Promoting religious freedom is a vital component of diplomacy that has been forgotten in recent years.
In First Things magazine, Thomas Farr notes the importance of religious freedom in our efforts abroad. “Religious freedom plays a necessary role in the consolidation of democracy, in economic development, and in social harmony,” he says. Religious freedom leads to respect for dissenting views of all kinds, allowing a freer exchange of ideas and a more peaceful transition of power.
Yet Farr argues that religious freedom has barely been incorporated into international discussions due to the current administration’s lack of conviction. Though the procedures have been in place since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998, the actual execution has been weak. Diplomats are not trained in the importance of religious freedom, and there is no comprehensive foreign policy to advance the goals set out in the law.
Giving minor lip-service to religious freedom may fool some, but it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of change in foreign nations. Additionally, religious freedom must be advocated for people of all religions. It is an inherent right, not a political tool.
“The current administration fears that it will alienate Muslim populations if it is seen to protect Christians. In fact, to be consistent with our values, the United States must support religious freedom for everyone, not just Christians,” Baylor University President Ken Starr wrote in a column in the Dallas Morning News.
Starr will participate in an international conference this week in Rome, Italy. The conference will focus on the importance of Christianity and its contribution to religious freedom, and is organized by Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project and co-sponsored by Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
Starr agreed in an interview that the current administration could do more to promote religious freedom. “One of the purposes of the conference in Rome is to establish this simple proposition: ‘Christianity has been a friend of religious freedom in the world.'” Though he acknowledges there have been “sad chapters” of departures from this proposition, he argues that Christianity “encourages human dignity, including the freedom of each man, woman, and child.”
Promoting religious freedom in foreign nations would be a major step toward creating stability and allowing social capital to flourish.
How does Starr respond to those who are worried that religious beliefs will be forced upon them?
“Religious freedom emphasizes the ability of each person to exercise his or her own conscience to the fullest extent practical, so Christianity’s message would be ‘the baseline is liberty.’ To depart from the baseline should require a justification,” he says.
Farr and Starr share a view that religious freedom is one of the first principles of our founding, referenced by speeches of James Madison and George Washington. Noted author Os Guinness echoes this view when he embraces the idea of a “global public square,” in which freedom of religion is not simply a private, individual matter. Encouraging religious freedom in all public areas will allow deeper and more respectful debates on international issues that are currently dominated by extremist viewpoints.
It’s a message that we would do well to remember in our diplomacy strategy going forward.