Seventeen years ago, in 1998, the U.S. Congress mandated religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy through the International Religious Freedom Act. In recent years, Canada, Britain, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway have adopted foreign policies of religious freedom in one way or another. Might these democracies cooperate in their religious freedom policies?
This coming Thursday and Friday, October 8th and 9th, 2015, a policy dialogue will be held at Georgetown University to explore the potential for transatlantic cooperation in religious freedom policy. The first day will feature a keynote address by Peter Berger, the famous sociologist of Boston University, with comments by David Brooks of The New York Times and Walter Russell Mead, a prominent commentator on foreign affairs and professor at Bard College. Then, a succession of panels will explore issues surrounding cooperation across the Atlantic. The day will close with a keynote address by U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom David Saperstein. The second day will focus on how religious freedom plays in regions of the world, including the Middle East, India and the Far East, and Eastern Europe and the Orthodox world. If you’re in the area and want to come, please RSVP here.
Cooperation across the Atlantic, in my view, would be a good thing. Although I am a strong supporter of the U.S. promoting religious freedom around the world, the policy has had its flaws. Perhaps the best fruit of it is the annual reports on religious freedom around the world put out by the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. These reports give exposure to the violation of this precious human right and provide a critical commodity for policymakers, activists, and scholars — namely, good information on what is happening on the ground around the world.
A more difficult question, though, is: How much more religiously free is the world today because of U.S. foreign policy? Is a single country more religiously free than it otherwise would be because of this policy? Maybe so; I would welcome positive examples. I doubt there are many, though.
I do not at all wish that religious freedom policy would fade. I want there to be more religious freedom and less religious repression in the world and I want the U.S. to be a force for freedom. I propose, though, that religious freedom policy would be much more effective were it multilateral — coordinated in a common front of western democracies. Together, they could wield more hard power — economic sanctions, for instance — as well as more soft power — diplomatic and institutional influence — for religious freedom.
The proposal is not without its difficulties. Would multilateral cooperation water down the pursuit of religious freedom so as to make it meaningless? Would there be fractiousness over strategy? Would there be all talk and little action?
Deeper differences will arise over different religious profiles among western democracies. Populations of Western Europe, Canada, and the European Union tend to be more secularized than that of the United States. They do not offer the same level of popular support for religious freedom (in the U.S., IRFA was passed with strong popular support and grassroots mobilization, as detailed here). Will there be resulting differences in how religious freedom is promoted? The European Union and some western European democracies often use the term Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB) which is wider in its content, and arguably more watered down, than religious freedom. Western European countries have far more statist approaches to religion, often having government bureaucracies that manage religion as well as state churches, whereas the United States practices a more robust institutional separation between church and state. Would this difference affect what sort of laws and regimes western countries seek elsewhere? Western European states like Britain, France, and Germany host more distinct and less assimilated Muslim communities than the United States, where Muslims are more integrated. Will this affect cooperation in promoting religious freedom towards Muslim majority countries?
Still another challenge comes from a group of intellectuals, mostly American, arguing that religious freedom is a western invention and confined to western history and should not be spread to other countries. (See previous ArcU pieces here and here.) Even if one does not agree and sees religious freedom as a universal principle, as I do, we are still left to ask how a united western religious freedom policy will be received around the world. Will it foment a schism between the West and the Rest? Or are there factions favorable to religious freedom that can be secured as allies in India, Indonesia, and Russia?
One of the most interesting aspects of the conference is its formidable coalition of sponsors. These can be understood as the confluence of two streams. The policy dialogue on transatlantic religious freedom policy is the brainchild of an international relations professor at Sussex University in the UK, Fabio Petito, who has long been a leader in the study of religion and international relations. He managed to secure a “Bridging Voices” grant from the British Council, which seeks to promote transatlantic dialogue on policy issues. The Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame teamed up with him on the grant and they took on as additional partners the European University Institute and the University of Milan. This will be the second of two policy dialogues on transatlantic religious freedom policy, the first having been organized by Petito and taken place at Wilton Park, United Kingdom in February 2015. Generously co-sponsoring the dialogues are the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (BYU) and McGill University’s Birks Forum on the World’s Religions. All of these constitute the first stream of sponsors.
If that is not enough for you, this entire coalition joins a second stream of sponsors led by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, who is hosting the event. RFP is taking on the event as the first in a year-long series of events on policy associated with the International Religious Freedom Act, which will produce a revised edition of The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy. RFP sponsors this series together with its partner, the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and is also teaming up with The Review of Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement, and the Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs at Boston University.
Got all that? Wait, there is more. Selected presentations will appear in the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The dialogue is also part of a semester-long exploration of the Global Future of Governance, under the auspices of Georgetown University’s Global Futures Initiative.
Whew! The sponsors themselves are a transatlantic coalition, and their ability to cooperate to bring about this promising event bodes well for the ability of governments to cooperate on religious freedom policy!