Religious Freedom in a Time of War. (the Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life)
Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
It was a mighty battle and alleluias ascended when, in the late 1990s, religious freedom was institutionally ensconced as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. It would not have happened without the heroic labors of people such as Nina Shea, Paul Marshall, Abe Rosenthal, Michael Horowitz, and Representatives Frank Wolf and Chris Smith. And, let it be admitted, Arlen Specter in the Senate. In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act was passed by Congress, creating a desk in the National Security Council, an office in the State Department, and an independent commission, all charged with making sure that--along with political, economic, and military concerns--those responsible for making policy would make religious freedom a priority. In 1999 the State Department issued its first and comprehensive Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
To be sure, not everybody was suddenly converted to the importance of religious freedom. In the mandarin world of foreign policy experts, a good many "realists" viewed, and still view, this initiative as an unwelcome intrusion that distracts attention from the cold calculations of power that should guide our thinking about world affairs. The more perceptive, however, recognize that, whatever their personal disposition toward the "soft" phenomenon called religion, it has become an increasingly "hard" factor in the global reconfiguration of power relationships.
There is a justifiable anxiety that in the current war against terrorism religious freedom is once again being put on a back burner as the U.S. cuts deals with some of the most notorious violators--China, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, for example--in order to secure cooperation and gain momentary tactical advantages. Such maneuverings are understandable. Religious freedom is not and cannot be the only priority in foreign policy, especially in a time of war. But those who worked so hard to make it a priority are justifiably worried that this great achievement could be undermined by the foreign policy establishment's habits of facile expediency. The religion factor will be and should be vigorously debated in the months ahead. That debate does not pit "realists" against "idealists," but is, rather, a debate about the hard reality of religion in defining, more and more, the lines of conflict in politics among nations. The war against terrorism is--more than it is politic for world leaders to say in public--also a war of religion.
To understand what this necessary debate is about, it is necessary to keep in mind the long and scrambled history of religion in our foreign policy. The International Religious Freedom Act has an impressive pedigree. The history is very nicely laid out by Leo P. Ribuffo of George Washington University in a new book resulting from conferences held by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and published by Rowman & Littlefield, The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy.
America's understanding of itself as a new thing on the world scene (recall the words novus ordo seclorum on the Great Seal) gave rise to a powerfully moral, often moralistic, and sometimes explicitly religious vision of its mission among the nations. At times, American "exceptionalism" meant remaining aloof from the conflicts generated by the corrupt interests of morally lesser nations; at other times, America's "manifest destiny" called for waging wars of the righteous against the forces of darkness--notably of Protestant righteousness against Catholic darkness, as in the case of Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines. The story runs through Woodrow Wilson's expansive mission to "make the world safe for democracy," Eisenhower's World War II "crusade in Europe," and the long years of cold war struggle against "godless communism." In the Vietnam War, the moral consensus was shattered, seemingly beyond repair, until, quite suddenly, it reasserted itself in response to the attacks of September 11. …