appears to be a policy decision to sideline religious liberty because it is perceived to complicate administration policies with the Muslim world and China. There are also signs that IRF policy is perceived to complicate attempts by the administration to advance gay rights in international law.

If she is to be effective, Dr. Johnson Cook must oppose the sidelining of religious freedom by the Obama administration. Her job will be especially difficult because the obstacles she faces are not simply those posed by foreign governments. Her own administration has stacked the decks against her.

Charles Erlinger
7 years ago
While the making of your point does not require that you include the opposition to freedom of religion exhibited by state-oriented Orthodox Christian churches, it would be a refreshing exception to most popularly published analyses of the freedom of religion issue.

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