Yesterday’s presidential election in the United States and the 10th anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) last week provide perfect bookends for considering the past, present, and possible futures of the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, Tom Farr recently argued on this blog that the next U.S. administration needs to “elevate and broaden IRF policy in order to serve both the humanitarian and the national security interests of the United States.”

Yet, in order for the incoming administration of president-elect Barack Obama to make efficacious adjustments to America’s international religious freedom policy and, equally important, to gain purchase into the linkages between the global salience of religion and U.S. national security, it is imperative that the transition team look to history before trying to shape the future. Specifically, there are potential policy gains associated with the conceptual exercise of unpacking and differentiating between two formulations that are used interchangeably in social science research and public policy debates: on the one hand, “religion and U.S. foreign policy” and, on the other, “American international religious freedom policy.”

A survey of scholarly literature and public policy conferences over the past ten years reflects the tendency to conflate the aforementioned two formulations, but a careful reading of history suggests that there are significant, if oftentimes nuanced, distinctions between these two notions. These points of difference, in turn, have crucial implications for optimizing the results of America’s efforts to promote and protect religious freedom as a universal human right, as well as for minimizing the unintended consequences, both direct and indirect, of the IRFA.

What does a thorough and thoughtful reading of history teach us about the relationship between the above two formulations? Three points merit particular consideration for the scholar-practitioner preoccupied with questions of religion and modernity (and, especially, with the linkages between religious pluralism and democracy, as well as with the nexus between religion, state, and security).

Firstly, even the most cursory read of American history illuminates the centrality and continuity of religious ideas in the master narrative of America as a nation-state. Emblematic in this respect are the following: the Puritan settlement of the New World as a struggle for religious freedom; the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of divinely ordained rights as the ontological basis for citizenship; the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as a rationale for America’s enlargement of its territorial frontiers; the formulation of Wilsonian internationalism as a public service creed; the definition of the Cold War as a battle with atheistic communism; and, most recently, the G.W. Bush administration’s presentation of the War on Terror as a battle between good and evil.

Secondly, religious ideas inform the defining contours and particularities of American patriotism; religion is embedded in America’s self-definition as an exceptional nation-state. More precisely, religious ideas are inextricably woven into American nationalism (the notion of America as one nation under God), just as religious concepts and values have been a continuous touchstone for conceptualizing American statecraft (America’s role in the world). According to the conventional narrative, America’s unique founding conditions as a nation both obligate and legitimate the American state in its conduct of foreign policy. From the homiletics of the country’s Founding Fathers to the argumentation of public intellectuals such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Jean Bethke Elshtain, a discernible religious hermeneutic emerges as a legitimation principle in American statecraft over the last two centuries: the expansion in America’s continental frontiers during the 19th century; America’s inaugural experience with empire through the war in the Philippines in 1898; the U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II; the policy of containment supported by George Kennan to John Foster Dulles through Ronald Reagan over the second half of the 20th century; and, early in this third millennium, the doctrine of preventive war centered in the Bush 43 administration’s national security strategy.

By rendering obvious the fact that religious ideas have been a consistent leitmotif in the conceptualization of U.S. foreign policy priorities, these two lessons help to elucidate two subtle, but appreciable and critical, distinctions vis-à-vis the related construct of “American international religious freedom policy.”

The third point, then, emerges by tracing the complexities and evolution of those religious ideas and actors who have affected U.S. foreign policy. Particularly salient have been the evolving internal fractiousness of Protestant Christianity in America, coupled with the steady expansion in the overall religious heterogeneity of America.

Alfred Stepan’s concept of multivocality captures the development of pacifist versus activist tendencies within American Protestantism, a fascinating subtext in the country’s 20th-century history, whereby debates about optimal U.S. foreign policy tactics and goals were explored via alternative religious hermeneutics and internal organizational cleavages. That these debates took place within the broader context of the widening and deepening of religious pluralization in America (as explored in Will Herbert’s seminal work and, more recently, Diana Eck’s research) helped to sharpen the focal question regarding international religious freedom as distinct from, albeit related to, religion and U.S. foreign policy.

In short, the support of both religious and secular actors for religious freedom as a universal human right laid bare a conundrum in the conceptualization of the religious dimensions of U.S. foreign policy. On the one hand, Washington’s signatory status on international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), as well as the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) underscored the conviction that all human beings enjoy equal rights of thought, conscience, and belief. Yet, this principle raised fundamental incompatibilities with a U.S. foreign policy conceptualized historically by American Protestants as part of a great Christianizing missionary project.

Finally, given the above, the history of America’s support for religious freedom as articulated in international human rights instruments must also be understood as the latest chapter in the history of America’s self-definition as a nation and the associated implications for the role of the U.S. in world affairs. In this respect, there is an important dynamic of mutual transformation at work between the two, distinctive formulations of religion and U.S. foreign policy, on the one hand, and American religious freedom policy on the other. Indeed, a conscientious examination of the origins of the IRFA—particularly as these relate to the members of the founding coalition for the legislation, as well as cleavages over the philosophy and methodology of the eventual International Religious Freedom Act—illustrates how the formalization of the U.S. foreign policy commitment to international religious freedom threw into sharp relief unresolved questions about the in/exclusivist religious dimensions of American nationalism. By illuminating the denominational and confessional contours of the current expression of American exceptionalism, the origins of the IRFA and its application largely within the context of the post-9/11 security matrix generated a critical consideration of the internal tensions within and unintended consequence of American religious freedom policy.

History is a useful guidepost, then, in moving beyond the tendency to elide the constructs of religion and U.S. foreign policy, on the one hand, and American international religious freedom policy on the other. At a moment when there is a decade of IRF policy available for serious evaluation and when the U.S. presidential elections constitute a new moment of possibilities for defining the content of American national identity, a sober and thoughtful reflection on history is the starting point for constructive steps toward the future.