Religious freedom needs an advocate

By: Thomas Farr

March 30, 2010

On March 30 a diverse group of scholars, policy thinkers, and religious freedom activists told President Obama that his administration was missing an enormous opportunity -- for the nation and the world -- by failing to advance international religious freedom in American foreign policy.
"The absence of senior level leadership in your administration on this critical issue," their letter warned the President, "is of grave and urgent concern."v The letter, which was organized by Freedom House and the Institute for Global Engagement, was written by my colleague and co-author, Dennis Hoover, editor of The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He and I have elsewhere urged the Obama administration to take advantage of the opportunity to correct mistakes made by earlier administrations in the field of international religious freedom.

As I wrote in this space a few weeks back, the Obama-Clinton State Department has, to put it charitably, been dragging its feet on religious freedom policy. The most palpable (but by no means the only) sign of inertia at Foggy Bottom has been the unaccountable failure of the administration to nominate an ambassador at large for this issue, a position required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

The Freedom House letter asks the President to fill the ambassador's position "not only quickly but strategically." That means finding someone with "advanced foreign policy experience and expertise on the right to religious freedom" who can bring the issue "into the foreign policy mainstream."

There are several people with those qualifications, including in the President's own party, who could do this job very well.

Perhaps the boldest proposal in the letter is that the administration develop strategies that link "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."

That's a tall order. What makes these letter writers (including your scribe) think it wise to link religious freedom to such important foreign policy programs?

Speaking for myself, there are essentially two answers to that question. One is justice and human dignity. As the letter points out, a recent Pew Forum study revealed that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries where there are severe restrictions on religious freedom. This means, among other things, that religious minorities and mainstream reformers alike are subject to torture and humiliation.

Religious freedom -- the right to believe, or not, and to live and act on the basis of belief -- goes to the very heart of what it means to be human. No person should be subject to persecution because of their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors. To the extent we can succeed in reducing this kind of abuse, and promoting this kind of freedom, we are advancing social justice and human dignity.

Second, the spread of religious freedom would benefit vital American interests and enhance our national security. It would do so by encouraging the emergence -- especially in highly religious societies -- of stable, democratic regimes that provide for the economic, social, intellectual, and religious well being of all their citizens. Among other things, such regimes are far less likely to incubate, nourish and export religion-based terrorism. (I will return to this subject in a later post.)

In short, the pursuit of human dignity and fundamental American interests come together in religious freedom. The Obama administration needs an ambassador who can succeed at pursuing both.

For those readers who think this idea is a fantasy of the Christian right, or that it represents illicit American exceptionalism, or cultural imperialism, peruse the list of signers of the Freedom House letter, or the members of the recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force report on religion and American foreign policy. Both lists include objective scholars, liberal Democrats, foreign policy internationalists, and supporters of the Obama administration. Importantly, there is almost no overlap between the two groups of signatories.

Among other things, the Chicago report echoed the Freedom House letter in recommending "that the administration appoint an ambassador with deep experience in foreign policy as well as religion. The ambassador's first priority should be ... to communicate to majority as well as minority religious communities why religious liberty is in their interests. 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."

Again, in language similar to that used in the Freedom House letter, the Chicago report recommends "that the ambassador develop U.S. international religious freedom strategies within the context of [a] religious engagement policy ... [by] 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."

One final example of how the momentum for a vigorous international religious freedom policy seems to be taking hold. On March 25 a bipartisan group of members of Congress wrote the President as follows: "We strongly believe that the promotion of [religious freedom] will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity, and security throughout the world. Therefore, we strongly urge you to appoint as soon as possible a qualified person who has a proven commitment to the promotion of this issue and skills in international diplomacy to fill the role of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom."

As the President himself has said, it doesn't matter whether good ideas come from the left or the right. This idea comes from both sides and it deserves a hearing.

Let's hope he's listening.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.

comments powered by Disqus
Religious freedom needs an advocate