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Religious Freedom and U.S. Foreign Policy

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A Gallup poll taken last year found that 87 percent of Americans believed in God, 51 percent considered religion to be very important in their life, 54 percent were members of a church or synagogue, 35 percent had attended a church or synagogue in the previous seven days, and 64 percent claimed to be a Christian of some kind.

But whether they attend religious services or not, and whether they consider themselves to be Christian or not, all Americans, from atheists to devout believers and everyone in between, cherish the freedom of religion that exists in the United States.

One of the most important freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution is the freedom of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Sad to say, there are places in the world where there is restricted freedom of religion, or freedom to practice only one religion, or no freedom of religion.

An NPR All Things Considered report earlier this year found that it’s increasingly dangerous to be a Christian in many countries. According to the annual World Watch List published by Open Doors USA, a nonprofit organization that empowers Christians in more than 60 countries who are persecuted for their beliefs, the ten most dangerous countries for Christians are:

1. North Korea
2. Afghanistan
3. Somalia
4. Sudan
5. Pakistan
6. Eritrea
7. Libya
8. Iraq
9. Yemen
10. Iran

Also on the list are India, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Myanmar. And it’s not just Christians who are persecuted for their religion. In most cases, when you have a government that espouses an official religion, all religious minorities face the possibility of persecution.

But it’s not just private organizations that monitor religious freedom around the world.

It was twenty years ago this month that the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was passed (H.R.2431) by Congress and signed into law (PL–292) by Bill Clinton. Title I of the IRFA established “within the Department of State an Office on International Religious Freedom which shall be headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.” Title II of the IRFA established the independent, bipartisan “U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom” (USCIRF).

The Ambassador at Large is Sam Brownback, former Kansas Republican representative, senator, and governor. USCIRF commissioners are appointed by the president and the congressional leadership of both political parties.

The IRFA “directs the Ambassador at Large to assist the Secretary of State in preparing those portions of the Human Rights Reports that relate to freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination” and “directs the Secretary of State to submit to the Congress, in conjunction with the Human Rights Reports, an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.”

The primary responsibilities of the USCIRF are:

(1) the annual and ongoing review of the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom presented in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the Annual Report on Religious Persecution, and the Executive Summary, as well as information from other appropriate sources; and

(2) the making of policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary, and the Congress with respect to international religious freedom.

The annual International Religious Freedom Report “describes the status of religious freedom in every country” and “covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.” Nations “guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom” are designated as “Countries of Particular Concern.” Countries currently included are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The USCIRF also issues an annual report, as well as the report Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws.

International Religious Freedom Day (October 27) recognizes the passing of the IRFA in 1998. Authorization for the USCIRF was supposed to expire at the end of fiscal year 2003. It was reauthorized until the end of fiscal year 2011. Congress then reauthorized the USCIRF for seven more years, which means that its authorization expires in December of this year unless it is renewed again. The USCIRF is a perfect example of nothing’s being so permanent as a temporary government program.

Despite its noble mission, the USCIRF has not been without its critics, from the last time it was reauthorized to more recently. Libertarians would go much further than just criticism of the USCIRF. They would argue not only that the IRFA should never have established the USCIRF in the first place, but that the IRFA should never have been passed in the first place. That doesn’t mean that libertarians don’t value religious freedom. To the contrary, they are some of the strongest advocates of religious freedom.

So how can someone be in favor of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and be opposed to the International Religious Freedom Act, the Office on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and various government reports on human rights and religious freedom?

Simple.

The Constitution has not authorized the United States to be the religious monitor of the world any more than it has authorized the United States to be the policeman of the world.

It all comes down to the nature of U.S. foreign policy.

According to the State Department, the United States has a responsibility to publish an annual report on international religious freedom because

Religious freedom is a universally acknowledged right enshrined in numerous international covenants and declarations such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Helsinki Accords, and others. When we strive to advance religious freedom, we are simply urging other nations to join with us in upholding a high but universal standard. In addition, respect for religious freedom and tolerance of the practices and beliefs of people of all faiths lie at the heart of the American identity and constitute some of main principles on which this country was founded. The United States has continued to attract new citizens from all over the world for this very reason. No country has a perfect record of religious freedom, including the United States, and we can all endeavor to reach a higher standard. We support the right of all countries to speak out when human rights, including religious freedom, are abused.

What the State Department didn’t say, and couldn’t say, is that the Constitution gives Congress the power to establish an Office on International Religious Freedom, publish an annual report on international religious freedom, establish a Commission on International Religious Freedom, pressure the governments of other countries to change the way they treat their citizens, take action against any country that violates the religious freedom of its citizens, or concern itself in any way with the human rights and religious freedom of anyone residing in other countries.

That all men everywhere should have the freedom to believe whatever they want to believe about God, religion, or the Bible without fear of molestation by the state there is no question. That all men everywhere should have the freedom to practice (or not practice) their religion (or no religion) as they see fit — as long as they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others while doing it — there is no question. That the lack of religious freedom in some countries is deplorable there is no question. That countries should not have an official or established religion there is no question. That countries should have a complete separation of church and state there is no question. That the United States should be a beacon of religious liberty and freedom of conscience to the world there is no question.

But the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom should not be reauthorized, the Office on International Religious Freedom should be eliminated, and the International Religious Freedom Act should be repealed. All monitoring, reporting, and analysis of religious freedom in other countries should be undertaken by the private sector — as is already being done.

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