Is the White House trying to turn America into France?

Is the White House trying to turn America into France?

On the campaign trail, Republican candidates such as Gov. Mitt Romney frequently criticize President Obama for moving America towards a "European-style entitlement society" with sclerotic social welfare programs and crushing debt burdens. Two recent decisions by the Obama administration raise the prospect that the White House might also be following the European ethos — or at least the prevailing French model of "laicite" and aggressive secularism — on religious liberty. With apologies to historic French America-philes such as Lafayette and de Tocqueville, this is not the direction our country should go.

Normally domestic policy developments like Obamacare insurance mandates and school employment disputes in Michigan wouldn’t be of much relevance for a foreign policy forum like Shadow Government. But the administration’s position on the recent Supreme Court case on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School and Friday’s Obamacare mandate eviscerating conscience provisions for religious institutions providing healthcare — while appalling in their own right — might also help explain a foreign policy puzzle that I have raised before — why this administration has been so indifferent to the promotion of religious liberty abroad.

To briefly recap, on the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Justice Department took the position that religious liberty does not protect the right of religious institutions to hire their own employees in accordance with the organization’s faith commitments. And the Obama Health and Human Services Department mandated that religious institutions such as hospitals and schools need to fund and include sterilization, contraceptive, and abortifacient coverage in their health insurance plans regardless of any doctrinal convictions otherwise. Just how bad for religious liberty were these two positions that the White House took? So bad that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the White House on Hosanna-Tabor in a 9-0 smackdown (those votes included Obama appointees Justices Sotomayor and Kagan), and the normally understated US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the HHS decision as "literally unconscionable" and "a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights."

The Obama Justice and Health and Human Services Departments — with at least a green light if not a strong push from the White House — embraced positions on religious liberty that can only be described as extreme. Religious believers may disagree among themselves on any number of theological, moral, and political issues, but they hold near unanimity on the imperative and importance of religious freedom — in part precisely because religious freedom preserves the space for diversity and tolerance of differing opinions.

Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because it might help explain the Obama administration’s otherwise baffling apathy on international religious freedom. I have lamented previously the administration’s negligence on this issue, including the delay until over halfway through its first term to even put in place an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and the complete omission of religious freedom from the 2010 National Security Strategy. When seen alongside the administration’s myopic positions on the two domestic policies mentioned above, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this White House sees religious liberty with indifference.

While in any given administration cabinet agencies will have a degree of autonomy, on major issues like Supreme Court briefs and implementation of presidential initiatives, the agencies act only with the direction and blessing of the White House. In other words, these policies can’t be dismissed as the benighted positions of mid-level bureaucrats. They reflect canonical dictates from the White House magisterium. And on foreign policy they send a clear signal to every last State Department bureau and country desk that religious freedom is not a policy priority.

To be fair, this does not mean that the administration is hostile to all aspects of religious liberty. The Obama White House of course opposes the imprisonment, torture, and execution of religious believers in oppressive countries, and has helpfully intervened on some high profile cases such as the Afghan citizen Said Musa and Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

Part of the White House’s problem stems from what appears to be a desiccated reduction of religious freedom to mere freedom of belief or freedom of worship. This is not merely an academic distinction. Religious freedom includes freedom of worship and belief, but also much more, and most fundamentally it protects the rights of religious believers to practice their faith in all of its imperatives. This means the right of the Dalai Lama to urge greater freedom for Tibetans, or Muslim reformers in Syria to call for an end of the Assad regime, or Christians in Egypt to demand greater political representation. Or American Lutheran schools to hire their own teachers, and American Catholic hospitals to determine what kind of services they will fund and provide. None of these cases are about "freedom of worship"; all are about religious freedom.

Religious freedom is not a partisan issue. Numerous Congressional Democrats have shown dedication and leadership in this area. And these recent moves by the White House are all the more disappointing considering the great efforts that the 2008 Obama campaign invested in outreach to religious voters, and the rhetorical priority given to religious freedom in President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech. Perhaps this might be a question to add to the long list that Fareed Zakaria somehow forgot to ask President Obama in his recent interview: were your campaign’s religious outreach and your 2009 Cairo speech just empty talk?

Ironically, the Obama administration’s efforts to diminish religious freedom come just as new scholarship and strategic thinking are demonstrating the connections between religious freedom and foreign policy equities such as peace, security, and stability. For example, Knox Thames describes in a recent essay in Small Wars Journal how religious liberty can strengthen counterinsurgency efforts, and Brian Grim and Roger Finke’s new book finds a robust connection between religious freedom and reductions in political violence. My colleagues at the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center explore a number of these issues in depth, exemplified by Timothy Samuel Shah’s forthcoming book.

Finally, there is the public diplomacy angle. At least part of the reason behind the persistently low opinions of the United States in Muslim-majority countries stem from the worry by many Muslims that America stands for a secularism that is intolerant of religious faith and values. Unfortunately the Obama administration’s recent policies will only reinforce this perception.