A decade ago, you were an
eyewitness to the meetings that led to the crafting and promotion of
the International Religious Freedom Act. What spurred your involvement
in the issue?
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
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
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
On what countries has the U.S. shined the spotlight of scrutiny, and what impact, if any, has that had?
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
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
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
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
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
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.