Exporting Religion: Where the Religious Freedom Act Fails

By Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers | Commonweal, February 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Exporting Religion: Where the Religious Freedom Act Fails


Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, Commonweal


Where the Religious Freedom Act fails

Fueled by news reports of religious persecution, there is much talk these days, often urgently expressed, about the need for Americans to take responsibility for the promotion and enforcement of rights to religious freedom around the world. The project has broad and enthusiastic support from legislators, within churches, and among the general population. In addition to private initiatives promoting religious freedom abroad, and in response to intense lobbying, the U.S. Senate has recently unanimously passed and the president has signed into law, the International Religious Freedom Act. The new act is quite elaborate. It creates a special State Department office to monitor religious persecution and requires preparation by that office of annual reports describing religious freedom violations in every country in the world, as well as special training of foreign service officers and immigration officials and the opening of American embassies to religious activities. A special adviser on international religious freedom is to be added to the National Security Council. To oversee these new civil servants, the act provides for the creation of an independent watchdog advisory commission on religious freedom. Finally, the president is directed to take action, on the basis of the annual reports, to promote religious freedom around the world.

It should not need saying that everyone should deplore murder, torture, and unjust imprisonment of identified minorities, for whatever reason, and that everyone should be tireless in finding ways to promote a more tolerant global community. But maybe that has to be said before challenging something as basic to American identity as the promotion of religious freedom.

What, if anything, should Americans do about stories of religious persecution, or, more broadly, of limitations on religious freedom, outside the United States? Should religious freedom, as a legally protected right, be enforced as a universal goal, and, if so, does this act, and the movement that supports it, actually do that? The act, and its predecessor versions, some of which targeted only the persecution of Christians, have been criticized by experts in the international human rights community (and by Commonweal in its August 15, 1997, editorial) for failing to acknowledge: (1) that what is called religious persecution is often actually motivated by a complex mix of racial, ethnic, and political animus; (2) that prioritizing religious persecution over other human-rights abuses may unfairly allocate resources in such a way as to discriminate against those persecuted for other reasons; and (3) that such attention may in some cases do more harm than good to the very people it is intended to help. While finding each of these criticisms important, I will focus here on a prior issue. Even if these criticisms could be addressed by better drafting, have we properly thought through the underlying rationale for this policy? Should Americans be undertaking the policing of international religious freedom at all?

To begin with, what does the International Religious Freedom Act mean by "religion"? Legal language demands clearly defined boundaries, boundaries that are hard to come by when talking about religion. It is difficult to set such boundaries without privileging a certain kind of religion. Section 2 of the new act (which can be found on the web at frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/congress), titled "Findings," asserts that:

The right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States. Many of our nation's founders fled religious persecution abroad, cherishing in their hearts and minds the ideal of religious freedom. They established in law, as a fundamental right and as a pillar of our nation, the right to freedom of religion. From its birth to this day, the United States has prized this legacy of religious freedom and honored this heritage by standing for religious freedom and offering refuge to those suffering from religious persecution. …

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