American Leadership on Global Religious Freedom: Taking the Long View

By: Allen Hertzke

October 27, 2017

In order to assess U.S. leadership in promoting global religious freedom, it is helpful to place that role in historical context, to take the long view. When the United States emerged as a world power in the twentieth century it became a leading force in enshrining religious freedom as a universal human right. On the eve of the Second World War, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt cast religious liberty as one of the “four freedoms” that conduce to world peace and development.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust the United States also took the lead in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the U.N. committee that drafted the declaration, which included the landmark Article 18 on religious freedom.

During the Cold War the denial of religious freedom served as a potent subtext of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the cause of Soviet Jews to the Helsinki Accords, the United States conditioned trade benefits on relaxation of Soviet repression of religion. New archival evidence also reveals how much the quest for religious freedom underlay the deep collaboration between Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan in supporting the Solidarity Movement in Poland and other initiatives to open cracks in the Iron Curtain, which resulted in a dramatic expansion of the religious freedom with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, therefore, represented a culmination of this broad tradition of U.S. leadership. Moreover, the law’s mandate for annual State Department reporting on the status of religion in every nation sparked an unprecedented global research enterprise that is corroborating the value of religious freedom for human flourishing. In upholding and promoting religious freedom, the United States really has been the indispensable nation. 

This role has emerged from a vibrant religious and civic culture. Unfortunately, domestic forces in the United States threaten to undercut both its model and leadership in upholding and promoting religious freedom abroad. 

One of the unheralded dimensions of America's global leadership has been its model. Forged out of the crucible of its own formative experience with religious persecution, the United States developed a powerful constitutional and cultural tradition of generously protecting religious exercise. Successive waves of religious minorities have been able to access this heritage, and gain allies, to carve spaces for themselves at the civic table. This produced what Putnam and Campbell term “American grace”–a society that combines fervent religious diversity with interreligious amity. 

That heritage is fraying. The evidence for this comes from Pew, which reports a doubling of both government restrictions on religion and religious social hostilities in the United States from 2007 to 2015. These “troubles in the cradle of liberty” arise from diverse sources. From the secular left we see religious conscience rights treated as trivial or a cover for odious discrimination. How else to explain the Obama Administration’s costly, unnecessary, and doomed legal strategy of trying to conscript groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor–against their sincere religious convictions–to provide contraceptive services?

From the right we see an even more alarming trend–the rise of a “blood and soil” ethno-tribalism that challenges the proposition that American citizenship, equally by birth or adoption, is open to all on the basis of a shared creed embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment. The recent specter of an angry mob with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” represents a stunning repudiation of George Washington’s paean to an American policy that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Similarly, President Donald Trump’s grim, zero-sum view of the world and his “America first” isolationism represent an abandonment of the idea of enlightened national leadership upholding universal salvific norms. As John Owen documents, indigenous movements that promote religious freedom in societies abroad are natural carriers of American social power. But by temperament and worldview, President Trump seems uniquely ill-equipped to promote such a positive vision of American leadership on the global stage. 

Happily, the potential for enduring leadership on religious freedom does not rest on a particular leader or policy, but on the legacy of the American religious heritage. Perhaps the best thing we can do to ensure this leadership in the future is to revive and strengthen legal and cultural norms at home that will nurture vibrant religious civil society, the fertile soil from which future enlightened leaders will arise.

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American Leadership on Global Religious Freedom: Taking the Long View