I applaud the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ call for the U.S. government to recognize the pivotal role of religion in societies around the world and to engage religious communities in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives. The Council’s Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy wisely recommends mandating diplomatic training in religious literacy to address the striking ignorance that often leads to foreign policy blunders and missed opportunities.

The tensions within the Task Force, which Scott Appleby recounts, actually illustrate the misconceptions that bedevil what, by law and interest, should be a central thrust of engagement: the promotion of religious freedom as a universal human right. As one who closely observed the process that produced the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, I can counter a number of such misconceptions.

The effort to pass the law was backed by a broad religious coalition animated by gross human rights abuses, and activists repeatedly adverted at the time to the principles enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. State Department reports have consistently declared that American initiatives such as the IRFA derive from the mandates of international covenants signed by virtually all nations. Rooted in our nation’s highest ideals, and not in hegemonic pretentions, the law sought to protect vulnerable people in dark corners of the world. It was not intended as a cover for aggressive missionaries or abusive proselytism, and very rarely has its implementation dealt with missionaries at all.

As Thomas Farr has written, the law was resisted in Foggy Bottom and has since been quarantined from the main currents of American foreign policy—this despite growing empirical evidence that restrictions on religious practice and freedom of conscience contribute powerfully to lagging democracy, societal strife that spills over borders, regional instability, and global terrorism.

I submit that misconceptions—or, more precisely, unexamined assumptions—underlie the failure of our foreign policy elite to deploy a tool that could promote our ideals and national interest simultaneously. These unexamined assumptions, or many of them, are part of the mental architecture of the academics who prepare our diplomatic personnel and the intellectuals who frame our foreign policy paradigms. The following is a sample:

  • Enlightened people are secular.
  • Fervent religious devotion is divisive, backward, antithetical to reason, dangerous, and a threat to the liberal project.
  • Democracy requires a secular public square, and liberal progress depends on the separation of religion from public life.
  • Political activism by churches is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  • American foreign policy—when engaging with religious institutions, communities, movements, or leaders abroad—is constrained by the Establishment Clause.
  • Religiously grounded political arguments are antithetical to liberal norms and undermine democracy.
  • Christians who promote religious freedom mainly want to protect the ability to send missionaries abroad.
  • Christianity is primarily spread by Western missionaries who import an American way of life.
  • Proselytism undermines indigenous cultures and commonly deploys promises of financial rewards, coercion, or deception.

One can imagine why holding even some of these assumptions would lead to lukewarm enthusiasm for promoting religious freedom abroad. I do not mean to imply that all such assumptions are false, just that they are often unexamined, and that little effort is made to test when or under what conditions they may be true.

Take proselytism as an example: the right to share one’s faith, to persuade others of the value or truth of one’s faith, and to change one’s faith, are all central components of the Universal Declaration. Proselytism, defined in the dictionary simply as the act of creating proselytes or the process of conversion, is thus an integral aspect of religious freedom as an internationally recognized human right. Yet, this fact is often concealed by the heavy negative baggage carried by the term, which conjures images of prosperity-gospel hucksters from the West preying on poor and illiterate people in the developing world. And, to be sure, there are just enough prominent examples to reinforce this image.

We need serious research to test the range of assumptions swirling around the proselytism controversy.  How widespread is proselytization by outsiders? Under what conditions is it abusive or deceptive? To what extent do poor people have agency in deciding whether to convert to a faith? How common is conversion by outside proselytization compared to indigenous sources? How do anti-conversion laws actually work? Do they really protect vulnerable people, or do they empower dominant groups?

On the latter question, international monitors indicate that such laws are commonly backed by dominant groups to maintain their monopoly or oligopoly. And preliminary quantitative research by Brian Grim suggests that anti-conversion laws, rather than protecting people, can actually inflame inter-religious tensions or invite mob violence against vulnerable minorities.

We see this clearly in the way Islamist regimes (or cynical dictators currying Islamist favor) enforce laws against conversion (apostasy) and defamation (blasphemy), which serve to suppress dissidents and Muslim reformers, to intimidate non-Muslims, or merely to settle scores. Consequently, the social or legal prohibition against conversion or defamation has a chilling effect on the free expression of ideas—by journalists, women, scholars, or rights activists—which is so central to the evolution of peaceful, thriving societies, which in turn undercut the appeal of terrorism.

Another vivid case that challenges assumptions about proselytism comes from the Indian context. The ongoing resurgence of militant Hindu nationalists has sparked widespread mob violence against Muslims, Christians, and those in lower castes attracted to other faiths. Attacks against such minorities serve both as a strategy of intimidation and as a pretext for passing laws against conversion, which produce further marginalization. In the recent Orissa violence, for example, the coordinated attacks against Christians were presented as evidence that the Christians had brought it upon themselves, suggesting that mob violence was justified and leading to calls from Hindutva groups and BJP leaders for stronger enforcement of anti-conversion laws.

Intriguingly, the right (or threat) of conversion serves the social and political aspirations of India’s Dalits, or “untouchables,” for whom embracing another faith can be a way to assert their agency and dignity in a religious, or traditional, culture that marginalizes them. This understanding goes back decades; B.R. Ambedkar, the author of the Indian constitution, not only converted to Buddhism himself but led thousands of fellow untouchables to the faith. As this case suggests, sensitivity to the motivations of those who convert, and those who try to stop them, can help us better understand and respond wisely to the diverse dynamics of societies around the world.

Even if our diplomatic personnel were to develop such literacy and sensitivity, however, the assumption that the Establishment Clause constrains our strategies remains a further impediment to effective engagement. The Chicago Council Task Force rightly took on this assumption by declaring that the Establishment Clause does not bar the United States from engaging religious communities abroad, as some diplomats mistakenly think.

The problem is that the Task Force left a camel’s nose in the tent, which could undermine the basic thrust of their recommendation. After its declaration that the Establishment Clause poses no obstacle to engagement, it declares that it “does impose constraints on the means that the United States may choose to pursue this engagement,” calling upon the President, advised by executive branch offices, to issue a clarification on this matter.

Here is the problem: we don’t agree in this country on the meaning of the Establishment Clause. Its implications are deeply contested, and some contend that the Court has interpreted the clause in ways that at times undermine the free exercise of religion, which is what, by law, the U.S. must promote. Establishment case law, as former circuit judge and Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell once wrote, “is a mess.” To expect that the President could come up with a definitive clarification of what the Establishment Clause allows and prohibits in foreign engagement is a fantasy.  What’s more, would James Madison have ever imagined that his carefully constructed language would come to apply to international relations? It is unlikely.

Oddly, the Task Force itself issues a definitive legal interpretation—that the Establishment Clause “does impose constraints” on the means available to American foreign policy—which the Supreme Court itself has not clearly adjudicated. This is particularly troubling because, even under the most expansive interpretation of the clause, a number of foreign policy initiatives of the past—such as staunching the spread of European communism in the chaotic aftermath of World War II with emergency support to Christian Democratic parties, or collaborating with John Paul II in undermining the Warsaw Pact—would have been prevented.

Promising strategies today would similarly be eschewed or held suspect under this interpretation. Could a U.S. military commander use federal dollars to build a village mosque in Afghanistan? Could USAID contract with “pervasively sectarian” Islamic Relief on development projects in Pakistan’s tribal areas? Could American diplomats translate into multiple languages and distribute major works by Islamic defenders of the freedom of conscience? Could the State Department expand its foreign visitor program to include delegations of religious leaders who come to learn about religious freedom and pluralism? Could the U.S. support a legal training program on religion and international law in the Arab world for lawyers, judges, and scholars? Could the U.S. provide a megaphone for clerics opposed to the Iranian regime? The ambiguity created by the Task Force will invite timidity by skittish diplomats when it is boldness and creativity that are required.

It would be better for the President to issue general instructions to agencies, highlighting that the Establishment Clause does not bar religious engagement and encouraging officials to exercise prudential judgments in determining what means make practical and ethical sense. Here is my recommendation for one prudential criterion: if the initiative is likely to expand genuine freedom of religion and conscience, do it.