On July 30, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided a stalwart rationale for U.S. foreign policy on worldwide religious freedom, which is rooted in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) signed by her husband. Secretary Clinton asserted: “For the United States . . . religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” This statement—of religious freedom as a strategic national interest—is the most powerful statement on this issue made by this administration.
Secretary Clinton continued: “Religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It’s been statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability.” But, she noted while introducing the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom, “the world is sliding backward” in many quarters.
Perhaps the best part of Secretary Clinton’s speech was when she took on arguments against religious liberty made by authoritarians in places like Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China. Typically, these regimes claim that it is their citizens who demand they impose restraints on religious minorities, and that easing these restrictions would foster social chaos, resulting in sectarian violence and terrorism.
Clinton riposted that religious freedom and other human rights are a “birthright by the mere fact of us being who we are—thinking, acting human beings, men and women alike. They are not granted to us by any government, rather it is the responsibility of the government to protect them.” Furthermore, Clinton called religious freedom and related liberties “safety valves,” and asserted that when “people have a say over important aspects of their lives,” society can release pent up tension through free speech, assembly, petition, corporate worship, and other civic channels, rather than through violence.
Is this only another example of the lofty rhetoric of the Obama Administration? The president’s 2009 Cairo Speech, for example, eloquently called for human rights but lacked any plan to actualize its words. Indeed, just months after that speech, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest rigged elections and political repression, begging for help from Obama’s “open hand.” That eruption of dissent was crushed without much effort on the part of the American government apart from further rhetoric. Similar cries for help continue from minorities in Bahrain, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
What identifiable actions, in addition to speeches and reports, can be undertaken? The State Department should begin by supporting three initiatives: the development of an academic sub-discipline of international religious freedom studies, the engagement of big business, and the building of partnerships with other, like-minded governments.
First, when a policy conundrum is poorly understood, Washington has often begun by supporting academic research so that wise policies can eventually be formulated. Because there is only a small amount of academic literature on religious freedom (including virtually no mention of it in the four major academic human rights journals) the State Department should make a short-term commitment to provide seed funds to better understand the linkages between religious freedom, national economics, political development, and other fundamental liberties. Over time, this will not only inform policy but also spur increased scholarly activity on the issue.
Second, partnerships between big business, civil society, and national governments have scored victories against human trafficking, environmental degradation, and sweatshop labor. The Secretary of State should rally corporate America and multinational companies to consider religious liberty along with other human rights concerns when companies decide where to invest. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that some of our biggest strategic competitors routinely violate the religious liberty of their citizens, just as they routinely violate intellectual property standards and intrude in our encrypted digital networks.
Third, the U.S. can do more to develop an international coalition to promote religious freedom abroad. It is significant that religious liberty’s profile has increased in Europe over the past two years, but few European countries have put a law on the books that is the equivalent to IRFA. The U.S. must more robustly lead a coalition that includes our natural allies on these issues, including Latin American and sub-Saharan African nations, in identifying and sanctioning gross religious liberty abusers worldwide.
If religious freedom is truly a “strategic national interest,” then it is time to act on this conviction by engaging the academy, business, and other governments, lest our credibility on the issue evaporate totally.
Eric Patterson is Associate Professor and Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. His most recent book is Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy (Continuum, 2011).