The Two Faces of Religious Freedom

By: Jolyon Thomas

January 19, 2021

Responding to: Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

The Two Faces of Religious Freedom

The Biden administration will undoubtedly be tempted to treat the tumultuous and norm-shattering Trump years as an aberration. Trump’s fact-free rhetoric, his shameful attempt to disenfranchise millions by trying to invalidate their legal votes, and his recent fomenting of armed insurrection provide sufficient reason to treat his presidency as beyond the pale. But in the case of international religious freedom, the temptation to get back to normal must be avoided.

But in the case of international religious freedom, the temptation to get back to normal must be avoided.

This suggestion may seem counterintuitive. After all, the Trump administration proudly instituted discriminatory travel bans that targeted specific religious communities. Trump aggressively opened federal lands to extractive industries, violating sites that Native Americans hold sacred. An administration that maintained squalid, overcrowded prisons for migrants and asylum seekers was hardly on sound footing to criticize the People’s Republic of China for its horrific practice of “reeducating” religious minorities in militarized camps

Moreover, the Trump administration’s own messaging on religious freedom has been internally inconsistent. For example, in his address at the International Religious Freedom Alliance dinner in February 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was careful to use inclusive rhetoric about protecting people’s “right to believe in whatever it is they wish, to change their faith, or to hold no faith at all.” But how do we square this statement with Attorney General Bill Barr’s October 2019 speech at Notre Dame that decried the “growing ascendancy of secularism” and a “steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square”? Which of these political appointees spoke for the administration? If we take Pompeo at his word, then religious freedom includes protections for those who are not religious. If we take Barr at his word, then democracy is literally inconceivable without the aid of religion, and real religious freedom leaves no room for unbelief. 

It is tempting to wave away these evident hypocrisies as the byproducts of a particularly venal administration that has engaged in malfeasance of the highest order. The Biden team will no doubt be tempted to do exactly that. But in the case of international religious freedom, the Trump administration has exemplified a continuation of U.S. policy more than it has represented a change. The two faces of religious freedom talk represented by Pompeo and Barr are not unique to the Trump administration, nor are they exclusively the province of the political right. They have long been a part of grandiloquent narratives about American greatness and cultural uniqueness. As scholars such as Tisa Wenger and K. Healan Gaston have persuasively demonstrated, religious freedom talk has long served to both include and exclude. 

The two faces of religious freedom talk represented by Pompeo and Barr are not unique to the Trump administration, nor are they exclusively the province of the political right.

Many of us who study religious freedom as a facet of American foreign policy have also described the contrasting faces of religious freedom America presents at home and abroad. In a 2019 book, I showed how white Americans explicitly denied religious freedom to Japanese American Buddhists in the 1920s, but I also showed how American officials occupying Japan in the early 1940s said it was inconceivable that Japanese people could understand or enact religious freedom without American help. As scholars such as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Anna Su have also shown, this conceit that the United States has figured out religious freedom and the rest of the world must play catch-up has prominently featured in American foreign policy for the last several decades. However, the realities of American domestic politics put lie to that claim.

Take, for example, two recent court cases that involved the religious rights of incarcerated men. In February 2019, the Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, who had asked for the minimum amount of time for his imam to receive the training required to attend Ray at his death. The next month, the Supreme Court decided differently, suggesting that Buddhist inmate Patrick Murphy could be granted a stay of execution so that his Buddhist chaplain could receive the sort of training that had been denied Ray’s imam. The similarities in these cases are as striking as the differences: death row inmates, spiritual advisors, stays of execution. But one man was Black and Muslim. The other man was white and Buddhist. It may be, as some have speculated, that the Supreme Court ruled differently in the second case as a way of atoning for a mistaken decision in the first. But even if true, one man died without the solace of his imam because his right to religious freedom was subordinated to the state’s need to “maintain order.” The fact that that he was Black and a member of one of the most vilified religions in the contemporary United States speaks volumes when contrasted with the successful claim of a white member of a religion often perceived as benign. 

Injustices like the Ray decision are exactly the sort of thing the United States looks for when scanning the globe for religious freedom abuses. Such contradictions won’t disappear simply because the occupant of the Oval Office has changed, nor will the evident Protestant bias in America’s foreign policy evaporate under our second ever Catholic president. 

Injustices like the Ray decision are exactly the sort of thing the United States looks for when scanning the globe for religious freedom abuses.

To be sure, Biden’s inauguration should give Americans of all political stripes hope. He campaigned as a reliable figure who knows Washington well and can get the country back on course. The temptation to present himself as the face of a more compassionate religious freedom will be strong. However, to get the international religious freedom agenda to work, officials in the Biden administration must begin by facing inward. I suggest we spend the first four years of Biden’s presidency subjecting the United States to the same rigorous scrutiny we apply to other countries, knowing that a truly honest assessment may very well result in labeling the United States a “Country of Particular Concern.” Only then can we claim to be promoting religious freedom with a straight face.

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