Changing Faces on Freedom of Religion or Belief

By: Robert J. Joustra

January 12, 2021

Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

A mere four years—something of a lifetime—ago, the Berkley Center asked many scholars and activists to offer advice for the new administration of President Trump. At the time, I argued that the new administration needed to leverage its multilateral assets: that freedom of religion or belief needed American leadership but that such leadership, enviably vigorous as it had been, needed more multilateral legitimation. Freedom of religion or belief was at risk of being perceived as an American right, something peculiar to the United States, not a universal human right, its proper home. Could a new administration build on American leadership to coordinate an emerging global consensus—in states such as Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere—to casually undercut the easy imperial criticisms against this universal right by giving it a fresh, multilateral face?

The past four years have put a new concern into focus, however. That concern is not only that religious freedom will be perceived as a narrowly American right but also that religious freedom is perceived as a shibboleth for the privilege of one particular ethno-religious minority: white evangelicals. 

Like the Americanization of religious freedom, the evangelicalization of religious freedom runs two, meaningfully distinct dangers: (1) it undercuts the universalization of religious freedom, by making it the parochial interest of one sect or community; and (2) it could therefore undercut the core meaning of religious freedom, if the right—ironically—becomes a coded practice for the privilege of one ethno-religious minority over and against others. 

Like the Americanization of religious freedom, the evangelicalization of religious freedom runs two, meaningfully distinct dangers.

This story of white American evangelical advocacy on freedom of religion or belief can be told in at least two ways. First, we could tell it as a story of an ethno-religious minority punching above its weight on a core human right. We could talk about the ink and treasure poured out from that community on behalf of a pluralistic religious liberty, about how American evangelicals have taken a burden of leadership for the advance of basic dignity. That pluralist story has its evidence—from key actors and advocates to acts, offices, and ambassadors working not to advance one religion or one community but to advance a basic, universal human right. It is an enviable story of leadership and commitment. 

Second, however, we could also tell the story of the fissure and corruption of white American evangelicalism, hardly original to the last four years but focused on the rise in what some scholars have called white Christian nationalism. Academics such as Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry argue that the white prioritization of religious liberty in the United States is code not for religious freedom but for “Christian freedom.” The correlation between the importance of religious liberty with Christian nationalism is at the very least a worrying relationship, even if vigorous debates on causality persist. In this story, what we have in evangelical activism for religious freedom is not an ethno-religious minority passionately pursuing a universal human right, but Christian nationalists carving out anti-pluralist influence and privilege under the disguise of a human right. The solution here is to liberate freedom of religion or belief from its evangelical captivity.

There is, naturally, no need to accept this zero-sum binary. It can both be true that good-faith evangelicals have led the pursuit of a universal human right, to the benefit of both America and the larger world, while parts of that community devolved into a kind of Christian nationalism pursuing the right out of the fear of a loss of privilege and status. Both stories have their evidence. And both can, in fact, be true. 

The good news is that whether one reads evangelical activism on religious freedom optimistically or pessimistically, the advice to the new administration is similar: Freedom of religion or belief must be a full-throated multifaith exercise, its baton of leadership passed—with gratitude—from its frontrunners to those for whom the right is just as near and dear. Freedom of religion or belief must be liberated from one ethnicity, one religion, or one state’s interests. Just as my advice four years ago was that the Trump administration leverage its multilateral assets do depolarize the imperial criticisms of American-led religious liberty, so my advice for the Biden administration is to leverage its multifaith assets to depolarize the Christian nationalist criticisms of evangelical-led religious liberty.

My advice for the Biden administration is to leverage its multifaith assets to depolarize the Christian nationalist criticisms of evangelical-led religious liberty.

It should perhaps be emphasized at this point that in foreign affairs there is plenty of room for enthusiastic multifaith partnership. Evangelicals sometimes emphasize the persecution that Christians face across the globe. This is undoubtedly so, where Christians do suffer enormous governmental and social restrictions across world: from Chinese state persecution of house churches to mobs in Pakistan to Boko Haram in Nigeria. The case is hardly difficult to make that religious persecution is a real, rising, empirical reality. 

But none of this detracts from the enormous suffering of other religious groups. It is hardly better to be a reformist Muslim, or an Ahmadiyya, in Pakistan. Neither do we need to pay much attention to the news to know of the concentration camps that have sprung up in China’s west for the beleaguered Uighur Muslim minority. Or is it so much better to be Baha’i in Iran, a faith that has suffered terribly under the Iranian clerics who claim them heretics, subversives, and worse? The world desperately needs our good-faith—our multifaith, multilateral—efforts to face the scourge of religious persecution head on. The bizarre game of zero-sum religious persecution Olympics that has sprung up around which faith is worst persecuted and by which measure is so bafflingly beyond the point as to be offensive. It is a human violation, and it deserves a human response. 

What can the Biden administration practically do, then? 

I would suggest at least two things. First, leverage the full slate of multifaith, bipartisan experts for key appointments. Religious liberty is not Democrat or Republican. It is not American. It is not evangelical. It is a human right, and the face of those offices, commissions, and ambassadors that pursue it should reflect that overlapping consensus and that pluralist expertise. 

Religious liberty is not Democrat or Republican. It is not American. It is not evangelical. It is a human right.

Second, in retooling its key geopolitical relations with great states like China and Iran, the United States should place freedom of religion or belief as a credible, diplomatic essential in those relationships. Casual realists won’t like this; there are more than enough dangerous, moving pieces in those relationships already. But doing so would foreground two things: (1) that human rights, religious freedom especially, are a key part of America’s global strategy; that they have a real relationship to things like trade; that human rights are American interests; and (2) that in putting geopolitical money where our mouths are about the rights of Baha’is in Iran and Muslims in China, especially, we foreground a pluralistic foreign policy, liberated from pretensions of Christian nationalism or captive to domestic ethno-religious minorities.

This is not diversity politics; this is national interest. A pluralistic foreign policy of religious liberty, one deserving of the genius of American democracy, can and must leverage these strengths for a world of rising secularist and religious nationalisms. America—and evangelicals—can be leaders again by showing up to serve, together with and under others.

Opens in a new window