PRESIDENT BUSH MARKED "Religious Freedom Day"--celebrating the 1786 adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom--by acknowledging that the right to worship freely is fundamental to America's democratic creed. "My administration continues to support freedom of worship at home and abroad," he said this week. "We recognize the importance of religious freedom and the vital role it plays in spreading liberty and ensuring human dignity."

The gulf between the president's aspirations and the dreary reality on the ground appeared especially stark this week, as the proclamation came during his trip to the Middle East--one of the most repressive regions of the world. It's true that Bush has a sincere interest in promoting religious freedom, and meets often with persecuted minorities. Yet the incomprehension over religion in the State Department, and among some in the White House, threatens to undo his efforts to prod Islamic states toward democracy.

Consider how the president tends to measure democratic progress in the Middle East. In a speech in Abu Dhabi, Bush praised the United Arab Emirates for holding "historic elections" for its Federal National Council. He lauded the 12 million Iraqis who "voted in defiance of al Qaeda" in national elections. He noted the elections in Kuwaiti in which women were allowed to hold office for the first time, and cheered the recent municipal vote in Saudi Arabia. He underscored the parliamentary elections in Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain.

The problem with this electoral narrative is that it manages to evade the deepest, most intractable problem afflicting the Middle East and the wider Muslim world: the refusal to recognize the rights of conscience as God-given, universal, and inalienable.

Elections in nations governed by rigid Islamic law mean next to nothing for the cause of religious liberty. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is no meaningful concept of freedom of worship under its constitution or in the thousands of religious schools lavishly funded by the House of Saud. In most Muslim states, conversion from Islam to any other faith is a punishable offense. Religious minorities often face civil penalties, harassment, marginalization, and worse. Indeed, the spiritual epicenter of Islam remains frozen in the authoritarian wilderness of the 17th century--if not earlier. "The case is the same as it was of old," observed John Owen, a dissenting Anglican minister who taught John Locke at Oxford. "No new pretences are made use of, no arguments pleaded for the introduction of severity, but such as have been pretended at all times by those who were in possession of power, when they had a mind to ruine any that dissented from them." That was back in the 1660s.

U.S. foreign policy cannot be blamed for the pretensions and intransigence of Islamic leaders. But the secular lens of some in the Bush administration, especially at Foggy Bottom, is aggravating the problem--whether it's the growth of Islamic militarism under the U.S.-backed regime of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf or the dubious legal protections for religious minorities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if Iraq moves toward greater stability and representative government, for example, the problem of religious intolerance will loom large. "This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people," reads the Iraqi Constitution, "and guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals."

The first Iraqi "guarantee" is bound to cancel out the second because theocracies never allow for the kind of dissent that makes democratic government possible. Nor are they good at creating vibrant economies. "Almost the entire Muslim world is affected by poverty and tyranny," writes Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis. "The record, with the exception of Turkey, is one of almost unrelieved failure."

Who, since 9/11, cannot see the connection between oppressive religious regimes, economic stagnation, and terrorism? If the rights of conscience are not protected by law, it's unlikely that other liberties--political and economic--will flourish. Without these freedoms, democratic habits such as trust, compromise, and civility evaporate like a desert mirage. Without them, there's no peaceful way to navigate a nation's religious diversity. The predictable result: extremism and violence. If the U.S. State Department had paid more attention to this dynamic in countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria--all hotbeds of terrorism at one time or another--we might have averted much of the jihadist bloodlust that now besets us.

Ironically, the religious indifference of diplomats and government officials--stoked by secular interest groups--has helped make religious radicalism a permanent fixture of U.S. foreign policy. The events of 9/11 awakened policymakers to the existence of religious terrorism. Yet many still fail to appreciate its fundamental nature: a movement of violent extremists who seek to use religion to dominate the minds and lives of millions.

America's Founders would have recognized the disease. "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial," wrote James Madison, who nursed to passage Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. "What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution." If this was the case for Christianity, despite its soaring narrative of freedom and redemption, what else could follow from the Islamic variety of established religion?

Nevertheless, the Bush administration only partially grasps the problem. In his speech in Abu Dhabi, the president expressed the need for "tolerating the faith of others" and praised the United Arab Emirates as a Muslim state that is "tolerant toward people of other faiths." But the goal Bush seeks--authentic freedom of conscience in Islamic societies--demands much more than a miserly political pose. This was, in fact, the Jeffersonian insight that the president was supposedly celebrating this week. A just society must go beyond mere toleration of dissent toward genuine respect for religious differences: a culture that upholds freedom of thought, enshrined in law and upheld by custom.

The president's "democracy agenda" in the Middle East is a wise and worthy effort. He deserves credit for admitting, repeatedly, that the political "realism" of U.S. foreign policy, when it has winked at dictatorships in the Middle East, has failed to produce peace and security.

Yet Bush's hopes for reform require the counterpoise of history and the ballast of good theology. Americans, by making the sanctity of conscience a political norm, were the first to escape the terrible pattern of the West. The verdict is in: A political revolution that cannot rise above toleration, that fails to secure the inalienable rights of conscience, is a revolution to nowhere--a leap of faith that ends in new doubts about democracy and freedom.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD.

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