The Magazine

Taken on Faith

No diplomatic recognition for religion.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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World of Faith and Freedom

Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security

by Thomas F. Farr

Oxford, 384 pp., $29.95

Not long after the toppling of the theocratic Taliban, a delegation of Afghan leaders involved in drafting a new constitution paid a visit to Washington. I met with one of them at the Mayflower Hotel, where we sipped coffee and talked about Islam, democracy, and the prospects for religious freedom in Afghan society.

"I believe in the separation of church and state," he told me, and quietly explained that he could not express this view openly. When we parted, I wondered whether his State Department hosts were aware of his Jeffersonian hopes for Afghanistan--and whether he would find a way to voice them.

It turns out that the principle of religious liberty had not figured into the State Department's strategy. Afghanistan's 2003 constitution declares the country an Islamic state, fails to protect religious minorities, and sanctions the death penalty for apostasy--as the 2006 trial of Abdul Rahman made embarrassingly clear. A convert to Christianity, Rahman escaped beheading only after a public appeal from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Afghan democracy had officially declared that there was no contradiction between protecting human rights and the judicially required execution of a man for his peaceful religious practices," writes Thomas Farr in World of Faith and Freedom. "The constitution had created a window through which extremism could lawfully enter, contend with the reformers and the moderates, and stand an excellent chance of defeating them."

The odds that the extremists will triumph in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries look better now than they did a few years ago, and Farr's invaluable book helps to explain why. His contention is that America's foreign policy establishment has either ignored religion or treated it as a bastion of irrationality--something to be contained, managed, or marginalized. The ironic result is that the most religious democracy in the West has failed to engage the most important catalyst for democratic change, the ideals and institutions of religion.

The problem, Farr writes, cuts across political and ideological lines. It afflicts the "realist" school of Henry Kissinger, which sees religion mostly in terms of power politics, no less than "liberal internationalism" à la Madeleine Albright, which treats religious values as an obstacle to liberal social policy. Neoconservatives, despite their attention to cultural issues, often share secular assumptions about faith--namely, that it must be privatized before human rights and democratic institutions can take hold.

Such thinking, Farr argues, endangers U.S. national security by underwriting "a diplomacy of unreality." Many of the political regimes that matter most to American interests, after all, are awash in religious dogmas and motivations. A Foreign Service veteran and former intelligence officer, Farr understands the terrain better than most. He served as the first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and was responsible for designing and executing American policies to promote religious liberty. Farr has met with many victims of persecution from around the world--and with the theocratic thugs who do the persecuting. Here, at last, are the mature political reflections of a top-ranking diplomat and a religious believer (he is Roman Catholic), brought to bear on the central foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.

To be sure, some progress has been made in incorporating religion into foreign policy planning. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) mandated that the State Department produce a comprehensive annual report on religious liberty. A separate office of international religious freedom was created at the State Department, with its own ambassador-at-large. American embassies and their staffs were required, for the first time, to pay attention to faith communities in their countries. All this has helped raise the profile of religious prisoners and ratchet up pressure for their release.

Nevertheless, Farr explains, this "humanitarian approach" leaves unchallenged the structures and habits of persecution. A report commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts earlier this year found that religious repression involves "a much larger cast of characters" and "much deeper, more extensive problems" than a decade ago. In countries such as Pakistan--another Muslim state with blasphemy laws--religious extremism is on the rise. Saudi Arabia, which makes no pretense to religious liberty, continues to succor the violent Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam. Iranian militancy, supported by a clerical Council of Guardians, speaks for itself. In each case, religious tyranny and terrorist activity go hand in hand.

Despite the blinding clarity of these facts, American efforts to support Muslim democrats remain anemic at best. The notion that the teachings and truth claims of Islam might provide the foundation for political reform still doesn't get much play in foreign policy circles. The National Endowment for Democracy promotes programs largely indifferent to the question of religious freedom. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission report, the Iraq Study Group, and the RAND Corporation all betray the same weaknesses. Writes Farr:

The religious rationale for violence must be turned on its head. Mainstream Muslims who reject violence and coercion not in spite of Islam, but because of it, must move to the fore. Until that happens, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its counter terrorism efforts around the world, are unlikely to succeed.

Here is a new kind of foreign policy realism--the realism that comes from understanding not only the threat of religious fanaticism, but also the reforming power of transcendent faith. The singular value of World of Faith and Freedom is that it grasps the genius of the American creed--religious belief as a strong ally of human rights and human reason--and defends its enduring relevance in an age of religious terror.

"To speak of the American founding is to speak of great things," writes Ellis Sandoz, "a great conspiracy of faith and reason." For the sake of national security, it's time America's political leaders and diplomats spoke of these great things again, openly and often.

Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, is working on a book about the history of religious freedom in the West.