Bringing Religious Freedom Back into American Religious Freedom Policy

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

In 1998 the United States of America adopted the Office of Religious Freedom, a parallel process on which Canada is now embarking. In this article I argue that American—like Canadian—policymakers should, as Scott Thomas puts it, "promote religious freedom as if the truthfulness of people's religious convictions mattered."1 The argument proceeds from two propositions which are belatedly gaining currency among International Relations scholars and within the foreign policy community.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy (Baylor University Press, 2010), which was adapted from World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press, 2008). In it, distinguished American diplomat Thomas Farr reflects on the challenges facing the American experience and its own Office of Religious Freedom. This version appears here by permission of the publisher and the author.

In 1998 the United States of America adopted the Office of Religious Freedom, a parallel process on which Canada is now embarking. In this article I argue that American—like Canadian—policymakers should, as Scott Thomas puts it, "promote religious freedom as if the truthfulness of people's religious convictions mattered."1 The argument proceeds from two propositions which are belatedly gaining currency among International Relations scholars and within the foreign policy community.

First, for the foreseeable future, religion will have a significant and increasing impact on public matters in virtually every region of the world.2 As one group of scholars has recently concluded, religion has "returned from exile."3 The vast majority of the world's population will not only be committed to a particular religious tradition but their beliefs will influence social norms and political behaviors, government policies, regional trends, and transnational movements. A world of public faith will continue to have serious implications for the interests of the United States abroad and the security and prosperity of the American people at home. While I cannot demonstrate this proposition here, I consider it sufficiently well established in the burgeoning literature on religion and international relations to serve as a reliable point of departure.4

For this reason, the religious teachings and actions of other peoples and other nations should be integrated into the official American understanding of the world and our strategy for engaging it. This does not mean that diplomats must be theologians, any more than they must be lawyers, economists, or political philosophers. It means that they must rediscover the first principle of true realism, which is to understand things as they are and to call them by their right names. Diplomats must therefore attain the capacity to know and to address human behaviour in all its forms, including beliefs and practices formed by an increasing global diversity of religious convictions.

Second, the American foreign policy establishment is at present ill prepared, both philosophically and bureaucratically, to address a world of public faith.5 A whole variety of principles and habits from across the ideological spectrum of American society feeds a secularist diplomatic culture. The distinction between secular and secularist is important. The United States is a secular society in that it seeks to maintain a proper differentiation between the overlapping spheres of government and religion. Vigorous debates continue about whether the balance has tipped too far in one direction or the other in domestic politics and in the influencing of American foreign policy.6

But among many of the professionals and scholars in the American foreign policy community itself, there has long been a secularist approach to religion—an official, if sometimes implicit, reticence about addressing the religious factors in other cultures and indeed in seeing culture as an expression of religion at all. The explanations are varied and cut across the red-blue, political-cultural divide in America. Our diplomatic tendencies in such matters clearly flow in some respects from what is commonly referred to as modern liberal secularism. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd even speaks of "the political authority of secularism" in international relations.7 But such tendencies are also nourished by habits of thought, including theological habits of thought, present in the American right. More importantly, the various schools of American diplomacy struggle mightily either to avoid the subject of religion or to assume it away, albeit for very different reasons. The fact is that no matter which political party has been in charge, and which version of foreign affairs has been in the ascendant, American diplomacy has been largely passive and ineffective in its engagement with an international order influenced by faith.

A 2007 study by the Center for Strategic and International Affairs has confirmed this problem. After surveying the treatment of religion across the spectrum of American foreign policy agencies, it found that:

U.S. government officials are often reluctant to address the issue of religion, whether in response to a secular U.S. legal and political tradition, in the context of America's Judeo-Christian image overseas, or simply because religion is perceived as too complicated or sensitive. Current U.S. government frameworks for approaching religion are narrow, often approaching religions as problematic or monolithic forces, overemphasizing a terrorism-focused analysis of Islam, and sometimes marginalizing religion as a peripheral humanitarian or cultural issue. Institutional capacity to understand and approach religion is limited due to legal limitations, lack of religious expertise or training, minimal influence for religion-related initiatives, and a government primarily structured to engage with other official state actors.8

Ironically, this policy deficiency persists amid a significant increase in the number of scholarly books and articles concerning religion and foreign policy. One of the unanticipated results of 9/11 was an added momentum to something already underway—the abandonment of the so-called secularization theory, according to which religion was inevitably withering with the advance of modernity. A few scholars have questioned the theory for decades, but its assertions were for the most part too comforting to be challenged by mere facts. The attacks of September 11 proved to be, at least for some, the fact that would not be ignored.

Since 2001 we have seen a proliferation of publications and programs dealing with religion and international affairs, especially among policy-oriented think tanks, such as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Rand Corporation, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (all of which existed prior to 9/11 but whose interest in religion and foreign policy has increased). And yet, as late as four years after the terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the Henry Luce Foundation found it necessary to invite selected U.S. academic institutions specializing in international affairs to apply for grants on religion and foreign policy. Its purpose was to get them to pay attention to an issue that they had largely ignored.9 While the relationship between religion and foreign policy is getting greater emphasis among some policy institutions, it is still struggling for attention among academic institutions who seek to educate and train our future diplomats—those who will carry out America's engagement with the world.

While correcting this deficiency will not be easy, a potentially effective and even potent vehicle is at hand. America's existing statutory policy of promoting international religious freedom should be recalibrated, broadened, and integrated throughout our foreign policy apparatus to help the United States meet the challenges presented by a world of faith. Such a change will require fresh thinking about religion, about freedom, and about the relationship between the two. It will require new policy mandates from a president, the urging of Congress, a determined secretary of state, strongly supportive political appointees at Foggy Bottom, and new training for America's diplomats.

As my title intimates, this project will in part constitute a work of recovery. It will be worthwhile for U.S. policymakers and diplomats to recall the relative success that their own country has had in balancing the competing authorities of religion and state. A case in point: on June 1, 1660, magistrates from the Massachusetts Bay Colony hanged Mary Dyer on Boston Commons for her persistence in believing and proselytizing the Quaker faith.10 In 1791, the first sixteen words of the Bill of Rights guaranteed the free exercise of religion at the national level. What had happened in the intervening 131 years was not the secularization of American society or politics, or the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism, but the mutual development of religious doctrine and political culture. Rediscovering this American experience will be important for American diplomacy, not in order to impose the First Amendment model on others, but to overcome the crippling presumption that religion and freedom, or faith and reason, are irreconcilable.

A major obstacle to this project will be the premises and habits of thought present in U.S. diplomacy's various schools, such as realism, liberal internationalism, and neoconservatism.11 These schools are repositories of what ought to be our best thinking on how America should engage the world, but until very recently they have had little to say about religion as a policy issue. In the past decade their reluctance has been challenged by the 1998 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act, the emergence of Islamist terrorism, and rising concerns on the American left about the influence of the Christian right on foreign policy, all of which have occasioned a good deal of commentary.

Those factors have in some ways actually increased resistance among foreign affairs thinkers and the general public to considering religion as a policy matter. The IRF Act has focused the State Department on the humanitarian objectives of denouncing persecution and saving victims, not promoting freedom in any long-term political sense.12 As such, IRF policy has neither had a significant impact on worldwide religious persecution nor overcome the perception that it is designed to make the world safe for American missionaries. Islamist terrorism has elicited a wide spectrum of responses from the U.S. foreign policy community, from a denial that religion has anything to do with the terrorists' actions to the arguments that Islam is too evil or too violent to engage. Fears on the left about the resurgence of religion in America—a social phenomenon that some observers have labelled the Fourth Great Awakening13—have deepened suspicions about any official policy that treats religious beliefs as a public matter.

The moral and legal framework for America's hands-off approach to religion in foreign policy is provided by the concept of a "wall of separation" between religion and public life. Many Americans, religious and not, liberal and conservative, have come to understand religious liberty as embodied in that phrase. The wall, thought to be established in the Constitution, was putatively built to protect us from the divisiveness and (a more recent fear) the moral judgmentalism of religious groups in America. So understood, "religious freedom" requires that religion-based beliefs and practices be protected but privatized. Because religion and religiously informed moral judgments are based on absolute truth claims, and such claims and judgments endanger the compromises necessary for democracy, faith-based "absolutism" must be cordoned outside the public square in order to protect the democratic system.

This idea of religious liberty is both ahistorical and tendentious,14 but it is highly influential in the foreign affairs establishment. Not long ago I queried a lawyer in a foreign policy agency about why U.S.-funded democracy programs in the Middle East avoided direct engagement with religious communities. By way of explanation, he cited parts of the Supreme Court's "Lemon test." We must determine, he wrote, "whether there has been a violation of the constitutionally required separation of church and state . . . [i.e.,] whether the funded activity has a secular purpose and, even if it does, whether the funded activity has a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion."15 In other words, a court test for determining whether the Constitution has been violated in the United States is cited as a rationale for restraining America's engagement of religion abroad.16

That view of religious freedom is, of course, controversial as a domestic matter, and has in some ways been abandoned by the Supreme Court itself. Moreover, it is slowly being challenged in foreign affairs by intermittent U.S. programs that do engage religious belief and practice. But in the twenty-first century an ad hoc policy concerning religion is destined to fail. Unfortunately, the wall of separation understanding of religious liberty (also known as "strict separationism") and its parallel insistence on the privatization of faith tends to be accepted by most members of the permanent bureaucracy in Washington D.C., by the professoriate, the media, and Hollywood. In American universities it has become so encrusted in academic orthodoxy that a Harvard curriculum committee implicitly made the extraordinary admission in 2006 that Harvard graduates were not being educated to know "the role of religion in contemporary, historical or future events."17

But skepticism about official U.S. involvement with foreign religious communities is not the exclusive preserve of strict separationists. Some who reject the "wall of separation" at home believe that our government, especially the State Department, is simply incompetent to address the issue abroad. This view was embraced by some who led the campaign for a new international religious freedom policy and still has its adherents. Responding to my advocacy for more U.S. engagement with Muslim jurists, a veteran religious freedom activist (and a religious conservative) told me he had "no faith in the U.S. government's ability to do this sort of thing intelligently: Washington will end up subsidizing the Islamic counterparts of Hans Küng [a Roman Catholic dissident]."

The consequence of all these views is that, while most of the world is steeped in religious thought and religiously informed action, the agencies charged with understanding the world and furthering American interests in it are not yet up to the task. And, for the most part, there is little public pressure for them to change. There are, of course, exceptions—international affairs thinkers, policy officials, or active diplomats who for whatever reason happen to have an interest in the subject. Indeed, there are signs that their numbers are growing, especially in the wake of the debate over radical Islam. But, while religion as a topic of discussion in foreign policy has certainly increased, its emergence is not yet part of an integrated pattern.

In the twenty-first century, this simply will not do. Creedal commitments have too much impact on the public behaviour that affects American security for our diplomats to avert their eyes, treating religion as a private matter or addressing it only if they happen to have a personal interest. American diplomacy should treat faith much as it does politics or economics—as factors that drive the world of men, women, and nations in important ways. U.S. foreign policy must begin to engage the various aspects of religion systematically, not as it suits, or does not suit, the fancy of whoever happens to be on the spot. The quality and effectiveness of America's engagement with a world of public faith should not depend on whether a Southern Baptist, a Rawlsian secularist, or a lapsed Catholic is in charge.

The starting point from which American foreign policy should encounter the world of religion is not the dogma of any particular religious tradition or any particular secularist philosophy. The starting point should be that of American national interests, of religious realism, and of religious freedom properly understood. The United States should address the public effects of religion, both positive and negative, by promoting religious freedom in the fullest sense of that term, including the advancement of solutions to one of the foremost national security issues of our day—achieving a stable and liberal balance between the overlapping authorities of religion and state. The failure to achieve such a balance has in many states fed religious persecution, led to social and political instability, and encouraged the religion-based terrorism of groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Religion has also had an important but scarcely noticed influence on the nation many experts believe is the most consequential for American interests—China. There the Communist government fears religion so vehemently that it admits capitalists into the Communist Party but not religious believers. Chinese attempts to control religious practice have led to grave persecution and injustice and have triggered a significant humanitarian reaction within religious and human rights circles in the United States. Those policies have also reinforced the American diplomatic habit of addressing cases and seeking prisoner releases.

But U.S. policy has virtually ignored a more strategic problem: an economically and militarily powerful, regionally ambitious, and nuclear-armed China also has an exploding population of religious adherents. The movements they represent, especially evangelical forms of Protestant Christianity, but also Catholicism, Islam, and Buddhism, present a growing dilemma for Chinese authorities. There is no empirical evidence that China's surge of religion can successfully be repressed or controlled short of another brutal and destructive Cultural Revolution. The trajectory suggests that either the Chinese will find a way to accommodate religion or turn it into the very thing they (and we) most fear: deep social and political instability. The United States must begin to address this problem.

There are, of course, limits to what U.S. foreign policy can and should do with respect to the religious convictions active in other societies. American officials cannot fruitfully engage directly in the theological and religious debates taking place within various areas of the Muslim world—or for that matter within other influential religious communities, such as Russian Orthodoxy or Indian Hinduism. To do so would invite scorn and suspicion and would undermine the mutual respect which must undergird a successful U.S. policy. Muslims must decide on the authoritative interpretations of the Koran and the hadith; Christians, the Bible and its teachings.

But America is not served by ignorance, indifference, or confusion about the impact of religion on the moral and political norms necessary to protect the nation's security in the twenty-first century. American diplomacy must not only understand the religious traditions of the world and their adherents, but must have a clear policy with which to engage and influence them, and the governments under which they live, in ways that further American interests. We must find ways to demonstrate that public religion and liberal governance are not only compatible but can be mutually supportive.


1 Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (Culture and Religion in International Relations)(New York and London: PalgraveMacmillan, 2005), 216.

2 On the enduring salience of religious communities into the foreseeable future, see Todd M. Johnston and David B. Barrett, "Quantifying Alternate Futures of Religion and Religions," Futures 36 (2004).  

3 Pavlos Hatzopoulos and Fabio Petito, eds., Religion in International Relations: The Return From Exile (Culture and Religion in International Relations)(New York and London: PalgraveMacmillan, 2003).

4 In addition to Hatzopoulos and Petito, ed., Religion and International Relations, see, for example: Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion; Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler, Bringing Religion into International Relations (Culture and Religion in International Relations)(New York and London: PalgraveMacmillan, 2004); and an earlier path-breaking work, Douglas Johnson and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford, 1994).

5 An instructive example of this is the reflections of Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006).

6 A good analysis of how religion is affecting U.S. foreign policy is Walter Russell Mead, "Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006, 24-44.  The article does not investigate religion as an object of foreign policy, but how American evangelicalism is influencing its practice. 

7 Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, "The Political Authority of Secularism in International Relations," European Journal of International Relations 10/2 (2004), 235-262. The argument of this article is elaborated in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton Studies in International History and Politics) (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008). See also Daniel Philpott, "The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations," World Politics 55 (October 2002), 66-95.

8 Liora Danan and Alice Hunt, Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict Prone Settings (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2007), 3. See also Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover, The Future of International Religious Freedom Policy: A Policy Report with Recommendations for the Obama Administration (available at

9 See the Henry Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs,

10 Kevin Seamus Hasson.  The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2005), 40-42.

11 Thomas F. Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press, 2008), 53-77. See also Fox and Sandler, Bringing Religion, chs. 2, 8; Thomas, The Global Resurgence, 54-69; Philpott, "The Challenge of September 11," 78-81.

12 See Farr, ibid, 17-10. Also see Thomas F. Farr, "Diplomacy in an Age of Faith," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008, 110-124.

13 See, for example, Paul Johnson, "The Almost Chosen People," First Things, June/July 2006, 22; Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 78-79; 336.

14 See Philip Hamburger, The Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

15 Email exchange with a legal expert at an executive branch agency with foreign affairs responsibilities.  

16 According to the CSIS study, "Many government officials remain skeptical or concerned about engaging religion abroad because of the domestic and legal tradition surrounding the separation of religion and state… Some officials said they believe the Establishment Clause categorically limits government activities related to religion, while many others said they were not sure of the ways the clause should shape their actions and decisions." Danan and Hunt, Mixed Blessings, 39.

17 Quoted in John I. Jenkins and Thomas Burish, "Reason and Faith at Harvard," Washington Post, October 23, 2006. Ultimately Harvard considered adding religion to its core curriculum but rejected the idea.