National security without religious liberty?

By: Thomas Farr

June 7, 2010

In a previous post, I voiced the fear that the Obama administration was placing U.S. international religious freedom (IRF) policy on the back burner, subordinating it to other less compelling administration priorities, or clearing the deck for initiatives that might be complicated by a robust defense of religious liberty abroad (such as outreach to Muslim majority countries or promoting international gay rights).
If it is true that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are backtracking on IRF, it would be somewhat ironic. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, passed unanimously by Congress, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It was implemented in the early stages by Secretary Madeleine Albright, who has since written a book calling for greater attention to religion in American foreign policy.

Moreover, as William Saunders and I observed in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, the Bush administration "did not make significant progress in reducing religious persecution or advancing religious freedom" during its eight years in power. If anything, international religious freedom declined under President Bush's watch, and President Obama was left with a real opportunity. In January 2009 IRF supporters were hopeful that the new administration would retool and reenergize U.S. religious freedom diplomacy.

But in the ensuing 16 months the administration has for the most part signaled its indifference to the issue. For example, although Obama has long had in place senior envoys on a host of favored projects -- e.g., outreach to Muslim communities, HIV/AIDs, disabilities, and Guantanamo -- he has simply dithered in nominating someone to become ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a position required by the IRF Act.

At this writing, the President is said to be about to nominate as ambassador a Baptist pastor who is well connected in the administration. But she also appears to lack any experience either in international religious freedom or diplomacy. Democrats and Republicans alike worry that, unlike other ambassadors at large at State, each of whom is an expert in the field and enjoys the status and support necessary to succeed within Foggy Bottom and abroad, the new IRF ambassador at large will be handicapped by her lack of experience, the low status of her position within the bureaucracy, and the dearth of resources allocated to her mission.

Frankly, it didn't seem that things could get much worse for the prospects of a revived IRF diplomacy. Then, last week, the Obama administration issued its National Security Strategy.

Ours is a world suffused with religious ideas and actors -- some supportive of human dignity and ordered liberty, others driving bigotry and terrorism. There is growing awareness that religious freedom can buttress the former tendencies and discourage the latter.

In fact, pursuing religious freedom is a national security strategy unto itself. Both history and contemporary scholarship demonstrate that democracy cannot remain stable, or yield its benefits to all citizens, without religious freedom. The absence of religious liberty in a highly religious society leads to violence, extremism and, in some cases, religion-based terrorism, including the kind that has been exported to American shores.

Recognizing these realities, foreign affairs groups from across the ideological spectrum have been urging the Obama administration to incorporate IRF policy into America's national security strategy. For example, in February the Chicago World Affairs Council (on whose board the First Lady sits) recommended the advancement of religious freedom "as a means to support religious agency to undermine religion-based terrorism and promote stable democracy."

In March, the bipartisan House IRF caucus told the President that promoting religious freedom "will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity and security throughout the world."

The same month a bipartisan group of scholars and human rights experts organized by Freedom House was even more explicit. They urged the President to "articulate concrete connections and synergies ... between religious freedom policy and other key foreign policy areas, including national security (especially counter-insurgency and stability operations), development, conflict resolution/reconciliation, public diplomacy, democracy promotion and consolidation, and U.S. engagement of multilateral institutions and international law."

In May the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's annual report joined the chorus: "religious freedom should be increasingly more important as one of the core considerations in foreign policy and national security." The commission argued that the advancement of religious freedom in nations like Pakistan and Iran would enhance American security.

National Security Through American "Values"?

What did the President's men do with all these ideas and advice? What does America's new U.S. National Security Strategy say about the U.S. policy of advancing religious freedom?

Nothing. Zero. Nada.

The 60-page document contains an extensive discussion of how to advance American interests abroad. It ruminates on how to defeat al-Qaeda and other religion-based terrorists, how to invest in civil society abroad, how to strengthen human capital, achieve sustainable economic growth and development, build cooperation with centers of influence, and sustain cooperation on key global challenges.

In each of these areas the new strategy simply ignores growing evidence that, in most countries of the world, none of these objectives is achievable without a robust regime of religious liberty.

But it gets worse. The National Security Strategy contains a five-page section entitled "Values." It begins as follows, "The United States believes certain values are universal and will work to promote them worldwide." Those values include democracy, human rights, and human dignity.

It seems unimaginable that any group of American officials - even the most secular minded realists - could pen five pages on American values, and how they might contribute to our security in a highly religious world, without significant attention to religious liberty. Our own history demonstrates that neither democracy, human rights, nor human dignity can be sustained without religious liberty.

The Obama administration has achieved the unimaginable. It turns out that the list of the most important American values includes things like ensuring transparency, refraining from torture, protecting privacy, and "promoting the right to access information."

But not religious freedom.

The only hint of religious liberty in this section comes in a single reference to "an individual's freedom ... to worship as they please." This is thin (and ungrammatical) tokenism. Not only is the phrase a brief, almost throw-away aside in an extended analysis of ostensibly universal American values, but the very concept of "individual freedom of worship" represents an impoverished understanding of religious liberty.

Religious freedom certainly includes the right of individuals to worship, but it encompasses much, much more. Most importantly for our foreign policy and national security, it includes the rights of individuals and communities to bring their religious beliefs into public policy debates, so long as they accept the limits democracy imposes. This is where our policy can make inroads in the lands of Islam.

It also represents a longstanding American understanding of what religious liberty really means. One prominent American intellectual has put the issue this way:

"[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

That intellectual was Barack Obama in his 2008 Call To Renewal speech. A year later, as President, he told a Muslim audience in Cairo that "freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together" and named religious freedom a key issue to be addressed by Muslim majority countries. Judged by his words, no President has had a more vigorous understanding of the meaning and reach of religious liberty in the lives of human beings and societies.

Rarely have word and deed been so estranged.

It turns out that a presidential speech, no matter how eloquent, is nothing but hot air unless it translates into policy. President George W. Bush's 2002 stirring evocations of religious freedom in a Beijing speech to the Chinese people were not followed up by the White House or the State Department. As I have described elsewhere, a real opportunity was frittered away.

By the same token, President Obama's Cairo words will simply float without consequence somewhere above the Red Sea unless they are given policy substance. It is perhaps unsurprising -- given the other signs -- that the post-Cairo interagency task force charged with turning Obama's words into action simply ignored his words on religious freedom.

So What's Going On?

All this seems to add up to one thing: international religious freedom policy is being sidelined by the Obama administration. But why? Why would any American President set aside such a potentially fruitful element of our foreign policy, one that is, in any case, required by law, and which represents what many Americans still consider to be the "first freedom" of our constitution and our history?

I will address this issue in my next post.
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