Ten years ago today President Clinton signed the landmark International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), a law its supporters hoped would put religious freedom at the core of American foreign policy. During the ensuing decade IRF policies have produced admirable and encouraging results, including humanitarian successes and institutional first steps toward altering the secularist culture at the State Department. However, it cannot yet be said that religious freedom is anywhere near the center of U.S. foreign policy. The next administration should elevate and broaden IRF policy in order to serve both the humanitarian and the national security interests of the United States.

In October of 1998, IRFA’s passage represented a surprising victory for its proponents. Almost two years of debate had revealed deep divisions over religious freedom legislation, and in July the New York Times had declared the legislation dead. Then, in late October, as Congress prepared to adjourn for elections, both Houses passed the law unanimously and Clinton signed it immediately, declaring IRFA “a welcome and responsible addition to our ongoing efforts.”

Analyzing in detail why the law finally passed need not occupy us here. In the end a confluence of circumstances led both legislators and the White House to accept the bill, including upcoming Congressional elections (no one wanted to be labeled “soft on religious persecution”), late concessions that made the statute’s language more palatable to the State Department, the president’s looming impeachment trial, and the single-mindedness of the act’s proponents.

More important for our purposes is that most of the fears voiced during the long debates over IRFA have proven off the mark. Clinton officials believed the statute was intended to establish a “hierarchy of human rights” that privileged religious liberty and sanctioned Christian proselytizing abroad. Supporters believed that the Clinton State Department was lax in condemning persecution of Christians. As the IRFA began to be implemented under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, much of this angst (although not all of it) dissipated.

For one thing, liberal fears of a Christian-right dominated IRF operation at the State Department were misplaced. The IRF Act privileged no religious group and sought protections for all. Both IRF ambassadors at large—the senior officials established to lead the new policy—were evangelicals, but neither pursued sectarian aims abroad (although foreign critics wrongly accused the U.S. of doing so). A bipartisan IRF Commission established by IRFA provided useful scrutiny of Department actions. Moreover, Foggy Bottom was adept at managing unwanted Congressional initiatives. Both IRF ambassadors and their staffs were placed under the human rights bureau, which ensured their functional and bureaucratic isolation from major policy discussions and decisions.

At the same time, however, the methodology adopted by the State Department proved largely acceptable to IRFA supporters, including the Christian right. As it developed during the first decade, IRF policy put religious persecution under a harsh, high-beam spotlight. The Department monitored abuses and issued a well-received annual report. Each year it publicly condemned the worst persecuting governments, and threatened economic sanctions against them. This approach scored some successes over the years, especially releases of religious prisoners.

But there were other problems. The Department’s emphasis on persecution helped ensure the continued subordination of the religious freedom initiative within the broad foreign policy of the United States. While everyone opposed persecution, it was extremely difficult for the IRF ambassador or the Commission to insist that policy makers give it top priority. Some of the worst persecutors, such as Saudi Arabia or China, provided assistance in areas vital to U.S. national interests—access to oil, counter terrorism, negotiations with North Korea, and the like. U.S. diplomacy did not ignore the religious persecution sanctioned by Riyadh or Beijing, but it simply could not afford to place it above national security imperatives. This meant that IRF advocacy was often relegated to humanitarian appeals that at best produced the release of a few prisoners.

What, then, can be said about the overall legacy of American IRF policy during its first decade? On the plus side, hundreds of human beings have been removed from harm’s way by the efforts of IRF ambassadors, their staffs and U.S. diplomats the world over. This is a record of which they and all Americans can be proud. The rescue of a single person, let alone hundreds, is a humanitarian achievement worthy of our nation. It not only benefits the victims and their families but also gives hope to those who continue to languish in prisons and in fear.

The annual IRF report has done more than anything else to institutionalize thinking about religion within a resisting American diplomatic establishment. The report has a chapter on the status of religious freedom for every country in the world and requires U.S. diplomats (most of them junior) to engage religious ideas, actors, and communities. Importantly, both IRF ambassadors have made impressive gains. During a two year tenure Robert Seiple, Clinton’s appointee, won prisoner releases and changes in bad religion laws by employing his brand of “relational diplomacy.” Within the Department he convinced Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, against huge odds, to put China on the first list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), i.e., the particularly severe violators of religious freedom.

Seiple’s successor, Bush appointee John Hanford, has served for six and one-half years. Hanford has achieved a great deal, including substantial increases in the IRF staff. He has employed the IRFA (which he helped author) with success. For example, he secured the designation of Vietnam as a CPC, convinced Hanoi to pass laws against persecution, and then rewarded the government by removing them from the CPC list. This action was criticized by the IRF Commission (persecution did not end in Vietnam), but it is precisely the kind of method intended by IRFA and could serve as a useful precedent for other countries.

Notwithstanding these and other laudable gains, however, there remains a fundamental flaw in U.S. international religious freedom policy. Put simply, the United States has not actually attempted to advance religious freedom in any political or cultural sense. As noted, it has mainly sought to reduce persecution. But reducing or even eliminating religious persecution is the beginning, not the end, of religious freedom. That right means more than freedom from abuse; it also means the freedom to act in ways consistent with belief. As such, it lies at the heart of human dignity and is a precondition for stable self government. But neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations have seen it that way. Neither employed IRF policy to facilitate the consolidation of democracy in key states abroad. Neither understood religious freedom as a national security imperative.

The case for broadening IRF policy is strong. First, a more comprehensive policy would address the problem of religious persecution on the front end, as it were, rather than reacting to it with condemnations and threats of punishment. That methodology has freed some, but millions suffer persecution for their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors. By encouraging the institutions of religious freedom we would attack the very structures of persecution.

Second, IRF policy could advance vital American interests by helping root fragile democracies in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The nascent democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, will remain vulnerable to collapse even if their security problems are resolved. Each could revert to authoritarian or theocratic regimes open to the kinds of Islamist radicalism that threaten vital U.S. interests. Harsh authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia ensure that both states will remain incubators and exporters of terrorism, a situation unlikely to change until they move toward some form of stable self-government.

Both history and social science indicate, however, that democracy cannot root in highly religious societies unless they embrace, in law and culture, religious freedom. For example, most Catholic nations did not become democratic until the Church sanctioned religious liberty. Today Latin American Catholics are helping democracy to consolidate by competing vigorously but peacefully with Pentecostals, and by resisting the old temptation to seek advantage through civil law and policy. The work of sociologists such as Pew Forum’s Brian Grim and Penn State’s Roger Finke strongly suggests that stable democracy requires a “bundled commodity” of fundamental freedoms that cannot function properly without religious liberty. Absent that right, societies are highly vulnerable to democracy-killing religious conflict, persecution and extremism.

In short, U.S. democracy policies are unlikely to succeed unless they develop strategies to advance religious freedom. This cannot be done by threats of economic sanctions (threats which have, in any case, been largely rhetorical during IRFA’s first decade). It can only work if governments and societies, especially powerful majority religious communities, believe it in their interests to adopt religious freedom. Persuading them will not be easy. Many have theological objections, and our current IRF policy is perceived as unilateralist, cultural imperialism, designed to undermine majority religious communities such as Afghan Sunnism, Russian Orthodoxy or Indian Hinduism. Many believe the U.S. seeks to impose a “separation of church and state” akin to the French system of laïcité, a state-enforced privatization of religion (that was also adopted in 20th century Turkey). There is little awareness among Islamic, Russian or even Indian populations that religious communities prosper in the United States, not simply because they are equal under the law but also because they are invited into the public square to make religiously informed moral arguments about the common good.

Overcoming these problems will require significant policy changes by the next administration. It will require elevating IRF policy within both private and public diplomacy, foreign aid and U.S. democracy promotion programs. Our message must be clear: if you seek the benefits of stable democracy, including economic growth, peace, political stability and, most importantly, the flourishing of your religious community, you must take on this difficult issue of religious liberty. You must arrive at a culturally sustainable religion-state relationship that protects the equal rights of religious individuals and communities under the law.

Currently, American diplomacy lacks the imagination, language and institutional capacity to deliver such a message. It remains heavily influenced by the debunked secularization theory, according to which religion will wither as modernity advances. All the schools of foreign policy dominant in recent years—realism, liberal internationalism, neoconservatism—have sought to avoid grappling with the growth of religion in the international order. Our public diplomacy has too often trivialized America’s system of ordered liberty by trumpeting pop culture—one head of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors opined publicly that “Britney Spears represents the sounds of freedom.” Such an impoverished understanding of liberty distorts the American achievement and reinforces the fear that U.S. style democracy means moral license. Islamist radicals have exploited this fear to their benefit.

These and other problems can be overcome, however, with the right policy decisions. For example, a President and Secretary of State can mandate new training on religion and religious freedom for our diplomats, enhanced authority for the IRF ambassador at the State Department, the integration of IRF policy into the powerful regional bureaus where key policies are implemented, the creation of incentives and opportunities for diplomats in the field of religion and foreign policy, and the establishment of a Foreign Service sub-specialty for religion under existing political, economic and public diplomacy career tracks.

In sum, a broader IRF strategy will help ensure that religious freedom advocacy moves to the center of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. That is its rightful place, both as a humanitarian imperative that reflects the best of American values, and as an initiative that will further vital national interests, including the security of the American people.

[Thomas F. Farr will contribute a chapter on international religious freedom to a forthcoming SSRC volume on Religion and World Affairs, being edited by Timothy Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Toft.—ed.]