Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

The Bush Administration and America's International Religious Freedom Policy

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

The Bush Administration and America's International Religious Freedom Policy

Article excerpt

In February 2002, President George W. Bush appeared at Beijing's Tsinghua University and delivered a speech that was broadcast across China. (1) A substantial portion of the President's remarks focused on the religious nature of the American people, as well as the importance of religious freedom for the United States and for China. (2) In the United States, religious liberty advocates were greatly encouraged. The President had made it clear to the Chinese government, one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom, that his country stood resolutely for the protection of that right.

Before and during the early years of the Bush Administration, there were reasons for cautious optimism about the cause of international religious liberty. Beginning in 1998, U.S. law mandated that a goal of American diplomacy be the advancement of religious freedom around the world. (3) The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act of 1998 created an office in the State Department, headed by a very senior diplomatic official--an ambassador at large--to lead the new foreign policy initiative. (4) The IRF Act also created an independent commission to assess the Department's performance. (5) President Bush clearly cared deeply about this issue. On several occasions during his tenure, he met with religious dissidents and the victims of religious persecution, sometimes in the face of criticism. (6)

Moreover, after September 11, 2001, the Administration began developing a policy called a "forward strategy of freedom." (7) The policy sought support for democratic reformers in the greater Middle East to undermine the pathologies feeding Islamist terrorism. (8) Both common sense and American history suggested that religious liberty would play a role in the new freedom agenda: Any highly religious society must be grounded in religious freedom for democracy to endure. For those who had led the legislative campaign for the IRF Act, it seemed that the stars might finally be coming into alignment: they had a President devoted to religious liberty, a powerful new official in the State Department dedicated to carrying out a statutory mandate, and a national security strategy designed to encourage the institutions and habits of freedom.

This Essay will explore how IRF policy fared under the George W. Bush Administration. In attempting to gauge success and failure, and strength and weakness, this Essay will focus on three issues: the extent to which U.S. diplomacy actually reduced religious persecution, how well it advanced the institutions and habits of religious freedom, and what basis it provided the Obama Administration to make further progress. In each of these areas, the record is, unsurprisingly, mixed. Our overall judgment is that the Administration focused a critically important spotlight on governments that persecute and managed to free some number of religious prisoners. In at least three countries--Sudan, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia--significant structural steps were taken. Notwithstanding these successes, however, the Bush Administration did not make significant progress toward either reducing persecution or advancing religious freedom. Surprisingly, it appears that IRF policy, isolated within the State Department, had virtually no role in democracy promotion, public diplomacy, or counterterrorism strategy.


When George W. Bush was sworn in as the forty-third President on January 20, 2001, the machinery necessary to promote religious liberty already existed as an element of U.S. foreign policy. Just two years earlier, in October 1998, Congress had unanimously passed the IRF Act, and President William J. Clinton had immediately signed it into law. But the political harmony surrounding the law's passage and signing was deceptive. The questions of whether and how to promote religious freedom abroad had been extremely contentious during the previous two-year debate, both within the Clinton Administration and on Capitol Hill. …

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