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Why the US’s International Religious Freedom Policy Isn’t Working

The failures of U.S. international religious freedom policy

Peter Souza

George Weigel - published on 07/24/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom was mandated by Congress in 1998, but the office is not taken seriously throughout the executive branch.

Dr. Thomas Farr of Georgetown’s Berkley Center is one of the true Good Guys on the Washington scene. His June 13 testimony before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was a thoughtful, sobering reflection on the failures of U.S. international religious freedom policy.

Farr speaks with authority, for he was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in 1999-2003 and has been deeply engaged in the battle for religious freedom around the world ever since. He has done so both from conviction – this is the right thing to do – and from prudential policy judgment: religious freedom advances the cause of peace, for countries that violate the first freedom internally are, in the main, countries “whose internal stability, economic policies, and foreign policies are of substantial concern to the United States.”

So if the promotion of religious freedom abroad (like its defense at home) is both the right play and the smart play, why does the United States do it so badly?

Why, to cite Farr’s testimony, is it “difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way?”  Why is the opposite true: that “in most of the countries where the United States has in recent years poured blood, treasure, and diplomatic resources (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia), levels of religious freedom are declining and religious persecution is rising?”

Farr suggests several structural reasons why.

First, the U.S. approach to international religious freedom is largely rhetorical: annual reports are issued, speeches are made, lists of egregious persecutors are published. None of this, however, has much effect on the persecutors.

That, in turn, suggests another structural reason why the effort to promote religious freedom internationally, mandated by the Congress, hasn’t worked: it hasn’t been thought through strategically. Or as Farr put it, forbearing to mince words, no president or secretary of state has made a concerted, sustained effort to “integrate the advancement of religious freedom into the foreign policy of the United States” since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998. 

Because of that, most professionals in the U.S. Foreign Service don’t take religious freedom seriously as a foreign policy concern; indeed, Tom Farr testified, “our diplomats are not being trained to know what religious freedom is and why it is important, let alone how to advance it.” And if the superiors in the White House and at Foggy Bottom don’t insist that strategic policy planning include religious freedom issues, the “deep-seated skepticism in our foreign-policy establishment that religious freedom is in in fact important for individuals and societies” (a skepticism that reinforces the faux-realist view that religious freedom is not “real foreign policy”) will remain the default position in the Foreign Service.

Which leads us to another, related structural problem. The Office of International Religious Freedom was established in the State Department by congressional mandate; State’s permanent bureaucracy, like other permanent bureaucracies, is exceptionally skillful at hermetically sealing off anything it regards as an alien body from the serious policy-planning action. Thus the office and the U.S. special ambassador for international religious freedom (a post also mandated by Congress) have often been isolated within State, underfunded, and cut off from access to the Secretary of State and other officials with real policy-making authority.

As Dr. Farr concludes after surveying this dismal landscape, “…it is hardly surprising that American diplomats and foreign governments do not see religious freedom as a priority for U.S. foreign policy. It is not surprising that religious freedom programs play little or no role in U.S. strategies to stabilize key struggling democracies such as Iraq or Pakistan, encourage economic growth on places like Egypt or Nigeria, or undermine the religion-related terrorism that is still being incubated in many nations of the broader Middle East.”

Religious freedom is right. Religious freedom works. But promoting it remains marginal to U.S. foreign policy. Not good; not smart, either.

Religious Freedom
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