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Undefender of the Faith

After 15 months in office, why hasn't Obama even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom?


The United States’ 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports — one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters — one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress — have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated that the freedom to practice religion, a founding tenet of the United States, become a foreign-policy priority. Since then, presidents have spoken out against religious persecution in places such as China and Afghanistan. They have extolled the value of religious freedom to individuals and societies. But the promotion of international religious freedom has rarely been more than a talking point. Presidents and diplomats have failed to integrate the issue fully into U.S. foreign policy, ignoring its potential contribution to world peace and vital U.S. interests.

Too often, Washington has focused on specific cases of persecution, rather than the support of political and social institutions that can yield more widespread religious liberty in other countries. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that severely restrict religious liberty, banning certain forms of religious expression and public worship and persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of religion.

There are two main reasons why the United States ought to do more to promote religious freedom abroad — one moral, one practical. First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas.

Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable. Pew Forum sociologist Brian Grim has found that religious liberty means less religious persecution and thus less conflict. Religious freedom is a constituent part of what he calls a "bundled commodity" of human freedoms (along with things like a free press and equal rights for women). With this "bundled commodity," countries tend to be secure, democratic, socioeconomically stable, and less violent.

Given these powerful twin imperatives — justice and national security — one would expect that U.S. foreign-policy makers would long ago have integrated religious freedom into other initiatives: democracy promotion, public diplomacy, commercial and economic strategies, global women’s issues, development programs, and counterterrorism. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Part of the problem has been an aversion on the part of diplomats and administration officials to consider religion as a policy issue. In The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote, "Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion." Albright now believes this attitude was deeply mistaken, and her book calls for greater foreign-policy attention to religious ideas and actors. But the religion-avoidance syndrome that she identified in U.S. diplomacy remains a problem, especially in the area of religious freedom.

Within the State Department, the religious-freedom ambassador and his office have been bureaucratically isolated since their establishment. The congressional act that created the office styles the ambassador at large as a "principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State." Yet the ambassador has been placed under the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor. That means that a position that Congress intended to have direct access to the secretary of state and the president has had little clout even within the State Department. Moreover, a key recommendation of the Chicago report is to fill the position with someone who has the foreign-policy skills to reduce persecution and advance religious freedom worldwide. But the leading candidate for the job — though highly accomplished and well-connected — is a pastor, not a diplomat.

Although the president has yet to even nominate his ambassador at large for international religious freedom, other ambassadors at large — for global women’s issues, counterterrorism, and war crimes — have long been at work, directly under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A large group of other senior envoys are also in place, with portfolios such as disabilities, AIDS, climate change, Guantanamo, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and outreach to Muslim communities. The State Department is also developing an international gay rights initiative. It is difficult not to conclude that all these initiatives are more important to the administration than religious freedom.

In this regard, it is worrying that, for the past year, Obama and Clinton have often used the term "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion." The former is largely a private activity with few if any public-policy implications. The latter certainly denotes the right to worship, but it includes as well the right to engage in political and public life on the basis of religious beliefs. It is the latter that the United States has failed to address in its religious-freedom policy, even though the public element of religious freedom is by far the most important aspect of any engagement with majority-Muslim communities, which do not see their role as a private one.

Mostly, the State Department condemns individual cases of persecution, like that of Christian convert Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. The United States played a central role in freeing Rahman from execution; in the Afghan criminal justice system, apostasy is a capital crime. But it also failed to understand, or to try to convince Afghans, that such laws are inconsistent with stable democracy and work against Afghanistan’s long-term interests.

There have been exceptions to this largely reactive approach. For example, Ambassador at Large John Hanford worked successfully to achieve legal changes in Vietnam that laid the groundwork for greater religious freedom. More recently, the State Department’s office of international religious freedom organized an interagency group that meets regularly on issues of religion and global affairs. Unfortunately, such glimmers of progress remain exceptions that prove the rule: Twelve years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, the issue still has little salience in U.S. foreign policy.

What might a better course of action look like? Dennis Hoover and I have provided detailed recommendations in a booklet titled "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration." It includes some obvious steps: placing the ambassador and his office directly under the secretary of state and integrating international religious freedom into such broader policies as democracy promotion, public diplomacy, and counterterrorism. Among other things, it is clear that a country that protects the religious freedom of all its citizens is far less likely to nourish and export (including to American shores) religion-based terrorism.

Obama should also build off his speech in Cairo: "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together." Recently a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy, based on extensive interviews with young Middle Eastern civil society leaders, found support for a refurbished religious freedom policy in the Middle East. "In our conferences," the report notes, "participants sharply objected to U.S. practice relating to religious freedom, but instead of calling for an end to the IRF office and its reports they argued that its mandate should be expanded to focus on a) freedom of political participation by religious persons and b) the freedom of independent religious debate and institutional life, in addition to c) the freedom of individual practice."

What does this tell us? That at least some young leaders in the Middle East not only want democracy — we’ve know that for some time — but also want help in establishing the freedoms and limits that help make democracy stable and lasting.

There is ample reason for the president to retool and refurbish the country’s international religious freedom policy. Among them is the fact that his predecessors failed to see the potential in such an effort. Far more important, however, is the growing awareness that successful religious freedom diplomacy can serve the interests of peace, stability, and American security.

Thomas F. Farr, a former U.S. diplomat, is visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at the university's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security.
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