Law in Contemporary Society

International Religious Freedom: A Cause Not Just for the Religious

-- By JeffreyPan - 12 Apr 2010

The International Religious Freedom Act

In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which established an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF), a bipartisan US Commission on IRF and a special advisor on IRF in the National Security Council, all for the purpose of integrating religious freedom as a priority in America's foreign policy agenda.

The effectiveness of the legislation was initially hampered by the motivations of its supporters. The idea for the act was first conceived at a conference sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals. It was introduced in the House of Representatives as the "Freedom from Religious Persecution Act" and became known as the Wolf-Specter bill due to the joint sponsorship of Representative Frank Wolf and Senator Arlen Specter. The act was primarily intended to protect Christian missionaries and adherents abroad from governmental persecution.

Eventually, the act was expanded to call attention to the millions of other religious followers being persecuted for their beliefs including Muslims suffering at the hand of Islamist terrorists, Buddhists in Tibet, Jews in Iran and Syria, and many others. However, the initial focus of the legislation on Christian persecution kept many from taking the legislation seriously. As Thomas Farr explains, "The narrower focus on Christians in the original Wolf-Specter bill wounded the coalition's credibility and strengthened the arguments of secular and liberal religious groups that any IRF legislation was manipulated by the Christian right for illegitimate ends." (World of Faith and Freedom)

The Current State of Affairs

This may explain why President Obama, in his 15 months in office, has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador-at-large for IRF. (Undefender of the Faith) However, it would be a mistake for Obama and his administration to assume that the office for IRF is just a tool for the Christian right. In his Cairo speech this past summer, Obama declared, "People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive." (Cairo Speech) By working with the office of IRF and appointing an ambassador-at-large, Obama could work towards realizing that vision.

Religious Freedom in the Middle East

As a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy contends, the answer to achieving religious freedom is not to ignore or understaff the office of IRF, but to expand the mandate of the office to focus on "a) freedom of political participation b) the freedom of independent religious debate and institutional life and c) the freedom of individual practice." (POMED Report) This means that the US should not try to force religious freedom onto countries by threatening the use of sanctions, as was mandated in the original Wolf-Specter bill. Such a top-down approach would be viewed as America's effort to Christianize the world and would only serve to further incite religious extremism abroad. Instead, the US should work with international organizations, sponsor programs and exchanges, and show foreign diplomats and leaders that encouraging religious freedom will not lead to instability, but rather, a flourishing civil society.

International Religious Freedom is a cause not just for the religious because religion plays such an important role in shaping international affairs. As Madeleine Albright asserted in a speech on religious freedom, "[The principle of the separation of church and state] has never blinded us to religion's impact on secular events, whether for the worse, as when intolerance contributes to conflict and strife; or for the better, as when faith serves as a source of moral inspiration and healing." (Speech to Catholic University) If the US leaves religious freedom out of its foreign policy agenda then there is the chance that it will neglect to address the underlying issues causing hatred against the US and instability abroad. For example, in a recent article on US Response to Saudi Government Extremism, Nina Shea points out that while the US has applauded Saudi pledges to reform education, the US has not addressed the fact that Saudi religion textbooks, sponsored by the Saudi Ministry of Education, still teach hatred toward other religions. One such textbook justifies killing an apostate, a polytheist, and an adulterer. Another continues to propagate a dangerous interpretation of "jihad." (Saudi Government Extremism and the US Response) Encouraging the reform of these educational materials is a key step in working towards a future of peace between the US and the Middle East.

Religious Freedom in China

The benefits of encouraging religious freedom are not limited to the Middle East. Since 1979 when Deng Xiaoping began lifting the restrictions on religious freedom, imposed by Mao Zedong during the fifties and sixties, China has seen a tremendous growth in its number of religious believers. A poll conducted by the East China Normal University estimated that there are as many 300 million religious believers in China. (Surge of Religion Among Chinese) Yet despite this growth of religious belief, the citizens of China do not enjoy the same level of religious freedom as the citizens of other developed countries. Encouraging religious freedom in China could go far to alleviating many of the social and political problems plaguing China today. As Carol Lee Hamrin explains, "Where true religious freedom exists in the public forum, transparency grows, trust is built, civility society matures, and economic success and government legitimacy increase."

Again, religious freedom cannot be promoted in China with a top-down approach. The Chinese government will not accept what they perceive to be American imperialism and proselytization. Thus, the US should work to build an international consensus on this idea of religious freedom and create a dialogue on how religious freedom can be a positive, stabilizing force in China as the Chinese economy continues to grow. In particular, Hamrin suggests that academic, media and policy circles should counter anti-religious attitudes in China by demonstrating how faith-based organizations can create the social capital vital for economic development and how China's security interests can be best served by embracing rather than persecuting religious minorities.

International religious freedom is an issue that Obama cannot afford to ignore. Granted, the IRFA and the office of IRF are not perfect. However, instead of ignoring the office, Obama should appoint an ambassador-at-large and work with the office to create a more productive approach to religious freedom. Doing so could go far in realizing Obama's articulated goal of religious freedom and supporting America's larger foreign policy agenda.

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