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Religious Freedom Under the Gun

The Obama administration neglects a key foreign policy issue.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By THOMAS F. FARR
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The propositions also help explain Obama administration actions in human rights policy. The administration took two and a half years to get its ambassador at large for international religious freedom into the job, and when she arrived at the State Department she had little status and few resources. Meanwhile, the administration’s LGBT initiative began almost immediately and garnered considerable energy and resources. In its 2010 National Security Strategy—the premier statement of U.S. security policy—the administration asserted that U.S. national security interests were served by a defense of American values. Among those values were  privacy and access to the Internet but not religious freedom. Obama and Clinton often refer to “freedom of worship” rather than freedom of religion—the former a very small slice of the latter, which includes the right of religious actors to engage in civic and political life. 

Obama and Clinton officials deny that religious freedom has been downgraded in U.S. policy, pointing to the secretary’s involvement in persuading Muslim nations to back off their insistence on antidefamation resolutions at the U.N. Whatever the lasting significance of this achievement, it has had little or no impact on the vicious antiblasphemy laws and practices in places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which victimize non-Muslims and deter liberal Muslim voices.

The evidence—both in the world and at Foggy Bottom—makes it reasonably clear that the United States is doing little to advance religious freedom in its foreign policy. 

It should be doing a lot, for two compelling reasons. First, millions of people are suffering because of violent religious persecution. We should care about that, especially in places like Iraq, where U.S. military action—and our utter failure to advance the cause of religious freedom—has led to the devastation of Iraqi Christian and other minority communities (see the recent speech of Iraqi bishop Shlemon Warduni to the convocation of American Catholic bishops). 

Second, the advancement of religious freedom would serve vital American interests. Both history and social science make it clear that highly religious nations like Egypt and Pakistan will not achieve stable democracy unless they embrace religious freedom in full. Nor will they be able to defeat the toxic religious ideas that feed violent Islamist terrorism, including the kind that has reached American shores.

In short, the Obama administration’s sidelining of religious liberty—whether to remove obstacles to its LGBT initiative or for any other reason—is terribly shortsighted. America needs a resurgence of religious freedom, both here and abroad. The stakes are too high for this issue to be ignored any longer.

Thomas F. Farr is director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center and the author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford, 2008).

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