I like to say that I stumbled onto the ground floor of an emerging social movement. A decade before the legislative campaign for the act began, I published a book, Representing God in Washington (1988), on religious lobbies. So I was pretty familiar with the religious scene in Washington, D.C., and the various alliances and divisions. In 1998, I was asked to present a paper in Washington at a conference that dealt with the issue of international persecution of Christians and the emerging movement to focus American foreign policy on their plight.
As it turned out, many of the activists in this new movement were at the conference. Because I expressed some knowledge of the situation, these activists basically suggested that I become the scribe of the movement. They opened their files to me, allowed me to sit in on strategy meetings and conduct interviews with them, and provided access to other activists.
Did you set out to write a book about the movement?
At the time, I thought the legislative campaign might make an interesting article. I had no idea that the movement would have legs, or that it would become one of the most important human rights movements since the end of the anti-apartheid struggle. Indeed, the campaign for religious freedom actually sparked a much broader human rights quest within American foreign policy.
In your 2004 book, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, you wrote that the International Religious Freedom Act “is one of the most sweeping human rights statutes on the books and the only one of its kind in the world.” What makes this bill unique?
Because of this legislation, the promotion of religious freedom is a core objective of American foreign policy. There is no other country on earth that you can say that about – a major purpose of America’s global leadership is, in fact, promoting religious freedom and fighting persecution.
The legislation is sweeping because it created a new infrastructure in American foreign policy. This includes a new State Department office and an ambassador-at-large position devoted exclusively to promoting international religious freedom and raising awareness of the plight of religious minorities around the world.
Can you elaborate on what the International Religious Freedom Act mandated?
The legislation tries to expose the problem of violations of religious freedom and then prescribe some actions by the American government to address them. The bill mandated that the State Department produce an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world. It then charged the ambassador with recommending diplomatic actions in response to the findings of that report. There are a whole set of calibrated actions ranging from a personal demarche, which is just a statement from a diplomat to another diplomat, to economic sanctions against a country that egregiously violates religious freedom.
The president is required to take some action against countries that practice severe religious persecution, and he must publicly state what that action is. If the president determines that there’s a reason to waive that sanction, he can do so, but he has to do so publicly.
In addition, the legislation created a blue-ribbon commission on international religious freedom that is independent of the State Department. The commission’s job is to act as a watchdog of the State Department. It gathers its own information, conducts hearings, travels to foreign countries, critiques State Department reports and puts out its own reports. In a sense, the commission tries to keep the State Department honest, and to say tough things about our trading partners, allies or countries of strategic importance to the U.S.
Who were the original players in this movement?
The campaign for religious freedom attracted a broad set of unlikely allies. There were conservative evangelicals working hand-in-hand with liberal Jewish leaders, Tibetan Buddhists, Iranian Baha’is, Muslim Uighurs from China and other religious groups.
In addition to religious leaders, key congressional leaders of both parties became strong advocates for religious freedom legislation. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives such as Republicans Frank Wolf of Virginia and Chris Smith of New Jersey worked with senators such as then-Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Ultimately, it was a very bipartisan piece of legislation.
Your book describes tensions that arose in the effort to get the legislation approved. What happened?
There were two competing visions for how best to promote religious freedom through American foreign policy and, originally, two different pieces of legislation – one that passed the House and another that passed the Senate. What’s interesting is that the competing approaches did not break down along traditional liberal versus conservative lines. One vision saw itself as fighting against persecution in a visible, tough way that involved the threat of serious sanctions. The other saw itself as using calibrated, quiet, diplomatic measures to induce changes in the behavior of governments.
What I think is interesting is that the final legislation embodied both approaches, with a State Department Office of International Religious Freedom that generally engages in more quiet diplomacy and an independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom that exposes countries that are engaging in religious persecution – naming them, shaming them and calling for tough sanctions.
Since the legislation initially focused only on the persecution of Christians, some critics felt it was an attempt by Republican politicians to thank or repay evangelical Christians for their political support.
Yes, the original impetus of the campaign was focused on the persecution of Christians around the world. In a way, that wasn’t a narrow cause because the persecution of Christians is actually a broad problem in a number of countries. Nonetheless, that was perceived as narrowly focused on one religious community.
As the legislation evolved, it was broadened to include all religious communities and especially any religious minorities persecuted for their faith. The legislative campaign acted as a magnet, attracting disparate religious minorities who saw the opportunity to have the American government champion their cause. So through the natural process of congressional compromise and evolution, the coalition got broader and broader as time went on.
Some foreign critics have asked this question: Who made the U.S. the policeman for human rights around the world? And, more specifically: Why should the U.S. preach to the rest of the world about religious freedom when it has more than its share of religious strife and problems?
There was a concern that the U.S. would be perceived as heavy handed in its policing of internal religious conditions in nearly 200 countries. But the drafters of the legislation were very careful to point to United Nations covenants as the standards by which countries would be judged. In that sense, supporters say, the U.S. is not attempting to impose its own will on the rest of the world but is merely calling upon countries to live up to the international agreements they themselves have signed – United Nations declarations on human rights, international covenants on religious freedom and so forth.
I think that over time the detailed research that the State Department undertakes has gained a certain credibility for the effort. Countries around the world, especially other democracies, often use the reports themselves in promoting religious freedom through their own diplomatic initiatives.
In the language of the legislation, there are “countries of particular concern.” They have included North Korea, China, Burma [also known as Myanmar], Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.
Human rights advances are often incremental, as we’ve learned from the past. But there have been indications of real progress because of this legislation. Dissidents around the world know that their cause is being picked up by the U.S. government. Religious prisoners in jail hear about the fact that they have been named by our State Department officials or by the president of the United States in postings in our embassies.
Because of State Department diplomacy, Vietnam has actually released religious prisoners, relaxed its restrictions on religious communities and allowed Buddhists, Christians and others to more freely practice their religion.
There has also been some impact on Saudi Arabia, though certainly not enough to satisfy many activists. One of the things that has come out of this whole initiative is the fact that the Saudis have been funding worldwide extremist literature that preached hostility toward Christians, Jews, Shiites and others, and that called for jihad against unbelievers. The Saudis have been very embarrassed by the reports from the State Department and from the commission and have pledged to clamp down on the kind of virulent literature they provide in their own schools and in mosques around the world. In light of the 9/11 attacks and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, some Saudi authorities have come to the conclusion that they have to deal with the way their own literature is promoting a very militant and dangerous brand of Islam. And that’s been an issue that has been taken up because of this legislation.
Have any actual sanctions been imposed?
This has been a matter of contention by religious advocates. In the case of Saudi Arabia, President Bush has waived sanctions in the interest of national security. Still, the Saudis have not been happy about the way they’ve been portrayed in State Department reports.
Sanctions on China, Sudan, Burma and North Korea have been, in diplomatic language, “double-hatted”; in other words, sanctions that were already in existence were just designated as the sanctions to apply to the religious freedom violations. This is a matter of great concern among those in the advocacy community who feel that the law has not been enforced as vigorously by the State Department as they had hoped.
Ten years ago, there was skepticism in some circles about treating religious freedom as a basic human right and promoting it as a U.S. foreign policy objective. To what extent has this ideal of religious freedom been embraced by Congress, the State Department, human rights groups, the media and others?
I think there’s been a sea change in the appreciation of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Religious freedom, in fact, is recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was promulgated by the United Nations in 1948. Historically, secular human rights groups have often been skittish about promoting religious freedom because, to them, religion is often a force for reaction, repression and so forth. But secular human rights groups now appreciate the extent to which the movement for religious freedom has added new energy to the broader human rights quest. It’s brought them new allies in the more general human rights movement.
Journalists are also more attentive to religious persecution than they used to be. I think persecuted Christians are viewed as authentically persecuted now, whereas in the past there was some suspicion that perhaps the extent of the persecution was exaggerated. I think the problem of the denial of religious freedom for communities around the world is now seen as a major problem.
There has also been a change in how the academic world views this issue. We have a whole new line of scholarship that is beginning to show how important religious freedom is to human rights, democracy and economic development. So I think that the movement helped to highlight the important relationship of religious freedom to other things we value, and that’s going to be a lasting change.
To what extent did the legislation bring evangelical Christians to the table of foreign policy?
The legislation galvanized the evangelical community to become more focused on foreign policy, especially human rights issues. Indeed, the campaign for religious freedom ultimately catapulted them into other human rights quests. For example, the same coalition that fought for religious freedom legislation moved on to human trafficking, which has become a major focus of American foreign policy and maybe one of the most effective. Without religious freedom legislation, supporters say, there likely would not have been trafficking legislation. Without religious freedom legislation, they say, there likely would not have been a Sudan Peace Act, which focused attention on the devastating 20-year civil war in Sudan and helped produce a fragile peace between southern Sudanese and the government. Evangelicals have been drawn to human rights issues beyond their original focus on their fellow believers.
I recall 10 years ago in Cairo interviewing a mainline Protestant leader who expressed concern that the bill could make things worse, not better, for religious minorities in foreign countries. He put it something like this: If the U.S. reduces aid to Egypt because of the way Christians are treated here, and the price of bread goes up, we will be blamed. Have there been any such examples of unintended consequences?
It appears that the fear that there would be reprisals against religious minorities because their cause was picked up by the American government has not generally materialized. To my knowledge there have been relatively few cases of this. But what we are hearing from religious minorities is that they appreciate the fact that the American government has been taking up their cause.
I should say one other thing. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the legislation. It never involved the cutoff of humanitarian aid to a country. The most severe sanction among the whole menu of actions was the cutoff of some nonhumanitarian aid to countries that egregiously practice persecution.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was quite concerned in 1998 that this legislation would hurt American companies in the global economy. What has happened in that regard?
The business lobbies poured millions of dollars into the campaign against the law, and it passed anyway. I think it’s safe to say that this legislation has not, in most cases, upset business arrangements with other countries. It has, however, exposed some cozy relationships between big business and rather bad actors, such as Burma and Sudan. In that sense, it has nudged some businesses to reassess their business decisions.
Do activists in this movement regret any of the ways they crafted this legislation? Put another way, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight, what would they do differently if they could?
There are some things that activists would like to see amended, and, in fact, on this anniversary, there has been a push by some of the advocates to actually get the legislation strengthened. For example, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom is somewhat buried in the State Department bureaucracy, leaving the promotion of religious freedom in the State Department largely quarantined from the mainstream of American diplomatic efforts. So I think activists would like to see the ambassador’s position elevated so that the ambassador would sit in on high-level diplomatic meetings within the State Department. Activists would also like to see a greater focus by the White House on this issue.
What’s next for this movement promoting religious freedom?
I think there will be an effort by advocates to have the next Congress and the next presidential administration more vigorously enforce the legislation and amend it to make this an even more high-profile part of America’s global leadership.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.