Saturday, October 25, 2008

Religious Freedom: Origin of a Movement

Photo of Allen Hertzke featured in the Q+A session

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a great Q+A that describes some of the history of the U.S. approach to promoting religious freedom as part of its foreign policy:

A decade ago, you were an eyewitness to the meetings that led to the crafting and promotion of the International Religious Freedom Act. What spurred your involvement in the issue?

I like to say that I stumbled onto the ground floor of an emerging social movement. A decade before the legislative campaign for the act began, I published a book, Representing God in Washington (1988), on religious lobbies. So I was pretty familiar with the religious scene in Washington, D.C., and the various alliances and divisions. In 1998, I was asked to present a paper in Washington at a conference that dealt with the issue of international persecution of Christians and the emerging movement to focus American foreign policy on their plight.

As it turned out, many of the activists in this new movement were at the conference. Because I expressed some knowledge of the situation, these activists basically suggested that I become the scribe of the movement. They opened their files to me, allowed me to sit in on strategy meetings and conduct interviews with them, and provided access to other activists.

Did you set out to write a book about the movement?

At the time, I thought the legislative campaign might make an interesting article. I had no idea that the movement would have legs, or that it would become one of the most important human rights movements since the end of the anti-apartheid struggle. Indeed, the campaign for religious freedom actually sparked a much broader human rights quest within American foreign policy.

In your 2004 book, Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, you wrote that the International Religious Freedom Act "is one of the most sweeping human rights statutes on the books and the only one of its kind in the world." What makes this bill unique?

Because of this legislation, the promotion of religious freedom is a core objective of American foreign policy. There is no other country on earth that you can say that about - a major purpose of America's global leadership is, in fact, promoting religious freedom and fighting persecution.

The legislation is sweeping because it created a new infrastructure in American foreign policy. This includes a new State Department office and an ambassador-at-large position devoted exclusively to promoting international religious freedom and raising awareness of the plight of religious minorities around the world.

Can you elaborate on what the International Religious Freedom Act mandated?

The legislation tries to expose the problem of violations of religious freedom and then prescribe some actions by the American government to address them. The bill mandated that the State Department produce an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world. It then charged the ambassador with recommending diplomatic actions in response to the findings of that report. There are a whole set of calibrated actions ranging from a personal demarche, which is just a statement from a diplomat to another diplomat, to economic sanctions against a country that egregiously violates religious freedom.

The president is required to take some action against countries that practice severe religious persecution, and he must publicly state what that action is. If the president determines that there's a reason to waive that sanction, he can do so, but he has to do so publicly.

In addition, the legislation created a blue-ribbon commission on international religious freedom that is independent of the State Department. The commission's job is to act as a watchdog of the State Department. It gathers its own information, conducts hearings, travels to foreign countries, critiques State Department reports and puts out its own reports. In a sense, the commission tries to keep the State Department honest, and to say tough things about our trading partners, allies or countries of strategic importance to the U.S. (Read the whole thing here)

The freedom to believe is one of the most pressing concerns facing the people's of the world in the 21st century. That people of good will from diverse backgrounds had the courage to come together to defend this right during the 20th century is inspiring. Much remains to be done. Let freedom ring for people of faith everywhere on this planet. Let it ring now.

"The activity most intimately linked to the consciousness that distinguishes human nature is the individual's exploration of reality for himself or herself. The freedom to investigate the purpose of existence and to develop the endowments of human nature that make it achievable requires protection. Human beings must be free to know. That such freedom is often abused and such abuse grossly encouraged by features of contemporary society does not detract in any degree from the validity of the impulse itself.

It is this distinguishing impulse of human consciousness that provides the moral imperative for the enunciation of many of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and the related Covenants. Universal education, freedom of movement, access to information, and the opportunity to participate in political life are all aspects of its operation that require explicit guarantee by the international community. The same is true of freedom of thought and belief, including religious liberty, along with the right to hold opinions and express these opinions appropriately."
(Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind)