World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security

By Thomas F. Farr | Go to book overview

PART II
Acts

The passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act seemed to presage a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy—in effect, the elevation of America’s “first freedom” to what many considered its rightful ascendancy in the nation’s human rights policy. Now, looking back from the perspective of a decade, the considerable fault lines in the law’s conception and implementation have become more apparent.

Driven by bureaucratic and ideological concerns, the State Department has both inadvertently and willfully ignored key parts of the legislative mandate, which was to reduce international religious persecution and to advance religious freedom. For differing reasons, however, neither the Congress, the law’s supporters, nor the two administrations under which the IRF policy has operated have called the State Department to account or attempted to alter in any substantial way the narrow approach to implementing the law. As a consequence, the widely trumpeted (and widely feared) International Religious Freedom Act has so far had little long-term effect.

There are signs that this many-sided inertia may be giving way to a grudging appreciation for the broader potential of a realistic policy toward religion. For one thing, sheer frustration at the continuing salience of Islamist terror and a growing awareness of the inevitable role of religious communities in any Middle Eastern political reform have begun to crack into the hardened hull of resistance in American foreign policy circles to religion as a legitimate aspect of culture. For another, the State Department office vested with responsibility for IRF policy has begun to have some measured success in employing the law creatively. But the enormous promise of IRF policy in a world of religiously motivated people and nations remains largely untapped. If it means anything, “promoting religious freedom” still means rescuing people of faith from harm’s way.

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