Nov 4, 2010
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Freedom of Religion and US Foreign Policy

Recently on reading current literature on the role of religious freedom in promotion of democracy, I’ve come across a good number of  interesting if fiercely contrary arguments on the subject .  Certainly religious freedom has always been a critical issue in American interpretations of democracy, but until the tail-end of the 20th century the issue arguably served a relatively minor role in US foreign policy.  Since we entered fully into the field of democracy building however, the subject of religious freedom has been raised time and time again though no consensus has yet been reached.

On one hand it is argued that religious freedom is a minor issue in the shadow of political, social and economic freedoms; while on the other it has increasingly been promoted as a foundation for functioning society.  These arguments can be found in the halls of academia, on fabled “American main street” and even among our policy-makers, and in all three areas both sides are well represented.   However we may feel about the issue, since the passing of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 for better or worse religious freedom has existed as a portion of United States foreign policy.

Given that promotion of religious freedom isn’t going away I think most would agree that this is an issue to handle with care.  In light of recent pushes against the growth of democracy and the difficulties now faced by NGOs abroad it must be of utmost importance to take care in the potential politicization of religion.  In promoting religious freedom we must be careful not to leave religious communities marked with the same type of “westerner” stigma that currently plagues NGOs. Though often we have an approach of rushing in and dealing with problems as they arise I think a few questions must be asked before we commit too deeply to any particular path to developing religious freedom.

  • What link if any exists between religious freedom, freedom of expression and democratic growth?
  • How should US articulate its policy in the area?
  • Should the US government address issues of religious freedom purely through public channels?
  • Can private actors and NGOs safely play a role in the development of religious freedom?


  • Your first question is a good one. I have always been uncomfortable with this policy. Other than advocating for freedom of religion, what more should the government do? Do we run programs to strengthen religious institutions? Pressure governments to allow religious pluralism? Sanction China and Saudi Arabia?

  • Those are good questions Barak and honestly I don’t think anyone knows the answers. There are pretty powerful arguments on both sides of the aisle but at least from “public diplomacy” or rhetoric it seems the current administration is leaning toward promoting freedom of worship rather than the broader freedom of religion. I think this is more than just a subtle change of language, but I could be wrong.

  • I think it’s best to break it down to the basics: what is the dependent variable? What is the outcome we are seeking to affect?

  • Barak, while I agree with Imara on the importance of the four questions she raises at the end of her post, I have to disagree with the spirit of your last comment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the way I read it, you’re asking what end religious freedom would serve. Religious freedom, to my mind, is an end unto itself.

    Or, I’ve totally misread you, in which case, I please clarify further.

  • Andrew,

    Sure, it’s easy enough to say that the US should encourage religious freedom, but that does not easily translate into policy. Does it mean the US should encourage all countries to develop secular legal systems? Should it encourage Israel to no longer consider itself a Jewish State? I agree with the idea of religious freedom. My point is to ask what types of policies flow from this premise.

    Also (small point): Imara’s a he.

  • While ideally I agree with Andrew regarding the nature of religious freedom (like all freedoms) being an end unto itself, this isn’t the approach being taken by policymakers. Primarily when religious freedom is discussed these days its through the lens of security concerns, national stability and economics.

  • In what sense, Imara? Can you elaborate on this point?

  • The shift in political tone is tied to the the issues some had with the religious overtones of our last president (though they weren’t much stronger than many in the past honestly). The subject of religious freedom like the subject of democracy promotion has shifted from arguments based purely on the “greater good” and humanitarian action to the more nationally self-interested buzzwords of economics, security, stability. Religion (specifically in the Middle East) has been dragged into the arena of national security based on the idea that support of religious freedom and pluralism will lead to increased tolerance and eventually more stable, less hostile states.

    I’m sure I’ll delve more into this subject in the future, I’ve thought it was an interesting one for a while now.

  • I don’t know about this, Imara. The Middle East is where the US has talked the most about political reform and achieved the least. Outside of Iraq there has been no political reform in the Middle East over the past decade. I don’t see anything but talk from Washington about the need for religious tolerance in the Middle East

  • Barak,

    your last comment puzzels me. How has there been no political reform in the Middle East over the past decade?
    Morocco, where the opposition assumed power, albiet limited; Bahrain, where steps to include Shi’a has created a parliament, albiet with limited powers; Saudi Arabia, where elections took place for the first time for a Shura council; Egypr, Presidential elections for the first time; Kuwait, women elected to Parliament for the first time.

    While all of these are not perfect steps, but they are steps nonetheless.

    Reading your comment you gave me the feeling of a staganent Middle East that has not witnessed any changes.

  • As to the original questions posed by Imara,

    I think the role that religious freedom has played in American Foreign Policy is more historically rooted than we think.
    Take a look at policies directed towards Switzerland and Romania concerning Anti Semitism in the 18th century as an example.

    Robert Kagan’s book “Dangerous Nation” gives some insights on the matter as well as works by Imboden and Tom Farr.

    For the question of the link between Democracy and Religious Freedom, the work of Stepan on the Twin Tolerations is of great importance.

  • Sam,

    I’ve read much of the material you mentioned, and I’m currently studying under Tom Farr at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Certainly religion has played some role in US Foreign Policy historically, but I think that specifically on the subject of religion scholars often err on the side of searching for material to support preconceived beliefs. The intersection of religion and governance has always been an interest of mine, but the more I study the subject the more I find that it seems significantly more polarized than even the rest of the social sciences (which is saying quite a bit). One of the differences between our policies of the 18th century and now is the level of involvement and influence the nation has on a global scale. Still you have a point and I certainly wasn’t trying to say the US wasn’t a nation influenced and shaped by religious belief.

  • Sam, you certainly know the Middle East better than I do, so if you think the changes we have seen over the past decade a legitimate reforms, I believe you. I have to say that Dan Brumberg and Steve Hydemann’s work on upgrading authoritarianism sounds right to me, but perhaps you think they are too pessimistic.

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