Two recent developments provide good reason to revisit a debate that took place in these pages last year concerning the U.S. policy of advancing international religious freedom (IRF).

The first is the emergence of mass protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, combined with an outbreak of severe persecution against Christian minorities in the region. The second is the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.

The subject of religious freedom, especially as an element of American foreign policy, has long been controversial. Not surprisingly, contributors to the Immanent Frame debate staked out varied positions.

Four critics in particular, however, questioned whether religious freedom as it is conceptualized in the United States has any applicability elsewhere, and whether American foreign policy can legitimately seek to advance international religious liberty at all. The four are Professors Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Peter Danchin.

An-Na’im’s offering stands alone, while those by Sullivan, Hurd, and Danchin are “the product of ongoing conversations” between themselves and Professor Saba Mahmood. Each has a different approach to the subject, but there are also striking commonalities. For example, all four essays mischaracterize the purposes and the effects of U.S. religious freedom policy. The essays were written as if the 1998 IRF Act (the statutory basis for U.S. policy) were narrowly drawn by the Christian right, honed and implemented by the United States as a tool of imperial power, and imposed on a victim-world—especially in the lands of Islam.

Further, each appears to harbor mistaken assumptions about the United States’ founding, the American religion-state model, and what that model might offer highly religious societies outside the West. Taken together, the four critics represent a thoroughgoing rejection of American exceptionalism, a deep suspicion of American power and influence, and a highly tendentious reading of the Constitution’s establishment clause. A fair summary of their views would be that U.S. IRF policy is imperialistic, immoral, unconstitutional, and unwise.

In this posting, I will focus on the origins, goals, and actual implementation of U.S. IRF policy. In particular, I address the charge that it has been an exercise in American imperialism and that it attempts to infiltrate “non-establishment norms” into Muslim nations.

U.S. IRF policy: a ship with an important mission, but no captain . . . and not much cargo

A dearth of religious freedom and a surfeit of religious persecution clearly constitute a global problem of significant proportions. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Forum, seventy  percent of the world’s population lives in nations where religious freedom is severely restricted. The problem is especially acute in Muslim-majority nations, China, Russia, and India.

This represents a humanitarian tragedy—millions of human beings are subject to depredations such as torture, rape, or unjust imprisonment because of their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors. The problem also implicates vital American interests, including our national security. Studies in international relations and empirical sociology tend to confirm what common sense would suggest: the absence of religious freedom undermines democracy and feeds religious terrorism.

After reading the Pew Report, however, one is entitled to conclude that the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and the policy it mandated have had little impact on levels of religious freedom in the world. While the IRFA’s relative ineffectiveness can be attributed to all three administrations under which it has operated, the Obama administration has thus far proven especially negligent. It has not allocated resources or sustained attention to either the humanitarian or the national security dimensions of the problem.

Most recently, the slaughter of Catholics at worship in Baghdad and the continued flight of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population; the murder of Egyptian Copts at church in Alexandria; a Pakistani Christian mother’s death sentence for insulting the prophet Muhammed; the murder of a Muslim governor for defending the Christian mother; Afghan criminal prosecutions against Muslim reformers on charges of blasphemy; past and prospective stonings in Iran; the destruction of Indonesian churches by mobs reacting to a court’s failure to execute a Christian judged guilty of blasphemy; a massive roundup of Iranian Christians—such outrages have been met by little more than rhetorical condemnations at the State Department (and in some cases, not even that).

Given increasing religious persecution in the Middle East (and elsewhere), it is deeply troubling that the Obama administration, over half its tenure gone, has no  ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a position mandated by IRFA. The need for a seasoned diplomat in this position is stronger than ever. Mass political protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East may not now be driven by religious ideas and actors, but it is inevitable that they will play a role, for better or worse, in the years to come. Getting the religion-state nexus right will be critical if these countries are to avoid theocratic authoritarianism, forestall the growth of religious extremism, and establish liberal, stable self-governance.

Nowhere is this issue more sharply joined, and more strategically important for the United States, than the question of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in any future Egyptian government. Some pundits have opined confidently that the Brotherhood in power means the death of liberalism in Egypt, a mortal threat to minority Christians, and the abrogation of the Camp David Accords. Others have demurred: the Brothers are Muslim liberals aborning, they say, and we should stay out of their way. The sad reality is that (as I have argued elsewhere) the United States has no idea what the Brotherhood’s proximity to political power would mean, and especially the role that religious conviction might play.

There are many reasons for the religion deficit in our current diplomacy, some of them deeply rooted in contemporary Rawlsian strict-separationism, others in the deficiencies of modern “realist” thought. The great irony is that, unlike Western Europe, the United States has constructed over two centuries a system of religious freedom in which minorities are protected and majorities are not required to abandon their religious beliefs at the political door.

For this reason, one might think American diplomats could convey to Muslims that a democracy grounded in religious freedom is not anti-Islam and is necessary to the rooting of democracy. Muslim-based democratic politics, even Islamic political parties, are not unthinkable. Indeed, they are probably inevitable in highly religious Muslim societies. Islamic democracy can succeed if religious actors accept the limits that liberal democracy demands, such as equality under the law for all religious communities, and forswearing the police powers of the state to privilege Islam. More to point, if they do not accept those limits, democracy will fail. The likes of Mubarak, or his theocratic counterparts in Iran or Sudan, will either return to power or stay where they are.

One might think American diplomacy capable of conveying that message, but one would be wrong. Official ineptness on this score has been on stark display under the Obama administration, which has discerned no relationship whatsoever between religious freedom and the rooting of democracy. The administration’s insouciance on IRF policy is perhaps most starkly reflected in its unconcern about filling the position of IRF ambassador.

In November, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing for Suzan Johnson Cook, President Obama’s nominee for IRF ambassador at large. The nomination was reportedly held up in committee by a Republican Senator, but neither Senate Democrats, the State Department, nor the White House complained. The administration has now re-nominated Johnson Cook. But even if she is quickly confirmed, it will be difficult for anyone—foreign governments, religious extremists, or American diplomats—to conclude that religious freedom is a priority for this administration.

In fact, the indifference to this key office, and to IRF policy, of the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department has been stunning. When the new ambassador finally steps into the office, well over half of Obama’s term will be over. Meanwhile, senior envoys have long been in place to tout more favored administration initiatives, from closing Guantanamo and outreach to Muslim communities to addressing disabilities and managing climate change. A State Department program to advance Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights at the UN and elsewhere has been in full swing for well over a year, pursued by the Secretary of State and many of her most senior officials.

And yet, the legally mandated policy of advancing religious liberty—America’s “First Freedom”—has been rudderless since the President took office. Moreover, it appears that the  IRF ambassador, whoever he or she turns out to be, will be a captain without a crew: notwithstanding the law’s mandate that the ambassador head the office of international religious freedom (as all previous IRF ambassadors have done), it seems that this IRF office will work under another official, not under the ambassador.

Nor will the ambassador have much policy leverage. Unlike other ambassadors at large, she reportedly won’t work under the Secretary of State, but will report to an official several steps removed from the Secretary. The State Department will soon issue its list of the “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), which are those guilty of particularly severe violations of religious liberty. But that annual condemnation has had, with one or two exceptions, minimal effect in the countries it targets. It is little more than a rhetorical scourging, irritating to its objects, but—as most of them have learned—carrying few, if any, policy consequences. Along with an annual report, a handful of public speeches devoid of policy significance, and occasional but unfruitful “human rights dialogues,” the CPC listing constitutes the bulk of U.S. IRF policy.

Should it choose to do so, the administration could broaden and deepen that policy, integrating it into U.S. strategies such as democracy and civil society programs that empower indigenous reformers, counter-terrorism diplomacy, and public diplomacy. It could provide U.S. diplomats systematic training in the religious ideas and actors that have such an impact on American interests.

However, despite the efforts of some within the State Department, and despite urging from groups across the policy spectrum (including the Chicago Global Affairs Council task force discussed below), it has declined to do any of these things. When the 60-page U.S. National Security Strategy was unveiled earlier this year—including a full section on the employment of America’s “values” to advance its security—religious freedom was simply missing from the analysis. The administration apparently sees no relationship whatever between international religious freedom and American national security. Militant Iranian Shiism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Palestine’s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Afghanistan’s Taliban ideology, and even Islamist terrorism — none of these seem to have anything to do with religion, and religious freedom no role as a prospective antidote.

Fevered imaginings: the Chicago Report and its critics

This brings us to the aforementioned Immanent Frame debate. As noted, our critics seem to believe that U.S. IRF policy is neither passive nor subordinate to other policy imperatives. In their telling, it is a jingoistic, Christian-centered, and powerful tool of American imperialism.

The four were responding to a piece by Scott Appleby, which described a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the result of a two year study by a task force of over thirty American scholars and policymakers. The report focused both on engagement of religious actors and on the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. (Appleby co-chaired the task force with Richard Cizik. I was a task force member.)

The study concluded that “the growing salience of religion today is deepening the political significance of religious freedom as a universal human right and a source of social and political stability.” It recommended that the Obama administration appoint an IRF ambassador with the skills to advance religious freedom vigorously and wisely, both in order to protect religious minorities and to entice otherwise illiberal majority religious communities into the bargain of democracy, accepting its limits as well as its benefits.

Success in this endeavor, the report noted, could increase political stability in the Middle East, as well as “undermine religious extremism, violence and terrorism” more broadly. Achieving these goals are in the vital national interests of the United States.

It should be noted that some of the scruples voiced by the four critics were represented on the task force. Appleby’s essay highlighted the “cordial, but occasionally sharp” disagreement among task force members about U.S. religious freedom policy. In fact, some members initially insisted that the report address religious freedom very generally, if at all, and stay away from the subject of official U.S. involvement. Their major concern was, as Appleby put it, that  “’[r]eligious freedom’ is perceived by many peoples around the world,  not least Muslims in the Middle East, . . . not as a universal human right, but as a superpower-charged means of advancing hegemonic U.S. (read Christian or, worse, from their perspective Judeo-Christian) interests.”

Appleby noted that “this particular strain of anti-Americanism is inflamed by isolated episodes of Christian missionaries proselytizing defiantly (or clumsily).” Some “foreign opponents of U.S. influence” even imagine that missionaries are U.S. government agents sent to “impose on vulnerable populations ‘The American Way of Religion’—i.e., voluntarism, church-state separation, [and] a free marketplace of religious ideas….”

Notwithstanding these concerns, the Chicago task force ultimately recommended a strong U.S. religious freedom policy. I believe most members were convinced by the following argument: Religious freedom is not just for Christians, or minorities, or Americans, or any other single group. It is the birthright of every human being and the legal right of every religious community. To stand against religious persecution is a moral imperative, especially for the government of the United States.

Moreover, religious freedom has long been affirmed and protected by international law and is one of the cornerstone rights in the UN’s landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It is, in other words, not a parochial, partisan, or sectarian claim, but a universal human right. The IRFA explicitly invokes Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and international human rights covenants as the standard for U.S. policy.

Finally, religious freedom is a linchpin of ordered liberty and the very antithesis of religious extremism. By guaranteeing equality under the law for every person and community, religious liberty protects majorities as well as minorities. If the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to engage the world in defense of American interests, it must become more effective than it has been in carrying out its statutory mandate to advance religious liberty abroad.

American imperialism and “non-establishment norms”

To our four critics, these arguments are, to say the least, unconvincing. In his post, Professor An-Na’im makes the highly provocative charge that the goal of U.S. IRF policy is to assume “the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of civilizing the rest of humanity” through acts of “imperial imposition.” The IRFA “is a hypocritical . . . example of American exceptionalism,” he writes, because the U.S. “is unilaterally appropriating the right to protect religious freedom abroad, while deliberately refusing to apply any [sic.] international human rights standards to the United States itself.”

As a sovereign nation, An-Na’im concedes, the United States can attempt to advance religious liberty, but “it has no right whatsoever to claim, or to pretend, that it is doing that in the name of ‘international’ religious freedom.” The U.S. may do so legitimately only as “a participant in a global joint venture,” and “only insofar as this approach is applied to all human rights, peace, and social justice issues, and not to religious freedom alone.”

These views are generally shared by the other three critics. For Sullivan, “[t]he Chicago Report reflects . . . a particularly American style of imperialism” and (agreeing with Hurd) “a particularly toxic form of ‘American exceptionalism.'” Hurd labels the report’s recommendations as “the global securitization of religion . . ., an attempt to create a particular kind of world, one defined by the projection of American [religious] power . . . .”

In three extensive essays, Danchin compares the report’s authors to Europe’s “political moralists,” who “subordinated principles to ends and became thereby accomplices to war, imperialism, and colonialism.” He argues that a “latent assumption” of the report is that the world can be divided into good (secular) and bad (religious) Muslims. Like U.S. foreign policy, it pits one against the other “in hopes of fomenting a civil war within the Islamic world.”

For Danchin, all of this has a certain tragic logic. The IRFA, he writes, was the product of lobbying by conservative Christian groups. He sees those groups as a danger not only to international peace, but to the domestic separation of church and state.  He expresses the earnest hope that “the liberal wing of the Supreme Court can try valiantly to hold the line domestically in a still majority protestant [sic.]—but rapidly changing and diversifying society . . . .”

According to Danchin, it is therefore not surprising if (as Charles Taylor has noted) Muslims perceive that “the right to religious freedom in international law appears inextricably linked to distinctly Christian origins—either to a quasi-religious form of post-Enlightenment Deism or to the political rise of Western secularism, and, in either case, as a form of foreign and imperial imposition.”

The bill of particulars goes on. Danchin argues that the religious freedom policy recommended by the Chicago report aims to “change the identity of Muslims and Muslim communities” by infiltrating into their societies the anti-establishment norms of the American constitution, i.e., “secular liberalism in its ‘Establishment Clause’ form.” This would require the removal of religious ideas and actors from political life, or, as Danchin puts it, the movement of religion “to the private sphere of conscience or belief” and the adoption of state neutrality among religions and “between religion and non-religion.”

This interpretation of the First Amendment is accepted to one degree or another by the other critics. They, like Danchin, seem to believe its primary domestic purpose is to keep evangelicals in line. But they also believe that the privatization/neutrality approach to religion and state cannot work in highly religious societies. Here they are surely correct.

Any serious reading of American constitutional history will show that the First Amendment—emphatically—does not privatize religion, remove religious actors and ideas from public life, or require the kind of “neutrality” suggested by the critics. But that misconception remains highly influential within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Indeed, a recent CSIS study provided strong evidence that American diplomats believe U.S. religious freedom policy, and the attendant need to engage religious actors, is unconstitutional.

This is a major reason for the relative ineffectiveness of U.S. policy. It feeds a reluctance to work with majority religious communities in facilitating the legal and cultural institutions and habits that might actually advance religious liberty. Given this constitutional scruple (especially when combined with other reasons for inaction), what remains is a lowest common denominator approach on which all can agree: rhetorical condemnations of persecution. Unfortunately, this approach has, over the twelve years since IRFA’s passage, neither advanced religious freedom nor reduced religious persecution.

It is therefore deeply ironic, and doubly tragic, that many religious actors abroad—Muslim, Hindu, and Christian Orthodox—think that America’s purposes are precisely to remove them and their ideas from political life. In truth, many senior American diplomats are probably sympathetic to that goal abroad, as they are sympathetic to it domestically. But, contrary to the arguments of our four critics, such sympathies have not led the United States in its IRF policy to push anti-establishment norms, or, quite frankly, any other norms.

I want to conclude by asking whether the legislative history and subsequent implementation of the IRFA justify the critics’ charge of imperialism. We have already seen that, if IRFA’s backers intended to establish a new American imperium via IRF policy, they have failed miserably. The truth is, of course, that they intended no such thing. The charges are simply wrong, although they do echo the assertions of those governments and extremists abroad who would stand to lose if U.S. IRF policy were effective and religious freedom were embraced by their societies.

Allen Hertzke has written the definitive work on the passage of IRFA. It resulted from a typically American legislative campaign that in the end garnered broad consensus across the country’s religious and political landscape. (I have written on the origins of the law and its implementation as well. See chapters 4-7 here.)

The campaign was initially triggered by Christians and Jews who, moved by the terrible fates of persecuted Christians abroad, concluded that their government was not doing enough to address the problem. Early drafts of the bill focused on nations where Christians were most at risk—especially China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and a handful of Muslim-majority nations. This initial Christian-centered approach, while perhaps flawed, was driven by well established facts (see also here) on who was being persecuted and where. The Muslim regimes named or referenced in the initial bill—e.g., Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt—were then and remain today havens of religious persecution, mainly of Muslim, but also of Christian, minorities, as the aforementioned Pew Forum study amply demonstrates. Moreover, some attention was given in the early legislative drafts to non-Christian victims of abuse, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Iranian Baha’i. It was a kind of “pork barrel” approach to identifying the victims.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the early campaign leadership from American evangelicals, the bill’s initial focus on Christians, and the naming of particular Muslim nations as persecutors, would lead to the false charge that the IRFA was pro-Christian, anti-Islam, and motivated by a kind of cultural imperialism—the desire to “remake” Muslim societies in an American image. American Christians, it is true, were highly motivated to relieve the sufferings of their co-religionists, and many were suffering at the hands of Muslim governments. It is also true that, while there were discussions of Muslim victims of religious persecution (e.g., in India, China, and some Muslim-majority countries), the early legislative drafts did not emphasize Muslims as victims.

Whether one can infer from these facts an imperialist, racist, anti-Islamic bias is, to say the least, highly questionable. Much of the modern legal architecture of human rights arose in response to the suffering of particular minorities, such as European Jewry or American blacks. Would anyone make the case that the postwar human rights regime is illegitimate because it originated in outrage against the treatment of Jews? These charges perhaps tell us more about the biases of the accusers than about the realities of American foreign policy.

In any case, the initial drafts of IRF legislation did not survive, and the final bill removed any reference to particular religious communities or particular nations. The IRFA, as passed, mandated that the United States stand with the persecuted of all nations and faiths, oppose persecution wherever it existed, and advance religious freedom as a remedy. The final legislation was supported not only by evangelicals, but by the Catholic Bishops’ conference, liberal Protestant and Jewish groups, Baha’is, Sikhs, and secular human rights groups. Its aims have subsequently been endorsed by Muslim organizations as well. In the end, the most significant opposition came from Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals who wanted, for different reasons, to ensure that economic sanctions against persecuting regimes were not automatic (which is why, in the final bill, they were  discretionary).

In sum, there is nothing in the language of the statute, in the nature of the groups that backed it, or in their goals that can support a claim of imperialism, let alone the motive of taking up “the White Man’s Burden of civilizing humanity.” Unless, of course, one takes the position (as Professor An Na’im and the other critics may well do) that the very act of passing the legislation was, per se, an act of imperialism. That position, it seems to me, is difficult to sustain. The goal of IRFA’s most ardent supporters was to reduce the suffering of co-religionists, not to extend American hegemony.

Moreover, the neoconservatives and others who planned and executed the American-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq generally ignored the religious nature of Iraqi society and did not address the question of whether religious freedom might play a role in stabilizing the country. For the most part, as the sorry fate of Iraqi Christians attests, U.S. diplomacy has still not taken up that question in earnest. As for the allegations that the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan constitute imperialism—or, as Danchin puts it, the imposition of a “military dictatorship”—I believe the record of U.S. actions in Iraq under both the Bush and Obama administrations amply demonstrates that these charges are simply false.

But even if the charges were true, religion and religious freedom policy have played virtually no part in U.S. policy planning or execution. Had it been otherwise, it is entirely possible that Islamist extremist ideas would have less purchase in Afghanistan than they do today, that religious minorities in Iraq would be less endangered than they are today, and that both nations would be closer to stable democracy than they are today.

The sad reality is that American policy has been largely ineffective in the lands of Islam and elsewhere. It has been isolated and circumvented by all the administrations under which it has operated, most especially under the Obama administration. What it has manifestly not been is imperialist, racist, unconstitutional, or a tool of American power. Notwithstanding the assertions of our four critics, the Chicago report was on to something. Should an American President and Secretary of State summon the will, U.S. policy could help yield religious freedom, and with it stability, ordered liberty, prosperity, and peace. As the people of Egypt are teaching us, these are the aspirations of all peoples, of every faith, everywhere.