When I first saw the phrase “securitization of religion” (such as in Clifford Bob’s post, in Elizabeth Hurd’s title and post, and referenced by Michael Barnett), my initial impression was that the term referred to innovative new financial instruments that have further commoditized religion. In the wake of the credit-default swaps, securitized mortgage loan packages, and other manner of financial arcana that helped cause the global economic crisis, surely it would be prudent to caution against yet another toxic financial device, especially one that involves peddling commercialized religion.

Of course it quickly becomes evident that the term is being used, not in the financial sense, but to describe the potential salience of religion as a factor in American national security policy. And here it seems that these scholars have two overriding and interrelated concerns. First is a concern about the concept of religious freedom—or at least the “protestant-secular understandings of religion and religious freedom” (Hurd) that allegedly animate the Chicago Council Report.  Second is a wariness about the involvement of the United States Government, especially the National Security Council (in Barnett’s words, “Do we really want the National Security Council to become involved in the governance of religion?”), in the regulation of religion or religious groups abroad.

Winnifred Sullivan and Hurd, in particular, seem to interpret the Chicago Council Report as an attempt to construct a narrow version of religious freedom as a jingoistic, American Protestant-secular hegemony grab, with undertones of neo-imperialism (or, “a particularly American style of imperialism,” as Sullivan puts it).  In Hurd’s words, “Could it be the case that American exceptionalism and a particular notion of American religious freedom and American power are sacralized in this report…?”  Thus, the Report’s counsel that the American national security community take religion seriously as an interpretive category and engage with religious leaders and communities as important actors is labeled the “securitization of religion.”

But attaching the “-ization” label to something, while possibly effective as a rhetorical device, is less persuasive as a substantive critique. As a thought experiment, consider, for example, a report that encouraged the U.S. foreign policy community to take gender seriously and, in particular, to engage with leaders of women’s communities overseas, or one that encouraged similar analysis and engagement with ethnicity or class. Such propositions might also be labeled the “securitization of gender,” ethnicity, or class. But labels aside, as a general principle, a foreign policy system that accounts for and engages with a broad array of social, cultural, and, yes, religious factors, would also lead to a more sophisticated, sound, and hopefully effective policy framework. Encouraging a nation’s foreign policy to take a more comprehensive and sophisticated approach to the full range of factors (including religion) that animate the human condition is not necessarily ominous; it may in fact be wise.

The expressed wariness concerning the National Security Council’s potential role is puzzling as well. The Chicago Report’s recommendation that the NSC have a lead role in prompting and coordinating U.S. Government engagement with religious actors and promotion of religious freedom reflects not a sinister agenda but a simple bureaucratic reality. The NSC’s role is to work across the U.S. Government to ensure that presidential priorities are implemented and that the activities of the diverse government agencies are coordinated. Given the disparate missions, resources, capabilities, and cultures of various government departments and agencies, the only possible way to ensure that a new issue receives sufficient attention and implementation is to have the NSC assume a lead role. Otherwise the State Department, USAID, Defense Department, Treasury Department, Justice Department, Commerce Department, and sundry other agencies will resort to their customary default settings of either ignoring the issue through bureaucratic inertia or distorting the issue through bureaucratic feuding. Just as the NSC would need to take the lead in coordinating a religious engagement and religious freedom agenda, it plays a similar role with respect to other social and political goods and rights that the U.S. government attempts to promote in other countries: economic development, women’s rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, prevention of human trafficking, and so on. Yet, while the NSC plays a coordinating role, actual implementation is almost always done by individual departments and agencies themselves. (To be clear, pointing out the good that U.S. foreign policy does in no way implies ignoring the folly and worse that America has sometimes caused abroad—it is just to point out that the involvement of the American foreign policy community in a matter is not inherently problematic, but dependent on context and consequence.)

The critique that religious freedom is peculiarly, even exclusively, “American” is intriguing but ultimately unpersuasive. Yes, religious freedom—at least as an aspiration, even if not always fully honored—is indispensable to the American founding and experiment, and continues to occupy a prominent place in American self-identity. However, religious freedom is also enshrined in international standards (e.g., Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and international laws (e.g., Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) that were developed by a broad multinational and multireligious coalition, and are subscribed to (even if not always honored in practice) by a large majority of nations around the world. Reinforcing these universal standards, religious freedom is explicitly upheld in numerous regional human rights instruments as well.

Moreover, while religious freedom merits respect as a normative right, it is also highly correlated with other social and political goods of the types that a responsible nation’s foreign policy would seek to promote. To take just a few examples: as Brian Grim and Roger Finke have demonstrated, nations that respect religious freedom have lower levels of religious violence, whereas nations with high levels of government restriction of religion also experience higher levels of religious violence. The Legatum Prosperity Index, among other studies, finds a high correlation between religious freedom protections and higher levels of citizen well-being, democratization, economic growth, and overall quality of life. Anthony Gill has distilled the historical relationship between the interrelated developments of religious liberty, rule of law, and economic growth. Few if any nations that respect religious freedom also pose a security threat to the United States. Of course, correlation is not causation, and social, cultural, and political goods often develop together as bundled commodities. Most nations that respect religious freedom also have a tradition of democratic institutions and legal and cultural respect for religious liberty; the causality and sequencing of these developments is highly complex. Likewise, the association of religious freedom with lower levels of violence may reflect some of the functioning of democratic peace theory. Yet, as a normative good in its own right, as well as being associated with other benefits, promotion of religious freedom can claim at least a plausible basis as a foreign policy priority. Whether or not this actually entails the “securitization of religion,” it at least holds considerable value.