Why Religious Freedom is Good Foreign Policy

Foundation Update

Why Religious Freedom is Good Foreign Policy

06 May 2015

The incorporation of religious freedom into foreign policy is both a matter of principle and pragmatism. The empowerment of religious actors is a direct route towards the promotion of democracy and the prevention and reconciliation of conflict. Many countries have already moved in this direction, but improvements need to be made in their strategy both in terms of mainstreaming and multilateralism, writes Daniel Philpott for our Global Perspectives Series.

Why Religious Freedom is Good Foreign Policy

By Daniel Philpott

The question of whether Western democracies should promote religious freedom around the world is far from hypothetical. The United States of America has incorporated religious freedom into its foreign policy since the US Congress mandated it in the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) of 1998. In recent years, Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway have adopted foreign policies of religious freedom in one way or another. These policies have been controversial. Yet as a matter of principle and pragmatism, Western democracies are wise to promote religious freedom.

The deepest, most direct argument for pursuing religious freedom is that it is a universal human right. Criticism of this argument revolves around four ideas. See the online forum, The Immanent Frame [ http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/the-politics-of-religious-freedom/], for these arguments. First, that religious freedom is not a universal principle but rather differs so strongly in its meanings across time and place that there is simply no single thing to which everyone has a right. Second, that religious freedom is defined in different places by the power and the interests of those doing the defining. Third, that modern religious freedom is a product of particular developments in Western history, especially the Protestant Reformation and the secularisation that followed in its wake. A fourth claim follows from these three: that Westerners ought not to export religious freedom.

Despite these arguments, religious freedom is rightfully lodged in the world's most important human rights and international law documents. Across an astonishingly diverse range of times, places and cultures, human beings have turned to religions for answers to the 'grand questions' of life. Religions offer answers to these questions in the form of practices, most quintessentially the worship of a God or another superhuman power who grants salvation and responds to suffering. By its nature, the search for, embrace and practice of religion must be free. To respect this freedom is to respect the dignity of the person in his or her relationship to ultimate truth. Thus, religious freedom is the human right not to be coerced in the adoption, expression, practice or rejection of religion.

If this or a similar case for religious freedom as a universal human right is correct, then religious freedom is not something indefinable, uniquely Western, uniquely modern or a mere imposition of power. Nor does it demand the replication of any given country's particular institutions for relating religion and state. Rather it is a precious good to which every human being is entitled. While accommodating great diversity, it insists upon a 'floor', a set of immunities and prohibitions that apply to everyone. Yet despite this universal validity, religious freedom is also one of the most widely violated of human rights. A salient statistic from the Pew Research Center estimates that some 76 percent of the world's population lives in a religiously repressive country.

Beyond the deep principled case for religious freedom is the pragmatic argument that religious freedom promotes values and interests critical to democracies. In God's Century For a full account of the opinions and arguments I express here, see M. Toft, D. Philpott and T. Shah, God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. my co-authors and I argue that religious leaders and communities have been instrumental in promoting democracy, forging peace and reducing terrorism and armed conflict. In a remarkable wave of democratisation that has taken place all over the world in the past generation, some 90 countries have become democratic or moved towards democracy. In 48 out of 78 of the democratic movements that we surveyed, religious leaders and organisations played an integral role. Think only of John Paul II in Communist Poland, Protestants conducting candlelight services in East Germany in 1989 or Muslim popular democratic movements that brought down the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. That is not to say that religious actors always support democracy. In places like Hungary, Rwanda and Argentina they remained aligned with dictators.

Religious actors have also played a positive role in the mediation of peace agreements. In 26 cases of peace agreements that we surveyed, 11 cases involved strong religious mediation, while in 10 others religious actors contributed but more weakly. They have also influenced transitional justice; the efforts that states make to address past injustices in the aftermath of dictatorship and civil war. Transitional justice can be critical to developing a sustainable peace. Our survey of 19 cases of political transition showed that in at least eight of these, religious bodies exerted a strong influence. Often they were guided by a doctrine of reconciliation. Examples are South Africa, Chile, Peru, Sierra Leone and Timor Leste. In all of these areas, the religious actors who exerted the most positive influence were ones whose authority was independent of the state, who practiced religious freedom and who espoused religious freedom in their doctrines.

A more negative form of evidence for religious freedom's importance for democracy and peace is the association of the lack of religious freedom with violence. Of the many religious terrorist groups that have arisen over the past 30 years, 93 percent hold a theology that denies religious freedom and calls for a close integration of religion and state. A large number of them are empowered by political settings where their members are denied religious freedom. Likewise, in religious civil wars, it is common for at least one combatant community to seek a regime that denies religious freedom to another community. Examples are conflicts in Sudan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

If policymakers in Western democracies were more aware of the ways in which religious freedom can empower religious actors to promote goals that they share, or how the absence of religious freedom fosters outcomes that they fear, then they would more eagerly incorporate religious freedom into their most central foreign policy pursuits.

However, if Western democracies are to pursue this incorporation effectively, they must improve on the experience of the USA. The greatest fruits of the USA's policy are the annual reports on global religious freedom that the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom produce, as mandated by IRFA. These reports amount to the best documentation of contemporary religious repression in the world. One of the most attractive features of the reports is their coverage of every religious group that suffers repression, a thoroughness that belies a common criticism of the USA's religious freedom policy, namely that it is a front for Christian interests and even proselytisation.

The reports provide a deep and reliable basis of knowledge for advocates of religious freedom. We also should not underestimate the value of exposing human rights violations. Even if no immediate change takes place, bringing repression to light can help to end it in the long run. After the Cold War ended, Eastern European dissidents testified to the importance of outside attention in supporting their cause.

Less fruitful has been another dimension of the USA's religious freedom policy mandated by IRFA, namely bilateral pressure to alleviate religious repression in other countries. It is difficult to think of any country that is more religiously free today because of such pressure. Part of the problem is that religious freedom is routinely subordinated to goals like fighting terrorism, much as the USA often subordinated human rights to the struggle against Soviet Communism during the Cold War. This dynamic can be seen in the USA's policy towards Pakistan, for example, or in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the USA acquiesced to constitutions weak on religious freedom in the pursuit of stability. There is irony, then, in charges that religious freedom policy is a tool of the USA's power and domination. In reality, religious freedom policy is frequently disempowered and marginalised by other foreign policy objectives.

Two improvements upon the USA's religious freedom policy are needed: mainstreaming and multilateralism. Mainstreaming means acknowledging that religious freedom enhances democracy, stability and peace and incorporating religious freedom policy into the high politics of statecraft rather than relegating it to a corner of a foreign ministry. In a desecularised world, a smart foreign policy would recognise, encourage and ally with those religious leaders and communities who best promote democracy, peace and stability and discourage those who promote their opposites. If the above analysis is correct, this means fostering religious freedom.

Multilateralism means that the USA and other developed democracies would co-ordinate and unify their promotion of religious freedom. In their co-operative endeavours, whether acting through the NATO alliance, joint intervening in Iraq or developing a common policy towards Ukraine, a far more robust engagement with religious actors and intentional promotion of religious freedom would take place. In this way, democracies could pursue their best aspirations more effectively.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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