Obama sidelining religious freedom?

By: Thomas Farr

March 9, 2010

President Obama has on several occasions articulated his commitment to international religious freedom. Unfortunately, his State Department appears to be on a course that will seriously downgrade the nation's international religious freedom policy.
Before he became President, Obama's speeches showed a secure understanding of religious liberty, as well as its role in good governance and social stability. For example, in his June 2006 "Call to Renewal" speech he showcased a view of religious freedom squarely in the American mainstream:

"...secularists 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."

Later as President -- in his June 2009 Cairo speech -- Obama identified religious freedom as one of the seven major issues to be addressed in the relationship between the United States and Muslim majority nations. "Freedom of religion," he told his Muslim audience, "is central to the ability of peoples to live together." He made similar remarks to a high-level Chinese delegation at the State Department.

Religious freedom advocates were encouraged by the President's stated views and allowed themselves to hope that America's international religious freedom policy, long isolated at the State Department, would be strengthened under the new administration.

Their hopes are fading.

Almost 14 months into the Obama presidency, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom -- a position mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act -- has not been named, even though other positions of less weight and importance to our national interests have long been filled.

The leading candidate for the religious freedom job is said to be a highly intelligent and charismatic pastor, an author and a thoroughly good person who has the friendship of Secretary Hillary Clinton. Those are important attributes. Indeed, having the trust of the Secretary is vital. But more is needed. To be successful, this ambassador at large needs foreign policy experience. Without it, it will be extremely difficult to succeed within Foggy Bottom's notoriously thorny bureaucracy, let alone deal with foreign officials who believe (as many do) that U.S. international religious freedom policy is a vehicle of cultural imperialism.

Worse, it appears that the new ambassador will be demoted before she is even nominated. Like her predecessors under Presidents Clinton and Bush, she will not be treated as an ambassador at large at all, but will report to a lower ranking official - the assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Her placement alone will signal to American diplomats and foreign governments that they need not take U.S. religious freedom policy seriously.

Other new Obama foreign policy initiatives, from outreach to Muslim communities to the normalization of gay rights in international law, are getting serious policy attention and resources. But religious freedom -- which enjoys broad support among the American people and can contribute both to justice and national security -- is, in effect, being sidelined.

How, and why, is this happening?

The International Religious Freedom Act was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress in 1998 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It mandates the promotion of religious freedom as a central element of U.S. foreign policy. To carry out the policy, the IRF Act created a State Department office headed by a very senior diplomatic official -- the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Ambassadors at large have a long history at Foggy Bottom. Traditionally their lines of authority have gone directly to the Secretary of State. Currently three ambassadors at large work directly under Secretary Hillary Clinton: those for Counter Terrorism, War Crimes, and Global Women's Issues. The placement of these officials is more than a bureaucratic nicety. It signals to foreign governments, and the American foreign service, that the subject is a high priority for U.S. foreign policy and the Secretary of State.

Congress recognized that the State Department would likely resist giving much attention to international religious freedom, which is why the IRF Act was passed in the first place. The statute made explicit Congress' intent that the religious freedom ambassador be given at least the status of other ambassadors at large by establishing the position as "principal advisor to the President and the Secretary of State."

Even though the President singled out religious freedom at Cairo, that section of the address has largely been ignored. The National Security Council and the State Department formed post-Cairo working groups to pursue key policy issues from the speech, but religious freedom was not one of the issues deemed worthy of pursuit.

Similarly, the advisory council on the President's Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships initiative, whose report was to be presented March 9, is said to have bypassed the issue of international religious freedom, even though its mandate includes interreligious dialogue (a process that cannot be fruitful without religious freedom).

Not only have the State Department's other ambassadors at large been in place for many months, but a whole platoon of other senior foreign policy officials are now at work -- for example, envoys for Global AIDS, Disabilities, Climate Change, Guantanamo, Global Partnerships, International Energy Affairs, Muslim Communities, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Nor is this all. Critics have pointed to the increasing use of the phrase "freedom of worship" by the President and the Secretary of State, in lieu of the more traditional "freedom of religion." Taken by itself, the former usage might seem innocuous -- simply a different choice of words. But combined with the other signals coming from the administration, references to "freedom of worship" could suggest a diminution of the broadly construed right of religious freedom as articulated by Obama in his "Call to Renewal" speech.

If religious freedom means only the freedom to worship, and not, as Obama put it, the right of people to make explicitly religious arguments in the public square, it is an anemic right indeed. Quite aside from its abandonment of a traditional American view of religious liberty, the "worship" approach would have little promise in enticing otherwise illiberal Muslim communities to enter the democratic public square and to accept its limits (especially the religious freedom of others).

If this is where the State Department is heading, it would constitute a blatant circumvention of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and a dereliction of our duty to advance religious freedom as a matter of justice and human dignity. But there is a potentially more damaging problem suggested by State's actions thus far.

They signal that this administration is not prepared to defend the United States against the false charge of "cultural imperialism," the idea that our religious freedom policy is a front for American missionaries. Incredibly, this canard has apparently been accepted by some at Foggy Bottom and the White House.

They suggest that the State Department remains clueless on the advantages a wise and effective international religious freedom policy could bring to the defense of vital American interests. Without religious liberty the achievement of stable, lasting democratic governance will be impossible in struggling, highly religious nascent democracies like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia. Without religious liberty countries that now nurture and export religion-based extremism - including to American shores - will continue to do so.

The administration would do well to focus on the recommendations made recently by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (on whose board the First Lady, Michelle Obama, serves.). I was a member of the Council task force on religion and U.S. foreign policy, which met for two years and included Obama supporters, concluded the following:

"The growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right and a source of social and political stability.... The Task Force recommends that the administration appoint an ambassador with deep experience in foreign policy as well as religion. ... The administration should elevate the position of the ambassador-at-large, as intended by the IRFA, to a status commensurate with other ambassadors-at-large and senior envoys based at the State Department....[Successful change] includes defining religious freedom in a way that addresses the misperception that it represents a form of imperialism and supporting religious agency as a means of undermining religion-based terrorism and promoting stable democracy."

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Obama sidelining religious freedom?