A Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee
has approved a bill with the presumptuous title of Freedom from
Religious Persecution Act of 1997. This is an idea whose time
should never come.
The bill would impose sanctions on countries where
individuals are persecuted because of their religious beliefs or
activities. The sanctions might include trade restrictions and
withholding of foreign assistance. Their gravity would vary
according to the gravity of the persecution. An Office of Religious
Persecution Monitoring would be created in the White House to keep
tabs on the behavior of other governments.
A serious attempt to implement these provisions would cause
untold problems. It would create friction with most countries
outside western Europe through American intrusion into sensitive
areas of their national life. By creating an office in the White
House independent of the State Department and other foreign affairs
agencies, it would complicate the formidable problems of managing
Dedication to religious freedom is deeply rooted in American
history; it was in search of such freedom that some of the first
settlers came to North America in the 17th century.
Protecting this freedom worldwide would be desirable, but
achieving this goal may be beyond our means without unacceptable
sacrifices of other worthwhile objectives.
There is a fine line between insisting on a decent respect
for human dignity and freedom, on the one hand, and preaching
sanctimonious hypocrisy, on the other. There are many questions of
balance in measuring the trade-offs that are involved in all
foreign policy decisions.
The US is a big country with worldwide interests, some of
them conflicting. These include, among others, national security,
access to critical materials, protection of American business and
citizens abroad, trade, and recognition of a number of human
rights. The relative importance of different interests varies from
country to country and from time to time.
Making foreign policy involves putting these variables in the
Ever since the days of President Nixon, for example,
successive administrations have ranked the promotion of human
rights in Cuba as more important to the US than the promotion of
human rights in China. There is no evidence that the government of
Cuba mistreats its citizens more than does the government of China.
The difference in US policy is simply a recognition of the greater
importance of China in other respects. …