The Corner

The Ever-Shrinking Role of Religious Freedom in U.S. Foreign Policy

Religious freedom should be at the heart of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Both history and modern scholarship make it clear that highly religious societies cannot attain stable, lasting democracy without religious freedom in full — the set of institutions and habits that guarantee equality under the law for all religious actors and a sustainable balance between religion and state.

This means that achieving the secular benefits of democracy — security, economic opportunity, peace with the neighbors — is highly unlikely without religious freedom. So is the elimination of religious violence and religion-related terrorism. 

Of course, religious freedom isn’t a silver bullet. It must be nested in a “bundled commodity” of fundamental freedoms that root democratic governance. Nor is it an absolute right: The very concept of equality for all religious actors entails limits on each. 

Which brings us to the president’s speech. As usual, religious freedom made a rhetorical appearance but remained largely irrelevant. For example, Obama demanded for Egyptian Copts “the right to worship,” but not the right to full equality under the law. If democracy is to succeed in the region, minorities must of course be protected from violence and persecution while they worship. But they must also have the right to bring their religious beliefs into the political life of the nation. And Muslim majorities must be able to debate the relationship between Islam and freedom without being subject to imprisonment or death for blasphemy. Nowhere in the broader Middle East does this kind of religious freedom exist. Until it does, U.S. foreign-policy goals are unlikely to be achieved.

The president clearly rejects these and other arguments for a strong U.S. international religious-freedom policy. With over half the administration gone, the U.S. religious-freedom ambassador has just this week taken her position at the State Department, a point not lost on Middle Eastern governments (or, for that matter, U.S. diplomats). An important corrective, however, is on the horizon: Congressman Frank Wolf’s proposed amendments to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act will, if adopted by Congress, require the State Department to pay greater attention to this vital aspect of American diplomacy.  

— Thomas F. Farr is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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