Freedom from state-established religion is among the most cherished of American values. Yet the promotion of religious freedom abroad as an element of American diplomacy is relatively new. It was only with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and subsequent publication of the first Annual Report on Religious Freedom that the State Department began to systematically monitor religious freedom abroad, and to pursue such freedoms as a core policy objective.
The decision to elevate religious freedom to a matter of diplomatic priority reflects a combination of conscience and strategy. Although the International Religious Freedom Act receives much of its most vocal support among the political right, it would be a mistake to see the policy as theirs alone, or as a relic of the George W. Bush presidency. Rather, giving public priority to religious freedom is seen as a way of effectively blunting the edge of religious extremism overseas, and reflects the broadly held belief that those regimes which genuinely respect human rights will ultimately be more stable and friendlier to the United States. The policy continues under president Obama, who (albeit after some criticism) recently appointed Reverend Susan Johnson-Cook as ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom.
Yet any nation will face certain problems in promoting religious freedom abroad, and those problems are further compounded when that nation is the United States. These need to be fully considered if the policy is to not backfire.
1. The first is that “religious freedom” itself can be a deceptively subjective idea. In a 2007 book, legal scholar Winnifred Fallers-Sullivan explained why she considered religious freedom to be an “impossibility” in the United States or anywhere else. Fallers-Sullivan examined court decisions on a variety of familar legal controversies — questions such as prayer in schools, the erection of religious monuments on city property, and the use of religious symbolism in public cemeteries — and made one point very clear: religion is never simply a matter of personal choice. Even in the United States, the law clearly defines the boundaries of what is and what is not legitimate religion. And regardless what the courts decide, it is inevitable that some part of society will feel that it’s freedoms are not being respected.
2. Secondly, the criteria used to measure religious freedom themselves imply certain religious convictions. In the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the gold standard of religious freedom is the inviolability of private faith, that each person should have the freedom to follow his or her individual conscience. This definition fits very well with Western spirituality, but it is certainly not the only way to view religion. Other traditions place a much greater emphasis on responsibility of families, communities or even political authorities to train the religious life of the individual. I am not suggesting that we ignore or condone acts of violence or repression conducted in the name of religion, but simply wish to point out that the ideal of absolute religious freedom is hardly universal, and that the questions of what should or should not be permitted can rarely be reduced to black and white. The case of Terry Jones, an obscure preacher who climbed to fame by threatening to burn the Quran, provides a good example of how differently these issues are perceived abroad. I watched the Terry Jones saga unfold from my home in Singapore, and explained to bemused friends (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) that American law protected this man’s right to free speech and free exercise of religion. Their response, and I think a very reasonable one, was to ask why Muslims did not also have the right to be protected from this sort of harassment.
3. The final problem is that U.S. foreign policy is very hard to separate from religion. Religion plays a very public role in American political life. No serious candidate for public office can avoid making a visible statement of his or her religious conviction. Perhaps owing to this, the influence of religion is perceived to be particularly acute in U.S. policy abroad. Much of the world sincerely believes that the United States is embarked on a modern-day crusade to destroy Islam, that Israeli spies are secretly blackmailing the president, or that Mormons control the CIA. It is easy enough to laugh these ideas off, but we do so at our peril. Perceptions do matter, particularly in the context of a policy that aims to win hearts and minds.
The United States is unique in the world. For all of its shortcomings, no other nation is so immediately associated with the pure principles of human rights. But this can be a mixed blessing, as it leaves the U.S. open to greater scrutiny to practice what we preach. Properly implemented, a policy of encouraging religious freedom is both morally laudable, and strategically beneficial. But even with the best intentions, a ham handed promotion of religious freedom runs the risk of being seen as naively hypocritical at best, and a cover for ulterior motives at worst. As with everything, success and failure lie in the details.