Religious Freedom and the National Interest

Religious Freedom and the National Interest

Religious freedom should not be the top priority of U.


Religious freedom should not be the top priority of U.S. foreign policy, nor will it be under any president attuned to reality.  But U.S. national interests include freedom: our own lives and liberties will be more secure if we can help nudge totalitarian and semi-totalitarian states to stop treating their own citizens like government property.  And for Americans, religious freedom is arguably the most fundamental component of overall freedom.

Unlike other human rights, however, religious freedom is an issue on which Washington will often find little help from its allies.  No other nation combines both global diplomatic clout and a political culture that prizes freedom-except in Western Europe.  But Western Europe is the most secularized place on the planet. Its governing elites tend to see human rights in non-religious and even anti-religious terms: The freedoms which they really care about are those such as the right to go naked in public, not to wear a pectoral cross or Muslim head scarf.  "Freedom" for them increasingly means the state forcing modernist norms onto traditional institutions, such as the Orthodox Christian monasteries of Mount Athos which are now fighting the European Union over their right to exclude women. 

Religious freedom cannot count on instinctive support even from Washington's own diplomats, who increasingly are as secularized as their European colleagues.  Thomas Farr, who recently retired as director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, told me in a recent interview that State's bureaucracy, like much of America's secular elite, "tends to have a negative view of religious freedom.  If you don't know what it is, how can you export it?"  He believes that this is one area where "a law was needed to get State to do the right thing."

Congress enacted that law in 1998, mandating international religious freedom as a formal goal of U.S. foreign policy.  At the same time Congress rejected pressures to place special emphasis on the rights of Christians; its compromise legislation rightly recognized that if the U.S. is going to push for religious liberty as a global principle, it cannot play favorites.

Five years later, the world has not yet seen a radical transformation in favor of religious freedom.  This is hardly surprising.  When human rights emerged as a major foreign-policy theme in the mid-1970s, concrete results did not come immediately.  On balance, freedom suffered more defeats than victories during the first five years after the 1975 Helsinki Pact.  Nevertheless, enough time has passed to make some judgments about how the U.S. government has carried out its new mandate.

The greatest success is the State Department's annual report on the state of religious freedom (or the lack thereof) around the world, country by country.  This report reflects thousands of hours of work, including in-country monitoring by embassy staffers, which no other entity could afford.  For many countries it serves as the most comprehensive catalogue of specific religious-freedom violations published by any organization-domestic or foreign, public or private.  It also carries the weighty imprint of the world's most powerful government.  The mere fact of being mentioned in such a report serves to inspire victims of religious persecution and to discourage persecutors-hence the strident reactions which it triggers every year from officials in countries such as Russia and China. 

For the most part, those who feared that the report would simply whitewash foreign governments have been pleasantly surprised.  That fear was so great that Congress created a quasi-independent advisory commission, with both congressional and White House appointees and its own full-time staff, to evaluate the State Department's work and make recommendations of its own.  Stephen McFarland, a former director of that staff told me that State's fact-finding has in general been so solid that the Commission has been able to concentrate on broader analytical and policy issues.  For example, the report's analysis of Saudi Arabia's laws and policies begins with the commendably forthright observation: "Freedom of religion does not exist."

Nevertheless, there are problems.  Every sentence of the report has to be negotiated between the State Department's various country desks and its Office of International Religious Freedom, and the easiest way to reach agreement is to emphasize facts at the expense of original, nuanced analysis.  The country reports should be improving in sophistication with the growth of institutional experience-but instead they tend to fall back on standard formulas, repeating them year after year rather than providing new insights into the changing dynamics of repression.  For example, the report published in December 2003-which covers the calendar year 2002-accurately lists the expulsions of five Roman Catholic clergy from Russia.  But it fails to state the larger truth that 2002 was the year when the Roman Catholics abruptly caught up with the Protestants as targets of repression in Russia-much less to analyze the reasons why.  It catalogues the trees but misses the forest.

As Farr puts it, the religious-freedom law has triggered "a natural bureaucratic response: Congress passes a law, the bureaucracy salutes obediently but tends just to absorb it and keep doing things ‘our way.' " He concludes that "so far, at best we have merely laid the tracks for something that still needs to move up to another level."

As a Russia specialist, I was disappointed by the first few annual reports' neglect of that country's Muslims; from reading them one would never have guessed that Russia has roughly ten times as many Muslims as Roman Catholics and Protestants combined.  In more recent years this defect has been corrected, but other gaps remain.  Too often, the effect of those gaps is to create the impression that Washington's purpose is not to help indigenous religious minorities, but to clear the path for American missionaries.

Consider the Old Believers, who have endured fierce persecution under both czars and communists during most of the four centuries since they split from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church.  Today's Russian state continues to discriminate against them by refusing to return church buildings, icons and bells confiscated from them by the Soviet regime-sometimes even transferring these stolen properties to the mainstream Orthodox.  But this uniquely Russian form of Christianity is almost completely absent from the State Department's reports.  The only plausible reason is precisely that it is uniquely Russian and thus lacks press agents and lobbyists in the west.  Emory University's Jeremy Gunn, who has seen the State Department process from the inside, told me that "the people writing these reports respond to what is called to their attention.  That is why the Jehovah's Witnesses get disproportionate attention; the squeaky wheel gets the grease, not because of influence but because of knowledge."  (Let me stress that neither Gunn nor I believe that the Jehovah's Witnesses get too much attention from Washington; rather, other groups get too little.)

Such disparities play right into the hands of the Russian nationalists who portray both missionaries and human-rights advocates as agents of political and cultural imperialism.  By providing detailed coverage only of those groups which are skillful at cultivating such coverage, the State Department creates the impression that America's real agenda is not religious freedom for all, but only for those with good connections in Washington.

Beyond cataloguing individual violations, the State Department is supposed to draw broad conclusions.  It maintains a list of "countries of particular concern," the most egregious persecutors of religious believers.  The list currently includes six countries-Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan-only one of which, North Korea, has been added since 1999.  It omits other countries which are no freer than some of these six, for reasons both obvious (Saudi Arabia) and not (Turkmenistan).  As McFarland told me, the list is "shamelessly politicized"-even though it does not automatically trigger any concrete penalties such as foreign-aid reductions.  Washington retains full discretion to weigh human-rights issues against other concerns, but State is reluctant to label truthfully even such a strategically marginal country as Turkmenistan.  This reduces the pressures for reform in other countries as well.

Feeding that reluctance has been an inclination to emphasize casework rather than systemic reform.  Congress is an institution oriented toward quick results, and the legislators who forced religious freedom onto the State Department's agenda have scored noteworthy successes in lobbying authoritarian regimes to ease pressures on prominent individuals such as imprisoned pastors.  But in the words of Thomas Farr, "It's too easy for repressive governments to release a few token prisoners, then open the back door of the jail and shove in ten more.  If all we are doing is casework, then an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is not necessary."

To push systemic reform in countries whose rulers are fundamentally hostile to freedom, Washington must be willing not just to tell hard truths but to act on them.  That means linkage: concrete, real-world penalties for bad behavior.  Such penalties of course need to be carefully weighed: trade sanctions, for example, have often proved ineffective and even counterproductive.  But if authoritarian regimes see that they need never fear substantive penalties no matter how grossly they violate their own commitments to human-rights treaties, they will conclude that Washington does not really expect them to take such treaties seriously.