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The liberal critics of George W. Bush were right about one thing: The President did help usher in a theocracy.

The reason the progressives didn’t seem to notice”or seem to care”was that the theocracy wasn’t being lead by Dominionists in Idaho but by Islamicists in Kabul. It was, in other words, a genuine theocracy, the kind that never seems to bother them.

But in 2004 those of us who prize freedom of religion had reason to be concerned. We were hoping that since America had overthrown the Taliban and was helping to draft the new Afghani constitution that it would be similar to the constitution of Turkey”or at least be distinguishable from the constitution of Iran. What was created, with the help of the U.S. government, was an Islamic Republic, a state in which “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.”

While the White House issued a mealy-mouthed statement calling it an “important milestone in Afghanistan’s political development,” an independent government agency had the courage to admit what we were creating: Taliban-lite.

As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) claimed, “the new Afghan draft constitution fails to protect the fundamental human rights of individual Afghans, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, in accordance with international standards.” The commission was right. Today there is not a single, public Christian church left in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. State Department.

At the time of the constitution’s drafting, USCIRF’s chairman Michael K. Young warned, “Without [religious] protections, not only will the current transitional Afghan administration have failed its people, but the United States will have failed in its efforts to lay the foundation for a free and stable Afghanistan.” Seven years later, with Afghanistan degenerating into a failed state, the USCIRF’s warning appears prophetic. That may explain why the U.S. government is attempting to treat the commission like government’s always treat prophets”by silencing them.

Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, reports:

USCIRF’s mandate was to expire at the end of last month, but it was given a short reprieve through the continuing resolution on the budget. Meanwhile, on September 15, the House of Representatives, in a 391“21 vote, overwhelmingly passed H.R. 2867 to reauthorize USCIRF for two more years. In the Senate, H.R. 2867 was poised to pass under a unanimous consent agreement when a single senator anonymously called it back for undisclosed reasons. If that secret hold is not lifted by November 18, the Senate will not be able to act and USCIRF will go out of existence.

Powerful lobbyists from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and India are no doubt putting pressure on Senators to do away with USCIRF. They are the only ones to benefit from the commission’s dissolution. As Shea notes, “USCIRF is one reliable voice within the government that does not find the issue of religious freedom too sensitive to bring up with foreign potentates.”

For over a decade, the commission has frustrated and annoyed foreign persecutors and their American apologists. USCIRF was created in 1998 to “monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the president, the secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it.” At the time Congress believed that the foreign policy establishment was not giving due attention to issues of religious liberty. Eliot Abrams, a former chairman of the commission, said in a 2001 interview that, “The State Department, the media, and the lobbies were very interested in things like freedom of the press, independent judiciaries, fair trials, and free elections, but much less interested than they should be in freedom of religion. Many members of Congress felt that this was because too many people in the foreign policy establishment were pretty secular themselves.”

In a world filled with religious believers, having a foreign policy establishment comprised of committed secularists makes as much sense as hiring linguists at the State Department who refuse to speak any language but English. Russell Kirk wisely acknowledged that, “At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems.” Failing to recognize this fact leads us to misdiagnose and treat the political problems we face.

Rather than trying to secretly dismantle the USCIRF, Congress and the President should give the commission a more active role in policymaking. The joint freedoms of religion and conscience constitute the “first freedom” and are deserving of protection both in our own country and abroad. Indeed, the moral center and chief objective of American diplomacy should be the promotion of religious freedom. Nathan Hitchen explains why:

The logic is that religious freedom is a compound liberty, that is, there are other liberties bound within it. Allowing the freedom of religion entails allowing the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the liberty of conscience. If a regime accepts religious freedom, a multiplier effect naturally develops and pressures the regime toward further reforms. As such, religious liberty limits government (it is a “liberty” after all) by protecting society from the state. Social pluralism can develop because religious minorities are protected. And the prospect of pluralism in the Middle East is especially enticing as it potentially combats the spread of Islamic radicalization.

In the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War era, I subscribed to the neoconservative project of democracy promotion precisely because I believed it would lead to an expansion of religious liberty in the Middle East”and hence lead to the outcomes that Hitchen argues would flow from religious openness and pluralism. In hindsight I realize that was a foolish assumption. Democracy alone is insufficient for securing security or diplomatic progress, as we learned in 2006 when the Palestinian National Authority elected Hamas.

Of course, religious liberty promotion is no more a political science panacea than was democracy promotion. But as Hitchen notes, “Religious liberty would help society grow so complex that no totalizing ideology, no philosophical monism, could feasibly dominate the public square, because no single ideology would accurately reflect social reality.” That’s a modest goal, no doubt, but one worthy of being embraced by conservatives. A world where everyone can worship freely is a safer world for everyone.

Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator . His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom website

CNS News, Not a Single Christian Church Left in Afghanistan, Says State Department

Nina Shea, Will the Senate Quietly Kill the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom?

Middle East Forum, Elliott Abrams: “Religious Freedom is More Important Today”

Nathan Hitchen, Religious Liberty as a Moral Center for American Diplomacy

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