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Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine ( PART II )
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Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine ( PART II )

Religion & the Path of Democratic Reform in the Arab-Muslim World

President Obama’s middle-ground approach to the credible and well-established “Clash of Civilizations” theme – when formulating international religious freedom policy – is best understood when placed on a scale between tolerance and international consensus (an interfaith, “soft-power” approach), and America’s constitutional ideal of religious freedom and human rights (an Evangelical and “exacting” approach). Yet both policy methods delimit religious freedom, threatening it altogether.

Thomas Jefferson, in a written letter reply from Monticello, dated September 27, 1809, to a James Fishback that addressed his own views on the proper roles of church and state, provided a rather extraordinary response line in his letter. He passionately observed that “Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!” When it came to disputing over metaphysics and theology, Jefferson emphatically reminded Mr. Fishback that on such questions “oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren.”[1]

American Exceptionalism & Worldwide Democratic Advancement

Just as Thomas Jefferson had to confront Islamist realities during and after the Barbary Pirates War in North Africa, this vivid and rather explosive indictment from Jefferson demonstrates that not much has really changed in our world. [2] The Crusade and Jihadist-like “Clash of Civilizations” that Samuel Huntington once famously coined is advancing at an alarming rate in hearts and minds around the world as worldwide democratic reform, led and championed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations, confronts autocrats and Islamists while seeking to reverse the tide. Since 9/11 the debate on how to slow down this “Clash” and solve it through the advancement of democratic reform, remains at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, putting religion and the matter of religious freedom on center stage.

As in Jefferson’s time, the proper role of religion and religious powers always seems to make for a potentially explosive conversation in America. We forget, however, that it is a growing issue in conversations in other countries and on an international scale, [3] demonstrating that the longing for some kind of democratic reform is making strong advances, shaking up the world, and particularly in the Arab-Muslim world as they deal with their own internal “Clash of Civilizations” between the younger and older autocratic generations, and between those who want to modernize and secularize, and those who do not. [4]

But the question that continues to surface during this revolutionary fervor is whose political values will emerge, and more importantly whose political ideals are we promoting when encouraging these countries toward freedom and democratic forms of government? When President Barack Obama speaks of championing “universal values,” what exactly is he saying, and what does that translate into in terms of policy in the Arab-Muslim Middle East? Are we intent on only going halfway in the mode of real politick which risks the hijacking of these movements by radical Islamists? Or do we insist on going all the way in an idealistic manner and guiding them to America’s universal ideal? Is there room for both approaches? This continues to be the pressing partisan question, and all one has to do is just listen to the language being used and look at the methods adopted to try to reform the world in order to make sense of what is going on.

In light of the massive unrest in the Arab-Muslim Middle East—which we extensively analyzed in Part One of this two-part article—concerns have been consistently raised by Arizona Senator John McCain and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, and others, about Mr. Obama’s seeming disavowal of America’s unique place in human history to lead the world into a state of freedom and democracy, and thus world peace. In civil-religious terms this “uniqueness” is otherwise known as American “exceptionalism,” the idea that America’s republican and democratic founding – with the values of constitutional checks and balances, capitalism, and civil and religious freedom – is the principal model for every nation in the world to embrace and formally adopt.

In his recent State of the Union Address, Mr. Obama tried to recover from the aftermath of the unpopular healthcare reform debate by consciously making an analogical reference to America’s “Sputnik moment” and the need to recapture our country’s spirit of “innovation” and “sacrifice.” He was quite successful in the exit polls,[5] but it has not slowed down the debate that has been growing among some international religious freedom policy experts over the observation that the phrases “freedom of worship” and “religious tolerance” had replaced “freedom of religion” in public speeches and formal pronouncements made by President Barack Obama and his administration.

To some this may seem like an unnecessary exercise in semantics, but it is a subject that represents a subtle but significant shift towards religious “tolerance,” away from the ideal of “freedom” – or somewhere in-between – as the national and international norm for religious freedom policy. In a broader sense, this exercise reveals the President’s emerging foreign policy – a policy that can otherwise be called the “Olive Branch Doctrine.”

Between Freedom and Tolerance – Parsing the Obama Doctrine

In an exclusive article in Christianity Today written by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, the chronology of this shift in language is precisely laid out:

1) At a November 2009 memorial service for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting perpetrated by Nidal Malik Hasan, “freedom of worship” language is initiated by President Obama in his remarks.
2) In December 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uses “freedom of worship” three times and “freedom of religion” not once in a speech at Georgetown University.
3) In a January 2010 speech to U.S. Senators, Hillary Clinton chooses to use “freedom of worship” four times and “freedom of religion” once.[6]

In stark contrast, “worshiped freely” was employed only once by Mr. Obama in his June 4, 2009 speech titled “A New Beginning” in Cairo, Egypt. It was his first major speech on U.S. foreign policy specifically involving religious freedom and a rarity for most presidents in terms of substance and depth on the subject. “Freedom of religion” and “religious freedom” were utilized generously throughout the speech. The word “religion,” when attached to varying uses of “freedom,” “tolerance,” “wars,” and “persecution,” were also used frequently.[7]

During the first full year of Mr. Obama’s presidency, this shift by the State Department was highlighted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its Annual April 2009 Report to Congress, the White House, and the State Department. They observed that “This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications.”[8]

Andy Laine, spokesperson for the State Department, disagrees with this assessment and observed that worship is merely one aspect of religion and insisted that nothing should be read into it. “The terms ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘freedom of worship’ have often been used interchangeably throughout U.S. history,” he argued, “and policymakers in this administration will sometimes do likewise.”[9] D. Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement also responded by saying that there were no policy implications being suggested by the Administration’s use of interchangeable terms.[10]

This casual use of religious freedom language is not unusual. Afterall, it was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who recently used these terms interchangeably, and in broad brush strokes freely equated “tolerance” and “religious tolerance” with “religious freedom” all throughout his speech on Governors Island in defense of the building of the Muslim Cultural Center near “Ground Zero.”[11]

One could legitimately argue that tolerance is, for international purposes, one step closer to the ideal of freedom and the only realistic approach toward achieving world peace in an increasing clash of civilizations environment. So to argue that this is a sudden shift in language, and thus a shift in international religious freedom policy may be to miss the point, which is there never was a shift to begin with—that the President had set out on this path all along as evidenced early in his presidency with his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt. The use of interchangeable language is meaningful if policy is affected in a significant way. And it appears that it has been.

Carl Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri and Faith-Based Initiatives expert in the Bush administration, argues that this interchangeable use of language signals a possible shift in foreign policy and is perhaps meant to diplomatically appease the sensibilities of Muslims, both at home and internationally. He says it is an effort to repair relations fractured by 9/11 and thus a mistaken approach that informs Islamic countries that the United States is not looking to interfere with their internal matters,[12] and in particular their record of upholding or not upholding the UN Charter on human rights and its covenants in which they are signatories.

Parallel concerns have been raised in regard to Obama’s and the State Department’s policy toward China, where human rights has apparently been soft peddled in a calculated exchange for cooperation on a wide range of shared national and international security interests, and in particular Iran’s and North Korea’s projected development of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, as Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a member of USCIRF, lucidly observes, “freedom of worship” connotes “tolerance,” not “religious freedom,” thus falling short of the U.S. constitutional and international human rights standards. She points out that what is not commonly understood by the American public is that “freedom of worship,” as a basis for interpreting policy, specifically “excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with co-religionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training.”[13]

Obama’s Interfaith Approach to Global Democratic Reform

Ms. Shea’s insight corresponds with the most remarkable section of President Obama’s “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, in which he appeared to equate religious freedom with tolerance when glowingly commenting about his experience as a boy in Indonesia. He said:

The fifth issue that we must address together is religious freedom. Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it’s being challenged in many different ways.[14]

Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo was aimed at the worldwide Muslim community in an attempt to provide an olive branch to them, and to make clear the distinction between violent Islamist extremists that exploited fellow Muslims and the West, and the vast majority of peaceful Muslims around the world. Yet it revived long running arguments between foreign policy experts regarding exactly how the U.S. Government and its Foreign Service apparatus should define and apply “religious freedom” terminology to countries who are in continual gross violation of the United Nation’s Charter on human rights.

To argue that this is a shift in language, and also an indicator of a subtle, if not major, foreign policy shift by the Obama administration and the State Department is debatable. But Obama repeated this theme during his speech in Jakarta last November,[15] referring to his stepfather’s Muslim identity as one that taught him as a child to recognize that “all religions were worthy of respect.” Obama said that “in this way” his stepfather “reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution,” and “symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples.” He said that this “remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.” In diplomatic speak, Obama said that the concept of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – unity in diversity,” where Indonesia “is steeped in spirituality – a place where people worship God in many different ways” – “is the foundation of Indonesia’s example to the world.” Addressing the leaders of the world’s largest Muslim nation, Obama emphatically declared that “America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.”[16]

Obama then emphasized the term “Pancasila,” which references Indonesia’s five national principles and the philosophical basis of its Constitution. These philosophical principles are: 1) “belief in the one and only God,” 2) “a just and civilized humanity,” 3) “the unity of Indonesia,” 4) “democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives,” and 5) “social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.”[17] These five principles are summarized by the one word principle of “inclusivity,” as opposed to “exclusivity.” Another way to describe this is the spirit of dynamic and functional pluralism.

Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, who is a prominent Indonesian intellectual and the leader of Muhammadiyah, a moderate but politically influential Islamic sect, points out that Pancasila is important to the people of Indonesia because it “eliminated the threat of an Islamic state once and forever.” He says, “Under the umbrella of Pancasila, all the religious minorities – Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucianists (together around 12% out of a population of 235 million) – have felt secure in their religion as an inseparable part of the Indonesian people.” The key ingredient for making Pancasila such a success is “peaceful coexistence” through the “waging of peace through interfaith dialogue and cooperation” among all the religions, including unbelievers and atheists, and among the various factions of Muslims who interpret the Quran differently.

But this is where interfaith dialogue and cooperation (i.e., peaceful “coexistence”) has severe limitations, because it stops at the door of religious tolerance where the marketplace of religious ideas is anything but competitive or freely available to those who would wish to convert. According to Professor Maarif, “The only condition required for this peaceful coexistence is that each party must have mutual respect and no hidden agenda to eliminate each other,” particularly through the act of proselytization or evangelization.[18]

Connected to the President’s interfaith, “freedom of worship” thinking is the near abandonment of the American exceptionalism approach to U.S. foreign policy.[19] In its most radical formulation, American exceptionalism, combined with its sense of national and global destiny, is the utopian and (at one time, millenarian) idea that the United States was ordained by God to democratize and Christianize the world for the sake of world peace.[20] According to liberal columnist Roger Cohen of The New York Times, this abandonment was manifested in the President’s recent declaration announcing the end of the Iraq war. He observed that it specifically lacked “the stuff of heroic American narrative, of shining citadels or beacons to mankind.” It appeared to be a deft effort aimed at not only avoiding offending the Middle East nations he seeks to make diplomatic progress with, but also slowly and diplomatically reversing the perceived in-your-face approach of the previous Administration. “What inhabits Obama is the conviction that the United States ‘is still the biggest power but not the decisive power,’” Cohen points out in quoting Jonathan Eyal, a British foreign policy analyst. In other words, instead of blunt unilateral approaches with a nationalist angst, Obama’s internationalist approach necessarily relies on an aggressive diplomatic policy of multilateral engagement and cooperation. As a result, Cohen observes that “Obama, subtly but persistently, is taking down American exceptionalism in the name of mutual interests and mutual respect, two favorite phrases.”[21]

If Mr. Obama is indeed carefully attempting to avoid imposing upon the world—and in particular the Islamic world—the American ideals of religious freedom and human rights, he is missing the point of the essential purpose of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Allen Hertzke, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, points out that “Because virtually all of the globe’s nations are signatories to the Universal Declaration and subsequent covenants, U.S. officials legitimately can claim that they are not attempting to impose ‘our values’ on the rest of the world. Rather, in implementing IRFA the United States is merely calling upon other nations to live up to covenants they have approved.”[22]

Interfaith Limitations

So the question begging to be asked regarding Mr. Obama’s speeches is if religious freedom is to be equated with tolerance, and the terms used interchangeably to mean the same thing (as many of us sometimes do), what message is being sent, if any, in regard to his vision and leadership when it comes to international religious freedom policy? In light of the revolutionary demand for democracy in the Arab-Muslim world, which direction is he going—the international consensus of religious tolerance, or the American democratic experience and ideal of religious freedom which is central to the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And is there a sense beyond the stereotypical Islam vs. Christianity scenario in which the proverbial “Clash of Civilizations” is at play here?

The “Clash of Civilizations” Factor

Samuel Huntington, the famed Harvard professor who wrote a 1993 path-breaking essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” summarized precisely the nature of the debate being discussed and uncannily predicted that a “clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.” Huntington wrote:

World politics is entering a new phase, in which the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of international conflict will be cultural. Civilizations—the highest cultural groupings of people—are differentiated from each other by religion, history, language and tradition. These divisions are deep and increasing in importance. From Yugoslavia to the Middle East to Central Asia, the fault lines of civilizations are the battle lines of the future. In this emerging era of cultural conflict the United States must forge alliances with similar cultures and spread its values wherever possible. With alien civilizations the West must be accommodating if possible, but confrontational if necessary. In the final analysis, however, all civilizations will have to learn to tolerate each other.[23]

What Huntington was unmistakably encouraging was international consensus as the only practical means toward achieving world peace. For our purposes, and the purposes of the Obama administration, this path toward tolerance and international consensus is the middle ground policy approach which lies between the great markers of America’s First Amendment ideal of religious freedom and equality under the law, and religious tolerance. The concern raised by USCIRF, Nina Shea, Thomas Farr and others is that this appears to be the new norm for international religious freedom policy and represents a direct outgrowth of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that Huntington so brilliantly depicted in his 1996 follow-up book to his 1993 groundbreaking essay.[24]

The concern is centered on this question: Does this middle ground approach represent a patient first-step means towards an identifiable and achievable end, or is it just running in place, accomplishing very little in the promotion and advancement of religious freedom around the world?

Religious Freedom in Reverse: Zero Evangelism

In the Islamic world, as the President made obvious in his Cairo and Jakarta speeches, Indonesia is now the oft touted model of religious tolerance and democratic advancement – and in a nation that has, by far, the largest Muslim population in the world, combining secular government, Pancasila and Sharia law. It is cited as the example of how democratization, modernization, and peaceful coexistence of nations with troubled human rights records can safely rejoin the world community. More specifically, this first step emergence is wrapped up in the international consensus of religious tolerance as the realistic policy ideal: the right to be tolerated, which means that one has the right to believe and worship but not the right to evangelize a person of another faith, and in particular those of the Muslim faith located in many of the global cultural regions described by Huntington. In a cultural sense, then, the terms “coexist” (as in “peaceful coexistence”) and “tolerance” are synonymous when used in the context of precluding the practice of active proselytization of another person of faith.

Yet here is exactly an example of the “clash” that Huntington identified. Indonesia’s so-called “model” does not square up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which recognizes the right to switch one’s religion and to convince others, without compulsion, to change theirs. Article 18 of the ICCPR reads: “Everyone shall have the right…to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

In October 2009, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, tried but failed to get the United Nations Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that would have barred the defamation of religions and removed free speech protections regarding religious questions affecting Article 18. In 2009 and 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom to state U.S. objections to this approach of interpreting and applying human rights standards, particularly in the area of supreme concern, that of religious freedom. She stated, “Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called ‘anti-defamation’ policies that would [actually] restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.” In the clearest language possible, she lambasted this regional “anti-defamation” trend by retorting, “I strongly disagree.” She went on to say that “The United States will always stand against discrimination and persecution,” and emphasized that “an individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech.”[25]

This concern was also strongly testified to by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the apostolic nuncio representing the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, before the UN General Assembly.[26] Leonard Leo, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal agency and the organization that established the annual report on religious freedom, did the same. Leo, however, called on President Barack Obama to do more than talk about religious freedom and instead called on him to put forward concrete policy actions.[27]

To the irony of many, Saudi Arabia became an emergent player in the discussion of human rights when under an agreement with UN leaders—which was initially prompted by Pope Benedict XVI during King Abdullah’s visit to the Vatican in 2007—it hosted the 2008 Faith Forum at the United Nations, with President George W. Bush present and applauding the King’s move. According to Liberty magazine, this was an attempt by King Abdullah to demonstrate to the western world, and to the world community at large, that Saudi Arabia was open to democratic reform and potentially toward full compliance with international human rights standards.[28]

However, what emerged from this was the opposite of what most every nation had hoped for. Instead, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, pushed hard for the UN Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that broadly barred the defamation of religion. The effort raised legitimate concerns that such resolutions could be used to justify crackdowns on free speech in Muslim countries.[29]

Obama’s goals are popular and realistic. But they also seem misguided. This is because there is a very fine line affecting all interfaith dialogue these days. It seems hardly coincidental that the unspoken rule of thumb most commonly associated with Interfaith groups in the United States, and elsewhere in democratic countries throughout the world, is centered around this commonly understood “freedom of worship” axiom: “Let’s live in peace and harmony, but do not dare, in the sharing of your deeply held faith—which we welcome and value—make appeals to convert to your faith.” Even among Protestants, it harkens back to the old seventeenth and eighteenth century Anglican taboo in the American colonies against “sheep stealing,” or proselytizing people of other faith expressions. Is this the international religious freedom policy being signaled, and if so, what is driving it? Adherence to either model for dialogue and peaceful co-existence is, in fact, a major step backwards and is just as subversive of religious freedom as strong arm tactics are by the religious right to coerce the state into doing its every demand.

Church-State Arguments

Thomas Farr argues that the current trend toward “freedom of worship” and “tolerance” as linguistic co-equals with “religious freedom” began at the very outset of Congress’ enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Thomas Farr, who served as the U.S. State Department’s first Director of the Office of International Freedom, and now serves as Visiting Associate Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, points out in World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security that there is a clear difference between the evangelical approach to questions involving religious freedom and policy, and the secularist approach – what he refers to as “the heart of liberal internationalists’ secularist views on religious freedom.”[30] The evangelical approach is one that values “religion as a human good to be nourished” by the international community and the U.S. in its international religious freedom policy. The secularist approach – which holds that religion “is more often a source of conflict to be managed via tolerance” – values U.S. constitutional standards for “separation,” as in “separation of church and state.”[31]

Farr is right in one sense. One needs to factor that the United States—dating back to its constitutional founding era—has historically made a concrete distinction between mere “tolerance” and “religious freedom.” Put another way, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom found in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment is not “tolerance,” or the right of mere toleration, as if to be tolerated or endured were a minimal benefit or favor rendered by government and thereby society. Rather, it is a state of religious equality under the law, with all the rights and benefits accorded to American citizens.

Under the U.N. Charter, or Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this right is an expectation placed on signatory nations by the international community of nations. However, it is not an international legal guarantee for individuals or institutions containing the same force of law found in the United States. Instead, the international community is given the power to place diplomatic and economic – even assigned military – pressure on non-compliant nations, with the latter a result of Security Council decisions.

Congress has given the U.S. State Department similar powers and employs a separate independent federal agency known as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to monitor and annually report back to Congress the human rights violations, and compliance progress, of signatory nations.

However, Farr appears to have this conclusive formula backwards. The bit about the separation of church and state is wrongheaded. This is because the interfaith approach of peaceful coexistence (as with evangelical ecumenical approaches) does not value the separation of church and state but instead nourishes strong religious dialogue and input in governmental affairs, even as a semi-controlling cultural influence as in Indonesia, and increasingly in Turkey. The only thing restraining the ruling Islamist party in Turkey, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the country’s highly secular army and court system, which are growing weaker by the day under Islamist cultural and religious pressures. Arguably, the largely secularist approach is more in keeping with “religion as a human good to be nourished.” This is because it is a natural fit to utilitarian and church-state separation paradigms as the U.S. Constitutional Founders intended.

Farr insists that the U.S. State Department does not grasp that most nations have a public faith that is culturally and religiously centered and must be approached with that understanding. It cannot be ignored, as it is now, he says, or failure will continue to abound in our country’s foreign policy goals of advancing true religious freedom around the world.[32] Farr’s emphasis on public faith readily dismisses separation of church and state standards as applied to international religious freedom policy because he believes it focuses “more on rhetorical denunciations of persecutors and releasing religious prisoners than on facilitating the political and cultural institutions necessary to religious freedom” in developing and noncompliant nations. Accordingly, he argues, U.S. policy has had minimal effect on global levels of persecution and even less on the institutions of religious freedom” in these countries. He cites as evidence that “U.S. international religious freedom policy has not been integrated into U.S. democracy programs, public diplomacy, counterterrorism, or multilateral diplomacy and international law.”[33] Discounting his flawed church-state separation arguments, he may be right in a comprehensive sense regarding constitutional institution building, because it appears that the Obama administration is scrambling, having no concrete plan to advocate and influence religious freedom on a level that includes in that definition the ability of other religions to freely proselytize in newly minted democratic outcomes in Arab-Muslim nations once the so-called democracy movements play themselves out in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Competing Legislative Visions

The seemingly placid difference between the Obama administration’s linguistic use of “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion” (loosely applied) actually represents a longstanding policy struggle between the U.S. State Department and USCIRF dating back to the Clinton administration and the State Department under the tutelage of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.[34]

In the 1990’s, activists on the right and left launched a movement to strike against worldwide religious persecution through the machinery of American foreign policy. When the legislative campaign for an International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) got underway in Congress in 1997, diverse evangelical groups joined with Jewish organizations, the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Conference, Tibetan Buddhists, and Iranian Bahai’s among many others in backing religious freedom legislation. Big business and the foreign policy establishment stood in opposition.

Two competing views emerged that formed around two well-established foreign policy approaches – “soft power” on the left, and “hard power” on the right. On the right were the originators of the House bill, Representative Frank Wolf and Senator Arlen Specter. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called their Freedom from Religious Persecution Act “one of the top priorities of this Republican Congress.”[35] Their approach was to name, shame, and sanction violating nations into submission. According to Allen Hertzke, advocates of this plan were determined to “expose, shame, and punish nations that violated the rights of religious believers.” Economic sanctions alone “reflected a lack of trust in routine diplomacy” to ensure compliance.[36] Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition, and Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America, sent millions of letters to supporters to pass this Act. This was the Evangelical Right’s point of view, a view sympathetically shared by Thomas Farr.

However, after significant opposition arose against the Wolf-Specter bill from the National Council of Churches, a competing bill arose that was sponsored by Senators Don Nickles and Lieberman, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Emphasizing quiet diplomacy instead, their bill focused on 1) the broad promotion of religious freedom; 2) creation of a new State Department Office on International Religious Freedom; and 3) an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country around the globe. The competing legislative interests ultimately found a compromise by establishing—to the delight of the Wolf-Specter caucus—an independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.[37]

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Officially speaking, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission whose commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and House of Representatives. Its principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress on an annual basis or as needed.

USCIRF is a separate agency from the U.S. State Department. The State Department typically has an assigned U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom appointed by the President, and works under the Department’s Director of the Office of International Freedom. After two years the President still has yet to appoint anyone for this important job.[38]

This set in motion competing annual reports. In time, implementation strategies of the International Religious Freedom Act by the two entities varied significantly with the two agencies currently at “loggerheads,” which, Hertzke explains, is the reason for the little progress made. The last two Ambassadors-at-Large for international religious freedom, Robert Seiple and John Hanford, complained that the actions of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) “potentially undermined the achievements of delicate negotiations with foreign officials.” Recommending swift economic sanctions too soon on countries that did not comply with Article 18 and other covenants mandated by the UN Charter and the UN Human Rights Council is not an approach the State Department has been willing to accept as standard policy.

Until the advent of the Bush Administration, the U.S. State Department’s traditional tendency, beginning with the Clinton administration, was the use of the sensitized “go slow” diplomatic and interfaith engagement policy efforts of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for international Religious Freedom, which is the approach that Senator Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—and consequently Hillary Clinton—champion today.[39]

This “go slow” approach emphasizes that the use of quiet diplomacy—with the invitation and allure of economic advancement, trade, and wealth—are the proverbial keys that will unlock the doors of many nations to accept further reform, including democratic reform. Rather optimistically, they claim that in turn it will gradually lead to civil and religious freedom and thus to the right of all religions to compete in an open marketplace of ideas, allowing each to freely proselytize those who are undecided, as well as one another.

Soft Power & Hard Power

Some refer to this as the “soft-power” approach to foreign policy. The founder of this approach is Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. “Soft power,” he observes, “lies in the ability to attract and persuade.” “Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”[40] This is, without a doubt, the chosen and preferred approach of Barack Obama and his administration. (For example, instead of Islamist terrorists, they are now defined as mere criminals who are out of the mainstream of the vast majority of moderate Muslims. There is some truth to this distinction, but, for the sake of holding out the “olive branch” of reconciliation, democratic advancement, and international peace for Muslim peoples and nations worldwide, it intentionally ignores the fact that Islamist terrorists are just that—foreign enemy soldiers of war.)

This “soft power” approach is best illustrated by Robert Seiple, who served under Madeleine Albright as the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department during President Clinton’s Administration. Seiple recalls that in 1998, just shortly after the Congressional passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), he called the Ambassador from the country of Laos into his office to talk about his country’s terrible human rights record, and particularly in regard to religious freedom violations. He said that “I felt it necessary to point out the requirements of our newly minted International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the obligation the U.S. was putting on countries who were suppressing religious freedom, and the potential punishments that could be applied to a country if positive progress was not made.” Parenthetically, “The issue of punishment seemed to frighten and confuse” the Laotian Ambassador, prompting the man representing Laos to ask, “Why would this great country [the United States] want to punish such a poor little country like Laos?” Seiple said he remembers thinking to himself, “Because we can!” But, he said, “it also produced a quiet rebuke as well” when Seiple understood the sheer frustration that the country of Laos was going through in the aftermath of the Vietnam war – unexploded ordinances as a result of more bombs having been dropped on Laos than any other country in history, a 70 percent illiteracy rate, and 40 percent unemployment.[41]

Seiple said, “Against that difficult context, the United States was asking the Laotian government to forgo their own agenda for their country, adopt ours, and make religious freedom their top priority,” and all for the sake of “demonstrating positive progress before the next annual State Department report.”Many years later, Mr. Seiple concluded that he had learned three important things: 1) “’punishment’ as a methodology has had a checkered career at best…and rarely moves the human rights needle;” 2) “’promotion’ of religious freedom has generated greater success, especially when this methodology is linked with vested self-interest” (i.e., national interest); and 3) “a collaborative effort combining public and private intervention…if progress is to be sustainable.”[42]

Seiple’s testament of how to, and how not to, advance religious freedom, or one’s faith, around the world is suggestive of a soft—“meet them where they are at,” even half or third of the way—approach that has become part and parcel the basis of President Obama’s “Olive Branch” or “Consensus Doctrine” for advancing democratic reform throughout the world, particularly in Arab-Muslim countries. It appears to be an attempt to emphasize upon the international community that the United States is turning a new leaf, so to speak, in an attempt to reshape its image into a benevolent one in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, and the ongoing one in Afghanistan. The thinking is that the U.S. would accomplish far more than through the sheer threat of force, or “punishment,” for non-complying nations. This “soft power” approach is also being emphasized by outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.[43]

The Future of International Religious Freedom

If this “go slow”-“soft power”-“interfaith” approach to foreign policy is indeed connected to a sudden shift away from “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship” and mere religious “tolerance” language, as in Obama’s Cairo speech emphasis, it sheds light on a long running debate between those influenced by the interfaith left and the idealistic evangelical right. Both influences and approaches – the religious and political left and the religious and political right were largely attached to the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively during the Congressional debates over the passing of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998.

It is interesting to note that the National Council of Churches’ opposition to the initial Freedom from Religious Persecution Act in 1997 represented an interfaith, consensus-like, response. This is because they believed that it overemphasized Christian persecution at the expense of Jews and Muslims. Their Special Counsel at the time, Oliver Thomas, stated: “God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves compels us to seek religious freedom for all—not just our brothers and sisters in Christ.”[44] They argued that to use U.S. foreign policy as a tool to force open the door for the propagation of Christianity in the perpetually un-entered geographical regions represented by the “10-40” parallel “window” of nations—the Middle East, North Africa, the Central Caucus region and the entire India-Asian realm of countries—then this was a militancy they could not endorse. If it did not promote religious pluralism, the foundational democratic nation-building principle of church-state separation, and thus true religious freedom in their thinking, then it was not a bill they could support.

Despite Congress’ bipartisan compromise in successfully passing the International Religious Freedom Act—and depending on which Party occupies the White House during any given presidential term—the partisan split between the U.S. State Department and USCIRF continues to be an outgrowth of the two competing visions of the bill’s intended purpose and affect. This partly explains the political sparring that has existed ever since the Acts passage in 1998, and why USCIRF would make such a fine distinction about the use of terminology in their annual report, however justified they might be.

The left, led by President Obama, appears to be content with Samuel Huntington’s stated “soft power,” consensus, interfaith, and diplomatic love-fest approach to the Clash of Civilizations. Ever since Barack Obama began his bid for the presidency in 2007, he has, as former President Jimmy Carter before him, evoked a sense of interfaith ecumenism as a vitally necessary element of foreign policy in the path toward world peace and coexistence. But as demonstrated in this article series, this approach—as revealed in Obama’s Cairo and Jakarta speeches—is blind to the UN’s Article 18 human rights standard that signatory nations must allow for its citizens to evangelize and/or convert to another faith. Ignoring this factor is to weaken, not strengthen religious freedom standards as we know them. We are not talking about a U.S. standard here, but a Universal standard. That is why when Mr. Obama speaks of “universal values,” one must ponder what he is really saying. Carl Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri, and a religious freedom expert, is of the belief that Obama’s ambiguous and overly optimistic diplomatic approach is risky because many other countries may possibly see this is as a signal that America is retreating from “championing a robust, expansive view of religious freedom, which if true would be a loss,” and perhaps just as dangerous as the perspective pushed by the right.[45]

The right wants a world shaped almost entirely of America’s constitutional values—i.e., constitutional checks and balances, separation of powers, and civil and religious freedom—the ideal model that should be followed by the international community in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one which they are sometimes more than willing to exact in a decisive, heavy-handed manner. It was Senator John McCain during the presidential campaign of 2008 that toyed with the idea of a League of Democracies—a league of democratic nations that would supersede the U.N.’s Security Council when it came to implementing economic sanctions and using military force, if necessary, on non-complying rogue nations. Other politically conservative proponents—particularly those from the Tea Party—argue that this approach would be the most formidable and effective method of peacefully pressuring rogue and developing nations to adopt democratic reforms and put religious freedom on the fast track in cooperation with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).[46]

The truth is, this long running debate has serious long term international consequences and specifically involves the U.S. Government’s international religious freedom policy toward all other nation states, and in particular its interactions with the Muslim world. This debate has occurred over a thirteen year stretch at the highest levels of our country’s foreign policy establishment, namely the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and has largely been relegated to academic circles, receiving scant attention and hidden from public view.

What is perhaps the most untold story in this debate is how Obama’s interfaith card will finally play out in minds and hearts around the world. Hillary Clinton’s annual 2009 State Department report on human rights and international religious freedom was notable for highlighting interfaith efforts by Jordan and the Vatican in bringing Christians and Muslims together for dialogue, a goal President Obama has pressed for in his international speeches.[47] In Jakarta, Indonesia, last November, Anthony Deutsch of Financial Times eloquently captured this sentiment by noting that “when Mr. Obama discussed religious harmony with the grand imam, Ali Mustafa Yaqub, Mr. Yaqub told Mr. Obama that he could play an important role in world peace, to which the president replied: ‘Inshallah,’ or ‘god willing.’” This all took place amid the giant Istiqlal mosque, which stands across the street from a Catholic cathedral[48]

Is it possible that East and West will come together and shock the world? With the interminable political and religious turmoil and natural catastrophes taking place at such a rampant pace, it would not be surprising to see the international community, led by the United States and a resurgent United Nations, come together—not so much out of true love and unity, but—in a desperate manner to try to save the world. We must remember that desperate times will demand desperate means and measures.

Regardless of how one interprets today’s unfolding events, one thing is clear: the Arab-Muslim world is erupting in ways that is influencing a subtle but permanent shift away from the American and Western world’s emphasis on religious freedom and human rights, and backward towards religious tolerance, which is anything but representative of the gold standard for building solid democratic republics. One could legitimately argue that we are either seeing a ratcheting up of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis which, paradoxically calls for cultural and religious consensus—i.e., “peaceful coexistence,” an Eastern form of forced uniformity—if we are to achieve world peace. Or we are seeing the Western world retreating backwards, away from America’s exceptional constitutional ideal of religious freedom and human rights—ideals which are propelled and wholly sustained by the historically proven principle of church-state separation (with intolerance and persecution close behind). Which is it? The irony is that it is a whole lot of both, where both find common negative ground.

In conclusion, President Obama’s middle-ground approach to the credible and well-established “Clash of Civilizations” theme – when formulating international religious freedom policy – is best understood when placed on a scale between tolerance and international consensus (an interfaith, “soft-power” approach), and America’s constitutional ideal of religious freedom and human rights (an Evangelical and “exacting” approach). Yet both policy methods delimit religious freedom, threatening it altogether.

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). NRLA is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, judicial, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Read also: Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine (PART I): Religion & the Path of Democratic Reform in the Arab-Muslim World

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Fishback, Monticello, Sept. 27, 1809. Dickinson W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, second series (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983): 343-45.
[2] See Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle, 1776 to Present (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). Even before James Madison, it was Alexander Hamilton who first called for a federal convention in Annapolis, Maryland, and then Philadelphia, to write a more comprehensive Constitution. This was to establish a strong central government far more efficient than the Continental Congress with its Articles of Federation. However, one of his primary motivators was to develop a strong navy fleet in order to protect its merchant shipping interests, and the interests of European nations in the Mediterranean against the rampant pirating of it ships by Muslim pirates in Tunisia and Algiers. The Constitutional Founders had every reason to believe that their merchant ships were being re-equipped for naval war purposes by these radical Muslim communities, and possibly to attack the newly formed United States. U.S. foreign policy had this “clash of civilizations” beginning at the very outset of our country’s history.
[3] See Scott M. Thomas, “A Globalized God: Religion’s Growing Influence in International Politics,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010.
[4] For a rich discussion on the competitive nature of political power in the Middle East, with its mostly Muslim citizens, I highly recommend Lee Smith’s work, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
[5] A CBS exit poll showed a 92% approval rating for President Barack Obama’s January 25, 2011 State of the Union Address to Congress and the nation. But CBS admitted that the exit poll respondents were mostly Democrats: http://mobile.associatedcontent.com/article/7676474/president_obamas_state_of_the_union.html
[6] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries: New religious freedom rhetoric within the Obama administration draws concern,” Christianity Today 22 July 2010.
[7] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, (speech transcript) “Remarks by the President on ‘A New Beginning,’” Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt: 4 June 2009.
[8] Retrieve the 382-page report at http://www.uscirf.gov. It was released on April 29, 2010.
[9] Quoted in Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries.”
[10] Phone conversation between Liberty magazine editor Lincoln Steed and D. Paul Monteiro, July 27, 2010.
[11] Go to the section “Office of the Mayor” at http://www.nyc.gov, or call the Mayor’s media contact, Stu Loeser at (212) 788-2958 to request a transcript of the speech.
[12] Quoted in Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries.”
[13] Quoted in Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries.”
[14] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, (speech transcript), “Remarks by the President on ‘A New Beginning,'” Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009.
[15] See Norimitsu Onishi, “In Jakarta Speech, Some Hear Cairo Redux,” The New York Times, November 10, 2010.
[16] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, (speech transcript), “Remarks by the President at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia”: 10 November 2010.
[17] See Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, “Pancasila: The Coexistence of Religions in Indonesia,” in Religious Pluralism: Modern Concepts for Interfaith Dialogue, Studies & Comments 12, edited by Richard Asbeck (Munich, Germany: Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, e.V., 2010): 31.
[18] Ibid, 32.
[19] See Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
[20] See Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World, from it’s Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006).
[21] Richard Cohen, “Obama’s Post-Iraq World,” The New York Times 3 September 2010.
[22] Allen D. Hertzke, “International Religious Freedom Policy: Taking Stock,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Summer 2008: 18.
[23] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, Vol. 2, No. 73: iii, 21, 22-49. This is found in the contents section where Huntington introduces and summarizes his essay.
[24] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
[25] “Clinton lambastes global ‘anti-defamation’ trend,” Agence France-Presse (AFP), Oct. 29, 2009. In her only other public policy speech fully touching on religious freedom, given before a packed audience in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the International Religious Liberty Association, then Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, demonstrated that she is committed to upholding religious freedom as not only America’s First Freedom, but also the international community’s First Freedom. This speech can be found by searching Adventist News Network online.
[26] “Christians most numerous victims of religious freedom violations, archbishop tells UN,” Catholic News Agency (CAN), Oct. 28, 2009.
[27] Testimony of Leonard A. Leo Before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) on Implications of the Promotion of ‘Defamation of Religions,” October 21, 2009. Published by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, October 21, 2009.
[28] See Jules Ribot, “Faith as Politics: A United Nations Faith Forum,” Liberty, May/June 2009.
[29] William Wan, “Clinton speaks against anti-defamation laws,” The Washington Post, October 27, 2009.
[30] Thomas S. Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 129.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Thomas F. Farr, World of Faith and Freedom.
[33] Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover, The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration (Sponsors: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs at Georgetown University; and the Center on Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement, 2009): 1.
[34] See Madeleine Albright, The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: HarperCollings Publishers, 2006).
[35] “GOP Leaders Back Wolf-Specter Bill,” Christianity Today, October 27, 1997.
[36] Hertzke, “International Religious Freedom Policy: Taking Stock,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Summer 2008: 19, 20.
[37] Ibid., 20
[38] See Will Inboden, “Why Obama needs a religious freedom ambassador,” Foreign Policy, May 14, 2010.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004): book jacket. See also The Powers to Lead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) by the same author.
[41] Robert A. Seiple, “Methodology, Metrics, and Moral Imperatives in Religious Freedom Diplomacy,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Summer 2008: 53.
[42] Ibid. See also Robert A. Seiple, “From Bible Bombardment to Incarnational Evangelism: A Reflection on Christian Witness and Persecution,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Spring 2009: 29-37. Here Seiple cites the example 30 Filipino Christians who traveled to Saudi Arabia to claim Saudi Arabia for Christ by the year 2000 by smuggling 20,000 Bibles into the country. When time began to run out on their visitation rights, they still had hundreds of Bibles, wherein they proceeded to walk down streets and toss Bibles over the walls, literally hitting unsuspecting Muslims on the head. They were arrested by Saudi Arabia’s religious police. Seiple was designated to rescue them. This example speaks for itself when addressing the complex intersection between evangelism and persecution.
[43] See Thom Shanker, “Gates Warns Against Wars Like Iraq and Afghanistan,” The New York Times, February 25, 2011; and David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker, “Gates Warns of Risks of a No-Flight Zone,” The New York Times, March 2, 2011, where Gates urged caution against taking any military action in Libya in which a third theater of war would be entered into. See also Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009; and “Helping Others Defend Themselves: The Future of U.S. Security Assistance,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010, where he strongly advocates the use of Joseph Nye’s principle of “soft power.”
[44] “GOP Leaders Back Wolf-Specter Bill,” Christianity Today, October 27, 1997.
[45] Quoted in Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries.”
[46] See Walter Russell Mead, “The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalism,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011: 41-44.
[47] William Wan, “Clinton speaks against anti-defamation laws: Islamic countries seek to restrict freedom to criticize religions,” The Washington Post 27 October 2009.
[48] Anthony Deutsche, “Obama seeks to repair ties with moderate Islam,” Financial Times, November 10, 2010.

Read also: Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine (PART I): Religion & the Path of Democratic Reform in the Arab-Muslim World

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.