God and Man in the World
Leonard Leo explains why religious freedom should shape U.S. foreign policy.


Leonard Leo is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which late last month issued its annual report on the state of religious freedom in the world. With recommendations to Congress, they singled out Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam as countries of “particular concern” because of their treatment of human rights. From Indonesia, Leo talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the report, the mission of the commission, the state of religious liberty in the world, and why it should matter here.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is religious freedom a national-security issue?

LEONARD LEO: Promoting the freedom of religion or belief promotes stability and security by reducing resentment, tension, hostility, and extremism. Countries that discriminate against and harass religious minorities, and that enforce blasphemy and other repressive laws, tend to embolden extremists who seek to impose their own orthodoxy. Countries that look the other way when religious minorities are being attacked by private individuals foster a climate of impunity, which similarly creates space for extremism. And, countries that crack down on peaceable religious practices of non-majority faiths create feelings of resentment on the part of oppressed minorities, which in turn can drive young men in those minority faiths to separatist movements and terrorist training camps.

LOPEZ: What’s the most important point coming out of your report?

LEO: That the U.S. government must do more to make the promotion of freedom of religion a more central feature or objective of our foreign-policy agenda.

LOPEZ: Is the Obama administration worse than the Bush administration?

LEO: That’s not the commission’s metric. We’ve made it clear in this year’s annual report that the Obama administration has missed the mark in a number of important respects, and that it has to do a better job of making clear to other countries what they must do to fulfill their international human-rights obligations. Unfortunately, in certain respects, we had similar criticisms of the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before that.

LOPEZ: Why is the International Religious Freedom ambassador position important?

LEO: That position, if properly structured and filled, can provide focus to the State Department’s work. The IRF ambassador is the in-house advocate for ensuring that the various bureaus and country desks don’t brush religious freedom under the rug in an effort to smooth over our bilateral relations with other nations. The IRF ambassador can help to draw connections between promotion of religious freedom and the achievement of key national-security, economic-development, and foreign-affairs objectives.