A Freedom Deferred: Why religious liberty schould be a U.S. foreign policy priority

Religious persecution—the abuse of innocent human beings because of their religious beliefs and practices, or those of their tormentors—is occurring with alarming frequency around the globe. Indeed, evidence is mounting that this scourge is spreading to virtually every region and culture worldwide. To cite but one example among many: an exhaustive study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released last December, reveals that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where they are subject to severe restrictions on religious freedom.

For over a decade, the United States has been required by law to address this problem. In 1998 Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the International Religious Freedom Act. It instructs U.S. diplomats to oppose religious persecution and advance religious freedom abroad, and it provides a host of diplomatic vehicles to do the job. Unfortunately, the law has so far had little lasting effect. The reasons why are sobering, as is the realization of what our failings have meant for the victims, for their societies and for us. By the same token, past failures present an immense opportunity for the Obama administration.


The Faces of Persecution

Using the Pew Forum’s report Global Restrictions on Religion; the State Department’s Annual Reports on International Religious Freedom; and the reports of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I have assembled here a small sampling from the parade of horrors.

In 2002 innocent Muslim women were raped and murdered by Hindu mobs in Gujurat, India. The mobs were seeking vengeance for the killing of Hindus by Islamist extremists. When the women begged local Hindu police for help, they were told, “We have no orders to save you.”

In March 2009 Chinese security forces beat to death a Tibetan Buddhist monk for passing out leaflets supporting the Dalai Lama. In China, the torture and “disappearance” of Buddhist monks and nuns and of disfavored Muslims, Christians and adherents of Falun Gong occur with regularity.

In Saudi Arabia a senior cleric recently issued a fatwa calling for the death of anyone who asserts that men and women could work together professionally. Such edicts emerge from a Saudi interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, a malevolent political theology that nurtured Osama bin Laden and continues to be exported from the desert kingdom worldwide, including to the United States.

This and similar extremist political theologies—such as that of the Taliban, or the followers of Sayyid Qutb (an intellectual godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood)—support legal and social prohibitions on apostasy, conversion, blasphemy and defamation. Those restrictions, which in some Muslim countries entail the death penalty, lead not only to physical persecution, but also have the effect of silencing religious reformers and forestalling the development of more liberal political theologies.

In Iran, Shiite Muslims critical of the regime’s brand of Shiism are executed for “waging war against God.” Iranian Bahais live in constant fear of imprisonment, torture and death. In Iraq, a country whose opportunity for ordered liberty has been purchased with American blood, Christians are being targeted and murdered. Thousands among this ancient but rapidly shrinking Iraqi minority have been forced to flee their homes and villages.

Even in Western Europe and North America, religious freedom is under challenge from several directions, including French laws limiting religious expression to the private sphere and Canadian laws suppressing traditional Christian teaching on sexuality.

American Interests and U.S. Deficits

Americans have a natural interest in this problem. We oppose any form of human rights abuse, but because of our history we are particularly scandalized by religious persecution and discrimination. Most of us instinctively grasp the deep significance of this form of depredation: To deny anyone religious freedom, let alone to torture or otherwise abuse them because of their religion, constitutes an assault on human dignity that cries out for redress. The right to seek transcendent truths, and to act on the basis of those truths, lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

Many of us also understand that the denial of religious liberty by governments and private sectors around the world has serious implications for American national interests. As our own history has shown, religious freedom is necessary if democracy is to be peaceful and stable, yielding its benefits to all of its citizens. It is necessary if societies are to forestall the incubation and export of religious violence and extremism.

Nevertheless, American diplomats have generally been reticent to engage religious actors and ideas. In 1998 Congress decided to address that problem. The International Religious Freedom Act of that year mandated the promotion of religious freedom as a central element of U.S. foreign policy and established a very senior diplomatic official, an ambassador at large, to lead the effort. Such officials usually work directly under the secretary of state, and Congress clearly intended this ambassador to do just that. He was put at the head of an I.R.F. office, given authority to represent the United States in both bilateral and multilateral forums and styled “principal advisor to the President and the Secretary of State.”

Over the years I.R.F. policy has had some positive effects, such as prisoner releases and increased diplomatic engagement of religious actors in the field (necessary to the preparation of the annual report required by the act). To its credit, the State Department is now planning more systematic training on religion for its diplomats.

But it has taken almost 12 years of false starts to do that much. Overall, U.S. policy has had very little impact on levels of religious persecution or religious freedom. Its approach has been largely rhetorical: issuing an annual report that focuses on minority victims of persecution, condemning the persecutors and threatening (but not imposing) economic sanctions. The act itself reinforces this methodology. It authorizes direct and indirect diplomatic programs to advance religious freedom, but it requires only an annual report and a public denunciation of the worst persecutors. The State Department usually opts to do the minimum, thereby reducing internal opposition. Its minimalist approach costs little and does not require integration of religious freedom into foreign policy. It avoids the need for consensus on the meaning of religious freedom and, therefore, on how to bring it about.

The Clinton and Bush administrations mostly pursued the rhetorical approach. Each appointed talented I.R.F. ambassadors but allowed the State Department to downgrade the status and role of the position. While both ambassadors managed to achieve small victories against the odds, neither had much influence on U.S. foreign policy. The issue they represented came to be viewed by foreign governments and U.S. officials as a low priority for the United States.

Why the resistance to a more robust policy? Several studies have shown that American diplomats are reluctant to address religion. Many have been trained to think in “realist” terms. They hold that matters of faith were removed from international relations after the 17th-century wars of religion and that religion should be a private matter. Henry Kissinger’s 1994 opus, Diplomacy, does not include the word “religion” in its extensive index.

American diplomacy has also remained wedded to the secularization thesis, the idea that religion will recede to the irrelevant margins of human affairs with the advance of modernity. The thesis should have been jettisoned long ago by those whose mission is to engage the world in defense of American interests. For better or worse, the world is a very religious place. The second half of the 20th century was replete with evidence—from the 1979 Iranian revolution to the spread of democracy in Catholic societies (triggered by the Second Vatican Council and the pontificate of Pope John Paul II)—that religious ideas and actors were taking center stage internationally.

Also, most cultures are suspicious when outsiders attempt to engage them on the subject of their own religious habits and opinions. When those outsiders are Americans, the suspicion increases. Especially in the post 9/11 world, the default presumption is that I.R.F. policy (however benign and ineffective it might be in practice) is a Trojan horse designed by the United States to undermine majority religious communities, like Indian Hinduism, Russian Orthodoxy or Iraqi Shiism.

What lessons can be gleaned from I.R.F. policy over its first decade? For one thing, a purely antipersecution strategy does not reduce religious persecution. Often, rhetorical condemnations merely reinforce perceptions of U.S. cultural imperialism or strengthen the belief that the United States favors Christian minorities. More broadly, I.R.F. strategy has tended to be reactive. At its best, it has secured occasional prisoner releases or, as it did in Vietnam in 2006, elicited government action to reduce persecution. At its worst, however, the reactive approach allows U.S. diplomacy to do very little except censure. In some cases this strategy may even exacerbate persecution.

What it manifestly does not do is advance religious freedom in a political or cultural sense. This omission, while perhaps understandable given the slings and arrows of American diplomacy and the suspicions that already attend I.R.F. policy, is a serious mistake. Promoting the political institutions and cultural habits that can sustain religious liberty, especially in highly religious societies, will reduce persecution far more effectively than U.S. policy has done to date. And it will enhance international peace.

In fact, 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 short, we must advance religious liberty both because it will help others by reducing persecution and increasing ordered liberty and because it will strengthen the security of the American people.

Obama’s Opportunity

All this suggests that the Obama administration has been handed a striking opportunity to retool and energize America’s international religious freedom policy. It seems a natural, given the president’s outreach to Muslims abroad, Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on “smart diplomacy” and President Obama’s pledge at West Point on May 22 to shape a new “international order” based on diplomacy and engagement.

For starters, the administration could appoint an ambassador at large with the experience and talent to incorporate religious freedom into this agenda, place him or her directly under the secretary of state as the I.R.F. Act intended and provide the authority and resources to do the job. This course has recently been urged by an impressive variety of groups from across the American political and religious landscape, including a task force of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan group of scholars organized by Freedom House and Congressional Democrats and Republicans. Even President Obama’s own Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has recommended more attention to this issue.

Unfortunately, the signs are not encouraging. On June 15, 16 months into his presidency, Barack Obama finally nominated his I.R.F. ambassador, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook. She is said to be a dynamic and accomplished American Baptist pastor, but she also appears to lack any experience in diplomacy or on issues of international religious freedom. Meanwhile, the administration has long had in place senior diplomatic envoys on women’s rights, outreach to Muslim communities, disabilities, H.I.V./AIDS and other favored issues. All of these people are highly experienced in their respective fields. I.R.F. supporters justifiably fear that the “first freedom” of American history, a freedom necessary to human dignity, social stability and international peace, is at risk of being downgraded rather than elevated in the nation’s foreign affairs.

This much is clear: the advance of international religious freedom, while difficult, remains critical to individuals, societies, world peace and American national interests. Despite signs to the contrary, we should all hope that the advance of religious liberty will be part of the Obama foreign policy legacy.

Thomas F. Farr answers questions on religious freedom and the new evangelicals.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
8 years 6 months ago
The fatwah makers are immune to any pressures whatsoever. Even the U.N. has a consensus on human dignity, human rights and religious freedoms. Unless this issue of religious persecution is addressed by a united world group it will simply continue unchecked. Certain nations need to be shunned in civilized gatherings as too cruel and antideluvian to be respected. That is true no matter how valuable their resources and trade are to the rest of the world. The only way to stop the persecution is to simply cut off all commerce and traffic. It worked against apartheid in South Africa; it can work against stoning women in Iran. 
John Siegmund
8 years 6 months ago
Mr. Farr wrote a nice scholarly article and it makes a lot of sense, except for one problem.  The United States is in no moral, legal or ethical position to condemn anyone for abusing religious freedom.  This country is rife with religious oppression from no prayers in school to arresting people for handing out Bible tracts at a Muslim cultural event.  He stated the following: "To deny anyone religious freedom, let alone to torture or otherwise abuse them because of their religion, constitutes an assault on human dignity that cries out for redress."  Hate to break it to you Mr. Farr but this routinely occurs in this country in corporate and government settings against the Christian religion.  Also how about the murderous torture of millions of innocent babies through abortion or the embracing of the sin of Sodom as normal and the aggressive persecution of Christians that occurs when they speak out against such abominations?  Our money is best spent here fixing our hypocrisy first!!!


The latest from america

The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019
Teachers and supporters hold signs in the rain during a rally on Jan. 14 in Los Angeles. Thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike for the first time in three decades after contract negotiations failed in the nation's second-largest school district. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Strikes have likewise been prominent in Canada’s southern neighbor over the last year. Teachers in West Virginia made national headlines when strikes across the state won higher wages from a Republican governor and legislature
Dean DettloffJanuary 22, 2019
This year’s W.Y.D takes place less than three months after the conclusion of the Synod for Young People that was held in the Vatican last October.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2019
On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.