International Religious Freedom’s Christian “Soft Spot”: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

By: Gregorio Bettiza

January 12, 2021

Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

Since the end of the Cold War, religion has increasingly been operationalized across a range of American foreign policy domains, including attempts to advance religious freedom internationally, deliver humanitarian and development aid through faith-based organizations, fight global terrorism by reforming the Muslim world and Islamic theologies, and engage with religious actors to solve global crises. Much of this activity has emerged thanks to the advocacy efforts of a wide range of actors, many religiously based. As I show in my recent book Finding Faith in Foreign Policy, these actors have come forward since the 1990s to suggest that American foreign policy suffered from a problematic secular bias, which overlooked and under-appreciated the role of faith in world politics.

One of the most striking shifts occurring in the process has been the replacement of America’s bemoaned secular “blind spot” with a Christian “soft spot.” This has been especially notable in the policy area of international religious freedom (IRF). Although certainly not a top priority in American foreign policy, efforts to monitor and advance religious liberty abroad have grown considerably—with the establishment of new funding streams and special appointees—since they were first institutionalized in 1998 with the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). 

One of the most striking shifts occurring in the process has been the replacement of America’s bemoaned secular 'blind spot' with a Christian 'soft spot.'

The Trump administration further expanded America’s efforts in this space. The president himself repeatedly signaled that religious freedom was high on the agenda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched high-profile Religious Freedom Ministerials and spearheaded the creation of the International Religious Freedom Alliance. A political heavyweight like Sam Brownback was appointed as IRF ambassador. Foreign aid increasingly became tied to religious freedom and minority protections considerations.

Some argue that the notion of a Christian bias in America’s IRF policy is mostly a misperception rather than a real concern. Existing perceptions, however, are not without foundations. There are three important structural reasons why, what should ostensibly be the promotion of a universal human right norm, ends up instead acquiring a particularist Christian flavor when embedded in U.S. foreign policy.

First, if the United States is to promote religious freedom globally, it inevitably needs to define what constitutes “religion” and “freedom,” two notoriously contested concepts. Americans will tend to adopt an understanding of religion influenced by a political tradition grounded in liberalism, and a religious culture shaped by Protestant Christianity, as well as norms of religious pluralism and disestablishment. These influences lead to a generalized view of religions as voluntary associations which people, understood as autonomous subjects, can freely choose to adhere or abandon depending on individual conscience.

If the United States is to promote religious freedom globally, it inevitably needs to define what constitutes 'religion' and 'freedom,' two notoriously contested concepts.

As a result, religious freedom is instinctively understood by American advocates and policymakers to unequivocally include the right to proselytize and actively seek to convert others. While such a practice is seen as relatively uncontroversial in the context of what is often referred to as America’s domestic “religious marketplace,” whereby spiritual customers select from a wide range of faiths the one that best suits their needs, it is nonetheless extremely contested globally for legal, religious, and political reasons. 

The right to engage in proselytizing activity is according to legal scholars and debates generally the most controversial component of religious freedom. Protestants and Catholics have developed over the centuries “easy-in/easy-out” views about religious conversion. These collide with other conceptions—notably in Judaism, Hinduism, and many folk traditions—that tie instead sacred identities and practices to blood, soil, and community. In most Muslim milieux, conversions out of the faith are heavily discouraged. Furthermore, in many states national identity and political power are deeply tied to religious belonging. A changing faith landscape in these contexts—think of Israel, Lebanon, or India—has profound political repercussions and thus likely to invite challenges.

The religious composition of the advocacy networks promoting religious liberty in U.S. foreign policy constitute the second structural reason underpinning IRF’s Christian soft spot. The issue of international religious freedom is often put forward, as a Pew Research Center report also highlights, by faith-based groups interested in mobilizing on behalf of their “fellow believers” abroad. The majority—and the most influential actors—who forcefully champion this cause in American foreign policy are generally Christian. This strong Christian footprint, which is itself rooted in a wider American social context weighted toward this faith tradition, does translate into a sustained concern for the well-being of Christians worldwide.

The majority—and the most influential actors—who forcefully champion this cause in American foreign policy are generally Christian.

The impetus leading to the 1998 IRFA largely came from Protestant evangelicals and Catholics concerned with what they saw as the intensifying post-Cold War persecution of Christians in surviving communist regimes and the Muslim world. Likewise, recent pivotal events in the Middle East—such as the Arab Spring, mounting civil conflicts, and the advancement of Islamist groups like ISIS—have largely been read through the lens of the threats posed to religious minorities in general and Christian ones in particular. The appointment of a State Department special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia in 2015 was precisely driven by such concerns. It was no coincidence that this new position was officially announced during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.

All this is not to suggest that as a human right religious freedom is exclusively approached as a Christian right. IRF advocates comprise a plurality of faith-based groups and voices, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Baha’i perspectives. The State Department and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s reports frequently express apprehension about the conditions of an extremely diverse range of communities and traditions abroad. Attention is given to recruiting foreign policymakers from a wide pool of religious backgrounds. Notable, for instance, was the appointment by the Obama administration of the first—and, to this day, only—non-Christian IRF ambassador-at-large: Rabbi David Saperstein.

Yet, despite efforts geared towards supporting a universalist and pluralist approach to religious freedom, the underlying cultural and demographic tendencies that already favor particularist Christian concerns can be further reinforced by a third set of political dynamics. Like so many other issues—from climate change to women’s rights—religious freedom has become embroiled in America’s domestic culture wars. Campaigns for religious liberty at home are waged most vigorously by conservative Christians seeking to protect or advance their faith and moral views in American society and politics.

Like so many other issues—from climate change to women’s rights—religious freedom has become embroiled in America’s domestic culture wars.

Conservative Christians are a key voting bloc of the GOP. Greater attention given to IRF during the Trump presidency was intimately tied to the political clout that the Christian right gained in his administration, including through people like Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback, and USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins. The result was an even more explicit move toward a religious-freedom-for-Christians approach in U.S. foreign policy. Vice President Pence was especially vocal about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Secretary Pompeo’s views on “Being a Christian Leader” featured prominently on the State Department’s home page. All the while, religious liberty was hardly a concern when seeking to ban Muslims from entering the United States or taking a more proactive approach against China’s repression of Uighur Muslims.

This Christian soft spot in U.S. IRF policy is problematic. Arguments thus far have especially emphasized a range of value-based concerns: how the favoring of particular groups rubs against norms of church-state separation, secular values of neutrality, or liberal principles of pluralism and universalism. Yet there are also important strategic concerns. In an era where Western states are engaged in a war on terror against certain Islamist groups and competing with rising powers like China, many across the globe have come to interpret such struggles along the lines of an ongoing clash of civilizations.

In this wider geopolitical context, one often dangerously perceived through the lenses of civilizational clashes, IRF’s Christian soft spot unduly contributes to politicizing Christian belonging and reifying it as a constitutive feature of American identity and nationalism. All of this entrenches further pernicious narratives of global cultural incommensurability and religious enmity, especially when becoming further entangled with ideas of a “Judeo-Christian” West. Adding fuel to the fire, such narratives furthermore potentially endanger the very same Christians that religious freedom advocates seek to save around the world, as they become tainted by guilt of association with the West in their local contexts.

IRF's Christian soft spot unduly contributes to politicizing Christian belonging and reifying it as a constitutive feature of American identity and nationalism.

What is to be done? It is possible to see, as some of the more critical voices have done thus far, the whole international religious freedom enterprise as irremediably compromised and therefore in need of abandoning. Others might fear that perceptions and realities of Christian-centrism in IRF policy could undermine what in their view is an otherwise worthy cause. I suspect many in the incoming Biden administration will come closer to this latter perspective—if so, they will need to invest greater energy than has been done thus far in addressing the cultural, demographic, and political forces that sustain such a bias to begin with.

Two solutions come to mind. One would be to integrate religious freedom efforts more organically within existing State Department offices and programs dedicated to advancing human rights. This would limit the potential for policy capture by special interests and particularist agendas. Another option would be to chiefly delegate, while still supporting, religious freedom activities at the international multilateral level. Here a greater diversity of perspectives and interests would inform the policy process, tempering the more particularistic impulses which are likely to dominate once any one state takes the international promotion of religious freedom in its own hands. If U.S. IRF policy is to regain legitimacy in the eyes of many and avoid fueling dangerous narratives of civilizational clashes, the forces sustaining its Christian bias—all the more explicitly revealed during the Trump era—need to be urgently addressed and overcome. 

Editor’s Note: This article is an updated version of an earlier post that appeared on the LSE Religion and Global Society blog.

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