The United States is unique among nations in claiming a heritage of religious freedom and a mission to spread it overseas. This is difficult to dispute. What has become hotly disputed is how this is to be regarded.
An “orthodox” view holds that the United States has played a special role—a providential part, as some would have it—in carrying a universal message of religious freedom to the world. First, American colonies were havens for religious refugees; then the American founding was a milestone for constitutional norms of religious freedom; then, over the subsequent two centuries, the United States became a haven for religious people unwelcome elsewhere: Baptists, Mormons, Mennonites, Muslims, Amish, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.
So convinced Americans have been of their ingenious experiment in religious liberty that they have sought to spread it overseas. As Anna Su tells the story in her new book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power, the U.S. extended religious freedom through its colonial occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century; its advocacy of the League of Nations after World War I; its efforts to shape international norms in the United Nations system and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of the Second World War; its occupation of Japan after the same war; its formulation of a human rights policy in the 1970s; its International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998; and its occupation of Iraq after its war there in 2003. In the orthodox view, all of these episodes were a straightforward promotion of American principles.
In recent years, this view has come to be challenged by a “revisionist” view held by scholars who, as Su puts it, “have begun to question the right’s claim to timelessness, universality and neutrality” (for my own review of this school, see here). Led by political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, anthropologist Saba Mahmood, and legal scholar Peter Danchin, this school of critics holds that religious freedom and the view of religion on which it is based is not universal but rather particular to the West and its history of Reformation and Enlightenment. Following the late French philosopher, Michel Foucault, they portray the United States’ promotion of these principles as little more than a neo-imperialist “project” that manifests American power. Proponents of this view make up the lion’s share of statements in a forum hosted here at The Immanent Frame.
One can imagine a middle ground that eludes both the orthodox view’s idealism and the revisionist view’s reduction of religious freedom to power. Call it “power plus purpose.” In this view, the United States promotes religious freedom through its “preponderance of power,” to borrow the title of a prominent work in U.S. diplomatic history, and promotes religious freedom selectively according to the contours of this power, but does not promote religious freedom simply as a tool of its power. It is broadly in this middle zone that Su’s “complementary . . . new vantage point” is located.
Her essential argument is that the United States established the international legal regime of religious freedom—consisting of both international conventions and national level law—through imperial tendencies, meaning asymmetric exercises of power. “International lawmaking,” she argues, “was not anathema to but rather facilitated and continues to provide a framework for [the United States’] global ascendancy.”
Su, however, does not situate herself among Marxians, or American Realists, who view principles as little more than legitimations of economic or geostrategic interests, or Foucauldians, for whom principles of religious freedom would be forms of “knowledge-power.” Power alone cannot account for how U.S. religious freedom policy has been transformed, evolving from a colonialist civilizing mission to a component of spreading democracy to an element of a human rights policy. “Ideas matter,” Su declares as the “first and foremost” conclusion of her historical analysis in the final chapter. “Religious freedom forms part of that ever-changing, tractable, and yet comprehensive prism with which U.S. officials view the world inasmuch as it provided a means to achieve their purposes,” she elaborates. In setting forth her theoretical commitments in the introductory chapter, she avers that “the domestic American experience of religion and religious freedom was the font on which U.S. officials drew for their ideas on the ground abroad.” She also stresses the biographies of policymakers. She looks upon international religious freedom law as “an expression of American liberal ideology and handmaiden of its rise to world power.”
Towards this mixed pursuit of power and purpose, Su’s normative sympathies are mixed. While she finds “hope and empowerment” in human rights language, she is suspicious of the “universality and neutrality” of religious freedom, which she believes is “no less protean, no less a political project, than other human rights.” Each of the episodes she documents, she believes, “illustrates the ambitions and the limits of what religious freedom promoted as law by an external power can achieve.” More strongly, she concludes that “perhaps the most important lessons to be found” lie in the “past wreckage” of this policy, and “not its dreams.”
It is from these commitments that Su offers an original, nuanced, ideologically balanced, and colorful history of America’s promotion of religious freedom overseas since the early twentieth century. In the Philippines, the United States came to possess a colony despite its self-image as a liberal nation founded on self-determination. Needing to justify its holding both to the American public, which harbored a deep streak of anti-imperialism, as well to Filipinos, the United States took up religious liberty and lodged it in Philippine law.
At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was largely responsible for ensuring religious freedom’s place in the minority protection treaties and the mandate policy of the League of Nations. Likewise, it was President Franklin Roosevelt who brought religious freedom into international discourse during and after the Second World War, first making it one of the “four freedoms” that served as U.S. war aims, then promoting it into the architecture of the United Nations system, and finally, giving religious freedom such prominence among international officials that, after his death, it would be included prominently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In occupying Japan after the war, the United States wove religious freedom into Japanese law, including its constitution, as part of its effort to build democracy there.
In the 1970s, religious freedom found a prominent place in the nascent human rights policy of the United States, especially through the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and the Helsinki Final Act. One of the unforeseen consequence of this policy is that it catalyzed domestic groups into greater involvement in religious freedom. After the Cold War, it was domestic lobbying that set in train the momentum that led to IRFA in 1998. Here, Su tells an admirably balanced story, avoiding the common criticisms that IRFA was a project of the Christian right (in fact, by the time of its passage it was supported by a diverse religious coalition) or that IRFA established a hierarchy of rights (in fact, it gave attention to a neglected right). She tells a similarly balanced story of the Bush Administration’s efforts to incorporate religious freedom into Iraq’s constitution and to prevent an Islamist regime during the U.S. occupation of Iraq following the war of 2003.
What Su’s efforts yield is the first systematic account of the promotion of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. While she offers generalizations in the first and last chapters, her theoretical touch is light in the middle historical chapters, allowing the reader to take in the narrative of personalities, events, and ideas that shaped the export of religious freedom without denying the backdrop of power that made it possible. Exporting Freedom is thus an excellent source for anyone involved or interested in today’s debates on the place of religious freedom in the foreign policies of the United States and other Western powers.
In two respects, though, the broad balances that Su strikes might be adjusted. Her stress on power is most convincing in episodes where the U.S. has occupied a country: the Philippines, Japan, and Iraq. In other respects, though, religious freedom seems distinctively disempowered and explainable almost solely by purposes. Since Congress elevated religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy through IRFA, religious freedom has suffered the fate that human rights normally do in U.S. policy: it is trumped by trade, the war on terrorism, and other more traditional interests. Veteran religious freedom watcher Thomas F. Farr opined in 2008 that religious freedom had become “quarantined” in the State Department human rights bureaucracy and ought to be expanded into a “core component” of U.S. foreign policy. This has not happened yet. Religious freedom officials spend their time instead documenting and addressing the persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran, Muslims in Gujarat, India, and Christians in Pakistan—all causes only loosely connected to U.S. power.
Second, Su’s doubts about the universality and neutrality of religious freedom warrant being tempered. Whether religious freedom is a universal human principle is a philosophical and even theological question that cannot be answered by the history of U.S. foreign policy alone. The fact that religious freedom has been a policy of the world’s most powerful nation does not render the principle a mere manifestation of this nation’s power or purposes or rule out it being a natural human right. Religious freedom was articulated centuries before the founding of the United States or even the onset of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the movements that allegedly incubated the principle for American appropriation. Scholars like Timothy Samuel Shah and Robert Wilken have located the human right of religious freedom in the thought of the first centuries of the Christian Church (see here). Jewish, Catholic, and Islamic justifications for religious freedom are available, as are more philosophical defenses of the concept. There are grounds then, for thinking that religious freedom is far wider in its validity than the power and purposes of the United States. Whether this is actually the case is beyond the scope of this generally superb new book.