Freedom of Religion Doesn’t Cut It

The United States is committed to protecting freedom of expression abroad—but in far too narrow terms.

Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump attend Christmas Eve services at the National Cathedral on December 24, 2018 in Washington.
Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump attend Christmas Eve services at the National Cathedral on December 24, 2018 in Washington. Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

On Jan. 6, 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended his State of the Union speech by outlining a future based on “four essential human freedoms.” The first two were “freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world” and the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way.” Roosevelt was also emphatic that no one should expect “from a dictator’s peace” either “freedom of expression” or “freedom of religion.”

Roosevelt’s warning against the march of authoritarianism, and the urgency of protecting free speech as its antidote, is depressingly relevant as World Press Freedom Day approaches on May 3. Although no Adolf Hitler threatens a totalitarian takeover of the free world, authoritarianism is spreading around the globe. And the infection seems immune to the supposed antibodies of freedom of speech and the press. Fifty-four journalists were killed and 251 imprisoned in 2018, which also marked a 13-year low point in press freedom as measured by Freedom House. “Digital authoritarianism” has splintered the dream on unrestricted online freedom. In Europe, even the European Union and democratic governments in GermanyFrance, and the United Kingdom are taking drastic measures to curb online speech.

These setbacks go hand in hand with a global democratic recession. This should not come as a surprise. After all, Ancient Athens was the birthplace of both democracy and free speech, and these values were and remain intimately linked. In modern times, celebrated dissidents and champions of democracy including Vaclav HavelMohandas GandhiNelson Mandela, and Liu Xiaobo have all highlighted the central role that freedom of expression plays in defeating tyranny—and they have paid the price for speaking truth to power. In his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Liu, an imprisoned Chinese dissident, wrote: “I look forward to [the day] when my country is a land with freedom of expression, where the speech of every citizen will be treated equally well; where different values, ideas, beliefs and political views … can both compete with each other and peacefully coexist.”

If the democratic recession is to be reversed, a concerted effort by democracies and international institutions is needed to expand the shrinking space for dissent and pluralism. But no such effort is feasible without strong U.S. leadership.

Yet when it comes to promoting human rights, U.S. foreign policy has singled out religious freedom, rather than freedom of expression, as worthy of special emphasis. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) reflects the “unwavering commitment of the United States to religious freedom” and makes it a central goal of U.S. foreign policy to “promote respect for religious freedom.” IRFA also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and an ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

These bodies have played a pivotal role in promoting freedom of religion on the global stage by shining a light on the persecution of religious minorities and prisoners of conscienceaiding efforts to stop the internationalization of blasphemy bans, and naming and shaming countries committing gross and systematic violations of religious freedom. But there are also limits to what can be accomplished by a narrow focus on religious freedom. The right to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience does not ensure political pluralism or press freedom. It limits free expression to the realm of religion, often excluding those who champion democracy, human rights, anti-corruption, or environmental concerns. In principle, it is possible for authoritarian states to embrace religious freedom, while freedom of expression always constitutes an existential threat to dictators of all sorts.

These limits are demonstrated by America’s own history. In the 17th century, most colonies had established churches, and several punished dissenters. But a number of colonies bucked the intolerant trend and protected some degree of religious freedom. The 1649 Maryland Toleration Act included language that would later be repeated in the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and it guaranteed tolerance to anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ so as to “better to preserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the Inhabitants.” This meant that both Protestants and Catholics could practice their faith in Maryland. Roger Williams’ Rhode Island became a haven for religious outcasts due to its “lively experiment” based on the principle of “a full liberty in religious concernments.” And William Penn’s Pennsylvania not only was a safe haven for persecuted Quakers but also promised anyone believing in God that they would not “be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice.”

But however progressive these early modern guarantees of religious freedom, they did very little to protect the political speech of colonists at a time when criticizing the government, magistrates, and laws was punishable as seditious libel. In 1666, Edward Erbery was sentenced to 39 lashes for drunken rants against Maryland’s “turdy shitten assembly.” In Rhode Island, “speaking against … acts or orders” of the assembly could result in jail or 30 lashes. And Pennsylvania regarded as “enemies” worthy of being “severely punished” all “scandalous and malicious reporters, backbiters, defamers and spreaders of false news.” In 1683, the Pennsylvania council—presided over by Penn himself—sentenced Anthony Weston to be whipped three times with 10 lashes at the marketplace in Philadelphia for having displayed “great presumption and contempt of this government and authority.”

But in the 18th century, Americans would make press freedom a potent weapon in the fight for representative government and against taxation without representation. In a famous article in the Boston Gazette from 1768, Samuel Adams declared, “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious; nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS. The reason is obvious; namely, Because it is … ‘the bulwark of the People’s Liberties.’”

The idea that press freedom constituted a bulwark of liberty was repeated in Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights. In fact, it was the exercise of free speech by religious minorities such as Baptists and Presbyterians during the Virginia Convention that persuaded James Madison to expand the draft declaration from protecting mere religious tolerance to religious freedom. The concept of speech as a bulwark of liberty was also included in Madison’s first draft of what would become the First Amendment. And free speech would ultimately become the very first of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

Freedom of religion therefore is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for safeguarding the liberty and dignity of the individual. While crucial to persecuted Chinese Uighurs, this freedom does not address the crackdown on political dissidents like Liu, who died while in custody on charges of “inciting subversion.” Nor does religious freedom address China’s Great Firewall and its efforts to expand online censorship beyond its borders. Freedom of religion offers little hope for genuine accountability for the killers of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the 53 other journalists murdered in the line of duty in 2018.

Freedom of expression, on the other hand, does not just encompass both religious and political speech. It also serves as an inherent component of open and representative democracy that has proved the only framework compatible with the liberty and dignity of the individual. That’s why the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition, underlining the need to protect freedom of conscience and expression across the board.

In order to counter freedom’s global decline and the spread of authoritarianism, the United States should prioritize the full range of First Amendment freedoms in its foreign policy, based on international human rights standards. Expanding the focus to include freedom of religion, conscience, and expression would provide the Commission on International Religious Freedom and the ambassador at large a mandate to focus on political as well as religious repression. As such, these proven instruments of U.S. foreign policy could address not only Saudi Arabia’s targeting of religious minorities and atheists but also its repression of political dissidents like Khashoggi and the women’s rights activists who have reportedly been arrested and tortured. In Egypt, this new policy would benefit both beleaguered Coptic Christians and the numerous journalists imprisoned under nebulous laws against supposedly false news. In Russia, the United States could offer support to embattled dissidents and independent media in addition to the so-called nontraditional religious minorities targeted by Russia’s nebulous laws against religious extremism. Focusing on both political and religious prisoners of conscience would also leverage the impact of U.S. efforts to spread freedom of expression, religion, and democracy. Both Havel’s Charter 77 and Liu’s Charter 08 demanded the guarantee of the full range of human rights including freedom of speech and religion.

It is unlikely that a president who views the media as the “enemy of the people” will lead the way. But IRFA was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats and passed 98-0 in the Senate and by unanimous consent in the House. For a deeply divided Congress to unite around the promotion of First Freedoms would send a powerful message to the world that the United States will stand up for the freedoms of conscience, religion, and expression that form the basis of any free society.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and the host and producer of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.

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