The United States' 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports -- one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters -- one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress --- have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated that the freedom to practice religion, a founding tenet of the United States, become a foreign-policy priority. Since then, presidents have spoken out against religious persecution in places such as China and Afghanistan. They have extolled the value of religious freedom to individuals and societies. But the promotion of international religious freedom has rarely been more than a talking point. Presidents and diplomats have failed to integrate the issue fully into U.S. foreign policy, ignoring its potential contribution to world peace and vital U.S. interests.
Too often, Washington has focused on specific cases of persecution, rather than the support of political and social institutions that can yield more widespread religious liberty in other countries. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries that severely restrict religious liberty, banning certain forms of religious expression and public worship and persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of religion.
There are two main reasons why the United States ought to do more to promote religious freedom abroad -- one moral, one practical. First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas.
Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable. Pew Forum sociologist Brian Grim has found that religious liberty means less religious persecution and thus less conflict. Religious freedom is a constituent part of what he calls a "bundled commodity" of human freedoms (along with things like a free press and equal rights for women). With this "bundled commodity," countries tend to be secure, democratic, socioeconomically stable, and less violent.