Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In his June 13 testimony before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform, Dr. Thomas Farr of Georgetown’s Berkley Center described the failures of U.S. international religious freedom policy over the past decade and a half and suggested some of the structural reasons for that failure: lack of strategic integration, such that religious freedom doesn’t “fit” with other U.S. foreign policy objectives; resistance in the Department of State to the very idea of an international religious freedom policy and a special ambassador for promoting religious freedom; little or no leadership from presidents and secretaries of state.

And the dismal result? According to Dr. Farr, “it would be difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way.”

The problems, Farr continued, are not just structural. They’re conceptual.

Some ill-informed Foreign Service professionals imagine that U.S. policies that promote religious freedom violate the First Amendment. Still others fantasize that international religious freedom policy is an evangelical ploy to use American power to clear the way for Christian missionaries. Others are afraid of scaring Islamists into further violent reactions. These reasons are dumb, or unworthy, or both.

But the real issue here is a deeper and more disturbing one. In Farr’s direct, unambiguous language, “A significant proportion of our foreign policy officials no longer believe that religious freedom is the ‘first freedom’”of American history, of the U.S. Constitution, and of all people everywhere.”

That is, too many members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in and out of public service, no longer believe that religious freedom is a foundational right, in that its acknowledgment in both culture and law protects something essential to democracy. Too many members of the foreign policy establishment disagree with George Washington that religious conviction is essential to “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” Too few members of that foreign policy elite understand James Madison’s conviction that religious citizens and their communities are essential parts of civil society, and thus important checks on the tendency of all governments to expand their power.

My own three decades of experience with the foreign policy establishment confirm Tom Farr’s judgment, although, like Farr, I know senior people in and out of government who share Farr’s conviction and mine that the defense and promotion of religious freedom, strategically conceived and intelligently executed, is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. But they are a minority. And they are a minority that rarely dares raise its head in the present administration, whose approach to these issues was defined by Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 2009, when the secretary of state declared that “to fulfill their potential, people . . . must be free to worship . . . and to love in the way that they choose.”

As I pointed out at the time, this was a degradation of religious freedom in two respects. First, it reduced religious freedom to “freedom of worship,” which is to say, religious freedom is a privacy right to certain lifestyle choices having to do with recreational activities aimed at personal satisfactions. Some people go to church or synagogue or mosque; some people go to Camden Yards or Fenway Park; some people keep parakeets. It’s all the same.

Second, this dumbed-down concept of religious freedom was equated to the LGBT agenda (which, as the discerning will have noted, has already morphed in subsequent years into the LGBTQ agenda”Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning). This borders on blasphemy; it is certainly idiocy; and it is guaranteed to make America enemies around the world.

Still, it must be admitted that Secretary Clinton’s speech was not idiosyncratic. Reducing religious conviction to another lifestyle choice while ignoring the community-forming aspects of religious conviction and those communities’ impacts on civil society is of a piece with broader secularist currents in America. As Dr. Farr’s brave testimony suggested, those misconceptions are making a hash of both domestic policy (witness the HHS mandate and the marriage debate) and foreign policy.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here . Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles