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Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power
by anna su
harvard, 296 pages, $39.95

Anna Su’s study of U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom abroad from 1898 through the present ends as it begins. In the Philippines in the early twentieth century and again in Iraq in the twenty-first, Republican administrations turned to religious freedom to help quiet Islamic insurgencies while assuaging domestic constituencies. Exporting Freedom, Su writes, is “first and foremost a cautionary tale,” whose “most important lessons” lie “in its past wreckage, not its dreams.”

Though Su situates her study within the critical scholarship on human rights that has flourished in recent years, her narrative is nevertheless progressive. Woodrow Wilson’s unfulfilled promise to protect religious freedom in the Covenant of the League of Nations gained new life after the Second World War. In the 1970s, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (tying favorable trade status to human rights norms) and the Helsinki Final Act “resuscitated” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at last gave religious freedom a meaningful place in international law. While Su shows that this evolution was driven by international power politics, not simply by high ideals, the trajectory is unmistakable.

Though international law governing religious freedom has advanced over the past century, religious minorities are not faring much better. What does it mean, then, to “export” a legal norm, and how does a country as powerful as the United States spread a norm like religious liberty? Is the concept of export, with its connotations of trade in physical goods, appropriate for the spread of ideas, or is another metaphor—perhaps translation, evoking the limits of American power and the likelihood of loss—more appropriate? Such questions have long interested European legal scholars interested in the diffusion of the Roman law across Europe, and Exporting Freedom applies them to the United States.

But by confining her study to “American policies, the officials who drafted them, and their immediate milieu,” Su closes off fruitful avenues of inquiry and shortchanges other actors and explanations. No doubt her focus on the U.S. government reflects the difficulties of writing a truly international history. But the panoply of parties in Paris in 1919, the “negotiation” between occupiers and occupied in postwar Japan, the transnational networks spawned by the Helsinki Accords, and the “dialogue and contestation” at the heart of modern human rights law reveal that the rise of the international law of religious liberty is in fact a global story driven as much by foreign and non-state actors and global networks as by U.S. officials.

Indeed, an example Su does not include, but which she has discussed elsewhere, underscores this point. The Catholic Church’s embrace of religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae during the Second Vatican Council is arguably the United States’ most successful export of religious liberty (and likely paved the way for an ecumenical movement that made this magazine possible). And this revolution (or, as some have argued, restoration) depended upon the efforts of American Catholics such as John Courtney Murray who were influenced by Anglo-American Protestantism, rather than foreign policy officials in Washington. Samuel Moyn has recently argued that Christian thinkers, including Murray and Jacques Maritain, turned to human rights to prevent the collapse of Christendom in the years before and after the Second World War. Their efforts were an important precursor for the secular embrace of human rights in the 1970s.

Yet the promotion of human rights failed to preserve Christendom. And the future of the liberal international order championed by the United States, as well as the capacity of human rights to advance the liberal project, is increasingly in question. It remains to be seen whether religious freedom will be among the American exports President Donald Trump promises to restore.

Benjamin Brady writes from Arlington, VA.

Realizing the Distinctive University
by mark william roche
notre dame, 276 pages, $25

“The two great transformations in the history of the modern university—the German invention of the modern university, where teaching and research overlap and where academic freedom is prominent, and the great American university, aided by a huge infusion of resources and directed towards the goals of educating a majority of young Americans and developing world-class research—were characterized by distinctive, indeed revolutionary, visions.” So observes Mark W. Roche in his new book, Realizing the Distinctive University. A scholar of German language and literature who has worked at many American universities—notably as dean of arts and letters at the University of Notre Dame—Roche addresses the question of how the contemporary university, shaped by these transformations, can flourish.

He draws on his experience as an academic administrator at Notre Dame, where, under his leadership, the quality and quantity of faculty hiring notably increased. This success, Roche emphasizes, is owed equally to a confident acceptance of Notre Dame’s mission to be the leading Catholic university in America (without this mission and defining identity, he wryly notes, the school “would be just another generic midsized Midwestern university without a hospital”) and to a smart and pragmatic approach to institutional politics and bureaucratic maneuvering. 

A great deal is too inside-baseball for general readers: “The pricing of a [research] chair is an interesting puzzle.” This is not a book that follows the pattern of mainstream laments about the state of higher education and the prospects for the liberal arts authored in recent years by the likes of Frank Bruni and Andrew Delbanco. This is a more specialized work, of interest to ambitious and embattled academic administrators who face the issues Roche confronted as a dean at Notre Dame: the relation of mission and identity to recruitment of faculty and students, the need to steward limited resources, and the management of various and often conflicting expectations of donors, alumni, students, parents, old and new faculty, and members of senior administration.

—Randy Boyagoda is principal and vice-president of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, where he is also professor of English and holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters.

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