A Foreign Policy for Foreign Religions

By Chang, Patricia M. Y. | Foreign Policy in Focus, October 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Foreign Policy for Foreign Religions


Chang, Patricia M. Y., Foreign Policy in Focus


Nine years ago Congress, under President Clinton, unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Act authorized the formation of a bi-partisan Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor the status of religious freedom around the world and identify countries that are inadequately protecting religious freedom within their borders. The legislation's unanimous approval in both the Senate and the House reflected characteristics of the political situation of the late 1990s and of the Act itself.

The religious voter had come to be seen as a politically important, if not necessary constituency. Moreover, the Act appeared to fit in with one of our fundamental American values--freedom of religion. The Act also seemed relatively harmless. The bipartisan Commission set up by the Act had little power to compel either the president or the State Department to impose strong sanctions against countries identified as violating their citizens' religious freedom. For a politician to go on record voting against upholding the freedom of religion in this climate would have been political suicide.

Today, religious freedom is a phrase that is increasingly linked to a strategy for attaining democracy in foreign, and particularly Islamic countries. But what do we endorse when we talk about religious freedom around the globe? In light of recent foreign policy strategies, we have to look particularly hard at how the Commission's work may be used for increasingly controversial policy actions.

A Mixed Record

Since its formation, the Commission on International Religious Freedom has had a mixed record. Its reports on the status of religious freedom in every country around the globe, compiled by U.S. diplomatic staff on the ground, have become a quick and useful reference for scholars, journalists and policy makers seeking to gain background on the religious climate in any given area. The Commission has also successfully helped draft a number of symbolic pieces of legislation that call attention to or condemn violations of religious freedom in other countries.

However, it has failed markedly in its ability to get the State Department or the president to uphold a universal principle of religious freedom by evenhandedly employing negative sanctions against countries that are among the most severe violators of religious freedom. Violations by perceived political allies such as Vietnam have been largely ignored while those nations against whom we wish to seek leverage, such as Iran and China, have been sanctioned more vocally. This political gamesmanship severely undercuts the legitimacy and integrity of the Commission's work.

The integrity of America's commitment to religious freedom is particularly undermined by the refusal of the U.S. to submit itself to scrutiny by the Commission and provide a report on the status of its own religious freedom. Such lack of accountability is regrettable since a domestic debate on the difficulties the United States has faced in trying to preserve religious freedom might sensitize the relevant political players, and help them recall how American ideas of religious freedom have evolved over time, and been challenged repeatedly by circumstance.

A review of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 150 years suggests that America has selectively applied the first amendment in favor of Protestants and Catholics while penalizing religious minorities in its justice system. The prohibition against Mormons exercising their belief in polygamous practices is one example. (1) On the other hand, the provision of federal aid for school buses and books and to children attending parochial schools, (2) the tax exemption on clergy salaries, (3) and the exemption on church properties (4) are three examples of differential religious protectionism.

Self-scrutiny would also reveal that the United States has been unable to apply a consistent standard for balancing the rights of religious groups against broader social rights in its own case law, and has varied widely in its interpretations of religious freedom over time. …

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