Toward a Healthy Society

World of Faith and Freedom by Thomas F. Farr

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

The violent intrusion of religion on the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11 seemed to confirm at least two things to the foreign policy community.


The violent intrusion of religion on the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11 seemed to confirm at least two things to the foreign policy community. First, what some sociologists have called the “revenge of God” was no flight of academic fancy. God was indeed back, if he had ever left, and his activities outside the developed West were becoming increasingly aggressive. Second, this was very bad news. Religion was a negative and irrational force, proof of which could hardly be more marked than the smoking wreckage in New York and Washington. If God was back in the realm of international politics, the American and Canadian foreign policy community was not cheering.

And neither should they have been. Religion which disregards the rule of law, degrades and destroys human community and oppresses the lives of people across the globe is nothing right-minded people should cheer. The problem–according to Thomas Farr in his new book World of Faith and Freedom–is that this is only half of the story.

While the secularization thesis seems to be more or less discredited at this point, whether this is a good thing is certainly not a settled matter. Part of the secularization thesis to which both policy pundits and academics hold is not merely an assertion that religion is passing from political and social influence, but a theory about why it is passing. The why is important. Religion–as the theory suggested–was an irrational force, used to explain events and happenings that could not be understood, debated and settled with the rational powers of the human spirit. But the facts of global religious revival–even religious revival in a liberal cosmopolitan global north–are hard to ignore. Either the secularist PR campaign has run into trouble, or the world spirit is moving in a different direction. So part one of the thesis–that religion is declining–is in doubt. But that hasn’t stopped the foreign policy community from clinging to part two: the reason for its decline. The irony, to be clear, is that the foreign policy establishment continues to cling to an explanation of religion linked to a factually debunked social science phenomenon. It’s not happening–but we still love the reason for why it would be happening . . . if it were.

Half-truths and half-stories can be worse than blatant lies. They have just enough of the ring of authenticity that we can convince ourselves to believe them. It is true that religion in regions of the world colludes, if not directly causes, terrible crimes of humanity. But it is also true that religion is responsible for some of the greatest achievements and moments of human kind. If religion is a strictly regressive force, how do we explain the acts of mercy, justice and compassion that flow out of so many of the world’s great religious traditions?

Thomas Farr argues that this outdated explanation of religion is responsible in large part for the wide-scale religious illiteracy in the foreign policy establishment. On 9/11, United States intelligence, as well as its Department of State, had almost no religious literacy with which to read the terrible events. There were no senior Muslim officials in American embassies overseas or in the Department of State (44). The Arabic specializations that did exist tended to focus on nonreligious aspects of Middle Eastern political culture. The higher echelons of foreign policy leadership were stuck in the same secularist world view that ruled during the Cold War. The CIA posted the dismissive label of “sociology” onto an intelligence analysis of Iran in the 1970s which discerned a religious basis for brewing opposition (31)–and that basic impulse had stuck. Political Islam was conflated with Islamic extremism, neither of which were taken seriously as religious movements, but at best, as merely mobilizing forces for underlying material or ethnic cleavages. The terrible but sad truth of that day was that because of the continued salience of the secularization thesis the American people and their leadership truly had no idea what had hit them. As Farr writes, “indifference and confusion can be every bit as corrosive as outright opposition” (163).
According to Farr, we need to be open to the idea that religion can be a social good. His advice is not to ignore the negative role of extremist religion, but rather to recognize the profound cultural and social capital of religious traditions. We in the developed West are accustomed to modern states capturing social and political loyalties–though even this consensus is beginning to degrade. Outside the global north, the political landscape remains one of strong religions and weak states. Can we imagine human rights progress in places like Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan that were not tied, in some fashion, to a progressive interpretation and practice of Islam? The goal of American–and indeed also Canadian–foreign policy should not be to replicate a liberal cosmopolitanism we could not perfect at home, but join alongside the religious and cultural stories of the people we meet to cultivate rooted and sustainable societies.

This is what leads Thomas Farr to suggest that religion and its freedom of practice and expression is critical to both security and humanitarianism.



There is no shortage of work to be done on human rights around the world. It may seem bizarre–perhaps even cruel–to focus on freedom of religious conscience and practice, in the place of other more pressing needs. Who cares much what they can believe and practice, if their bellies aren’t full, their streets are policed by thugs and their politics are authoritarian? This was much the same argument that Thomas Farr encountered when working in the State Department. Colleagues were baffled and annoyed that Farr would put an issue of this seeming low priority ahead of other more pressing issues. A few bureaucrats and politicians have stronger reasons for being opposed: many of the human rights violations they were tracking and opposing were being perpetuated by so-called religious groups. Why was the freedom of conscience and practice of people like that a priority?

The answer is as strategic as it is philosophical. The American foreign policy establishment has found itself, as in the past, in charge of understanding and facilitating the development of free societies. Americans justifiably draw on their own tradition to construct these systems and structures. In their experience, the free exercise of democratic rights precedes and guarantees all subsequent freedoms. Therefore the first and most important thing to get right is a free constitution and an impartial judiciary. This is why free and democratic elections have become the hallmark for political progress.

But what came first? Farr recalls that free and democratic elections were responsible for the due and legal political ascension of Hamas–a group few people would have described as either “due” or “legal,” regardless of how many citizens cast their ballots in favour of them. The point is not that democratic structures are irrelevant, only that they are not decisive when it comes to determining the quality of freedom within a society. They are often the signs of a free and just society, but not necessarily the preconditions. To read American history this way is to read it backward. We don’t have the right to go to church because we have the right to vote. We have the right to vote because of the notion that all men and women are created equal in the eyes of God (116). Culture leads politics; culture outside the global north is inseparable from religion.

The point is germane to Farr’s foreign policy. He argues that religious freedom, the freedom to worship and practice religion, precedes–or at the very least accompanies–democratic and economic freedom. It is not something that naturally grows out of imposed systems. Instead, democratic virtues must culturally and socially flourish before they can be politically sustained. The suggestion that any idea could culturally and socially flourish in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, apart from a reading and active partnership with Islam, is nonsense. In order to build stable, democratic societies in religiously-charged regions, these religions must be engaged with debating and sustaining the cultural and social goods of democracy.



Put this way, it’s difficult to imagine how something as fragile as democracy could be sustained outside of the rooted traditions of a region. Farr notes that great wells of ink have been spilled debating Islam and democracy, but “the question examined was not so much how Islam and democracy could achieve mutual accommodation, but how democracy could emerge without taking Islamic religious beliefs into account or, if one were forced to consider Islam, in spite of it” (86). Here is one of the more important distinctions he makes between tolerance and freedom.

Farr writes that, at best, “tolerance is a term that can mean respect for views with which I disagree” (128). But the implication is that you are also living with something problematic, divisive, perhaps even evil. Religious freedom, on the other hand, is understood precisely as “the embracing and defending of a human good and as a political achievement by the democratic state that protects both religious and nonreligious citizens and promotes the common good” (128). There are plenty of policy pundits and academics content to tolerate religion in Canadian and American society. But the public intrusion of religion of this kind would endanger a host of other rights. Therefore one would never actively seek out such a regressive force to support something as important as political democracy.

This is precisely Farr’s problem with promoting tolerance, rather than freedom. The American experiment, he argues, was never a victory of the privatization of religion, but of the foundation of a clear public space for the debate and counter-debate of religious and nonreligious claims, the collusion and contestation of overlapping claims in service of the common good. And neither should our foreign policy aims be to impose this sacred/secular split. Farr writes, “the antidote to religious extremism in the 21st century is not democracy’s privatization of religion but democracy’s wise and prudent involvement of religion in the public square” (178).



While the first part of Farr’s book is dedicated more to the theoretical sources of international freedom, the second part is dedicated to his own experience at the State Department working with the two Ambassadors at Large for international religious freedom. His memoir  wields a dizzying grasp of the bureaucratic politics of both his own department and those outside. Of particular interest is what Farr perceived as the stronger relationship the Clinton administration had with issue of religious freedom, as opposed to the Bush administration, wherein, despite the president’s well-publicized evangelical faith, little was done to elevate the issue. Indeed, the post of Ambassador at Large went unfilled during the first tenure of the Bush administration for a full year (162).

This second part is a classic reading in modern day politics, and the proximate, often frustrating nature of doing business in both changing administrations and inflexible bureaucratic mindsets. It reads like a history of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, split into the years securing the IRFA, the Robert Seiple years (1998-2000), the interregnum in which Farr himself managed the IRF office, and finally his time with John Hanford, both in the campaign for Hanford and the aftermath (2002-2006).

While the IRF saw real success in flesh-and-blood human beings who were freed and lives changed through their hard work, Farr cautions against a kind of case-worker optimism so common in NGOs and international aid groups. Government departments–in Farr’s view–have higher stakes, even if the immediacy of freeing prisoners and saving families from persecution is more gratifying. “Saving individuals,” he writes, “cannot be the core of our international religious freedom policy. It does little or nothing to change the behaviour of governments or the cultures that sustain persecution. It does little or nothing to create the conditions for durable democracy or carry the fight against religion-based terrorism” (158). Farr consistently recounts vexing moral dilemmas borne out of this need: do we put China or Sudan in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, knowing the strategic importance and investments these states represent to the American people? Do we challenge these states publically and consistently to effect structural change, or work behind the scenes to release the few and influence the culture “drop by drop”? In government these decisions are sometimes made for you at higher levels, but Farr consistently brings across the weighty and unpleasant business of moral integrity in a complex and wounded world. Even pursuing something as politically and policy clear as religious freedom is anything but obvious.



Farr offers at least two issue areas in which to consider the importance of international religious freedom, and tangible policy provisions within each- China and the Middle East. In the Middle East, Farr argues, our first step in engaging Islam is to retool our concept of religion as “normative, not epiphenomenal, in human affairs,” and having inevitable public consequences. “Drawing on religious norms, religious actors can affect democracy in many ways, for good and ill” (265). Neither a return to authoritarianism (which Farr suggests increases Islamic extremism) or an exclusive dependence on elites will yield stable democracy. The success of democracy is rather due in large part to a stable covenant between religion and state, not its strict separation. It is this negotiation that is critical in the Middle East. Farr outlines eleven steps that should be taken (269), including creating an Islamic Institute of American Studies, engaging Islamic  feminists, exploiting the Internet, expanding the State Department’s International Visitor’s program, targeting religious communities and Islamic parties in US-funded democracy programs and articulating an appealing religion-state model that can be adapted to different cultures and religions. And while Farr’s recommendations for diplomats are explicitly American, at least some of these could resound true to the Canadian diplomats as well, suggesting improvements such as an emphasis on religious literacy and religion specialists staffing the country desk of every country.

In China the path to religious freedom seems to lie along the same line as economic freedom. Farr suggests that Chinese authorities may yet become far more interested in religious communities as an economic asset and driver of modernization, rather than a source of social or political solidity. In this sense, he believes it is worth cultivating the connection between economic and religious freedom more intimately, potentially creating the case that a “free market” for ideas promotes a flourishing free market economy. While such a utilitarian conception of religion is far from itself being a recognized social good, these steps are important arguments which may lead to greater freedom.



Farr’s hard-hitting book is part political philosophy, part political memoir and part policy memo. It has the intellectual substance to provoke intelligent debate on important and timely subjects and the weight of political experience to be taken seriously at the highest levels. It is written in an accessible and open style, so that almost anyone from the vaguely interested to the policy junkie can read, enjoy and digest it. What is offered here is more than a treatise on international religious freedom–important as that may be. This is a sustained argument for the significance of religion, and religious freedom in public life generally, around the world, and by extension here at home. In a world of growing faith and questionable freedom political, policy and academic leaders cannot afford to miss this important contribution.