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On Monday, I argued that the State Department’s new office of religious engagement signifies a diplomatic turning away from exclusive preoccupation with other countries’ failure to guarantee religious liberty. On Wednesday, it became clear that the heads of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) see it this way too.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Robert George and Katrina Swett defend the USCIRF’s raison d’être by criticizing Democratic and Republican administrations alike for not doing all the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act allows by way of sanctioning countries that do not do right by religious freedom.

The push-back to the State Department engagement initiative begins obliquely:

To be sure, the Obama administration has taken some positive steps. It created a State Department working group on religion and foreign policy and this month established a new faith-based office, both tasked with religious engagement.

Also this month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. As our commission has recommended, promoting religious freedom is among the three key objectives of this engagement.

That last sentence is actually a bit of a stretch. The second of the three objectives goes like this:

2. Advance pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Building on current initiatives, the Administration will increase efforts to engage a diverse spectrum of religious leaders on the advancement of universal human rights, promoting core U.S. values like respect for the human rights of members of minority and marginalized groups, pluralism, tolerance, and sensitivity to and respect for the beliefs and traditions of others.

The op-ed’s next paragraph gives the game away.

Engagement should be part of any strategy for the promotion of religious freedom. But what will move gross offenders to stop persecuting individuals if not the credible threat of consequences? By letting the process of designating offenders atrophy, the United States surrenders its leverage while creating a chilling precedent for other rights. If this process is allowed to wither, what will happen to similarly designed programs such as the tiered system of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which was modeled on this approach?

Wait a minute. If the State Department’s new office has religious freedom as a key objective, wherefore the talk of atrophy and wither? Obviously, the USCIRF leaders fear that engagement, State Department style, and the promotion of religious freedom, USCIRF style, will be at odds.

And finally this:

The process of designating countries of particular concern works when deployed as intended — that is, not as a single bludgeon but as a targeted tool. When diplomacy is combined with the prospect or reality of such designations and attendant sanctions or other specific diplomatic and related actions, repressive governments — including Vietnam and Turkmenistan – have made meaningful changes. Moreover, countries often consider such a designation a stigma and blow to their world standing. Because a designation of concern is rightly perceived as an important factor in a country’s relationships with the United States, it can create political will for reform where none otherwise would exist.

While I’m not sure I grasp the distinction between a single bludgeon and a targeted tool, the drift of the argument is clear enough: If there’s some credible threat of sanctions or at least some, ah, engagement by the U.S. Government, then there may be positive results. And just being called a bad actor may cause some countries to clean up their acts.

Not everyone would agree that Vietnam and Turkmenistan, which earned a bit of credit with the State Department in the middle of the last decade, are sufficient to justify the regime laid out in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the stigmatizing of countries through a “designation of concern” can also also create political will to give the U.S. the finger.

In any event, it will be interesting to see if Sec. Kerry’s “two-way street” proves more effectual than IRFA’s one-way alley.

Categories: Beliefs

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

3 Comments

  1. This is the same Robert George who heads all the catholic anti-gay marriage think tanks, including NOM, in the US. He was a sop appointment by John Boehner to the religious right. He believes in religious freedom for his brand of conservative christianity only. In fact, he thinks other countries that pass gay rights laws are actually anti-religious freedom – think about that for a moment. Notice we have not heard a thing about Russia’s crack down on gay rights from this so-called commission but George is probably drooling that he can’t get such laws passed here.

    • In addition, George is on the Young America’s Foundation speakers list. See him speaking to youth on the ChristianPost web site. In that role, he teaches youth to spread the lie that GLBTI rights are “anti-christian,” as if GLBTI people aren’t allowed to be religious. To me, the promulgation of the disinformation that disfavored people can’t practice religion, that they are “anti-relgion,” is the worst type of manipulation of information imaginable. How can George care about religious liberty abroad, when he limits it at home?

      The USCIRF also has Zhudi Jassar on its board. Jassar runs an anti-Muslim outfit that is connected to the hate group Public Advocate.

      I don’t know where Katrina Lantos Swett falls in all this, but will say that as a second generation survivor of the Holocaust, she should know the purpose of the dehumanizing propaganda produced by George and Jassar and she should say enough! Instead, she collaborates with them. The USCIRF is a tool constructed by Congressman Frank Wolf and the late Chuck Colson and it should be defunded.

  2. Also, IRFA’s committee really has nothing to do with religious freedom abroad and everything to do with domestic US politics. Congress created it mainly to attack the State Department from the right and it has always functioned more as an interference with the executive’s ability to formulate foreign policy than anything constructive. This was all by design….

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