Author - Daniel Mark

Women and Religious Freedom
Conciliarism and the American Founding
Female Genital Mutilation
The Islam of Indonesia
Doing Something About ISIS (Or Not)
Edge of Extinction
USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report
Passover and the First Freedom
Update on Raif Badawi

Women and Religious Freedom

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which I chair, released a report this summer called “Women and Religious Freedom: Synergies and Opportunities,” written by Oxford professor Nazila Ghanea. Although the commission focuses exclusively on religious freedom issues outside the US, the report is all too timely given the debate in the US over female genital mutilation, a deplorable practice found in many places around the world and increasingly in the West.

The new report on women and religious freedom begins with a critical problem: Religious freedom and the rights of women and girls sometimes appear to be in conflict due to the abuse of women in the name of religion in some places. The report aims to change this perception, and, in this way, implicitly carries both philosophical and political aims. On the philosophical side, the challenge is to explain how religion freedom and women’s rights do indeed complement one another despite the manifold examples of oppression in the name of religion. Politically, the report can be a catalyst for cooperation between advocates for religious freedom and advocates for women’s rights, two groups that do collaborate much nowadays. In showing significant overlap between the two families of rights, the report points to the fertile ground that exists for working together. Religious freedom and women’s rights both stand to benefit from such work.

Conciliarism and the American Founding

My friend Michael Breidenbach, a professor of history at Ave Maria University, had a great article about a year back in the William and Mary Quarterly called “Conciliarism and the American Founding.” The very learned article covers the early, complicated reception of Catholicism in America with special focus on the Carrolls, prominent leaders of American Catholicism around the time of the Founding. Setting the stage, Breidenbach writes, “What made Catholicism so odious to early American Protestants . . . was the pope’s claim (and Catholics’ apparent acceptance of it) that he held temporal power over all civil rulers, including the right to depose a secular authority” (468). Such an idea, and related Catholic beliefs, were seen as contrary to American republicanism and therefore led some Protestants to see Catholics as unfit for full membership in a republic. The solution for American Catholicism lay in the distinction between two schools of Catholic thought on papal authority: papalism and conciliarism. According to Breidenbach, “papalists maintained that the pope’s universal declarations on faith and morals were infallible, with or without the assent of the Catholic Church’s general councils” and “that the pope held ‘indirect’ temporal power over the state’s rulers” (471). Conciliarists, by contrast, rejected these views, denying “that the pope was infallible by himself on matters of faith and morals and that he had any power in the temporal affairs of nations” (472). The problem for good republicans, therefore, would not be with Catholics in general but only with papalists in particular. Fortunately, American Catholics, including the leading Carrolls, were conciliarists. Thus, it was important for Catholics to believe that good Catholics could be conciliarists and for Protestants to believe that they were.

In this, two friendly questions present themselves: First, can good Catholics be conciliarists? Second, were American Catholics conciliarists in good faith (as it were), or did they adopt conciliarism out of convenience?

On the first question, well, someone else will have to answer that. It is interesting, though, that Breidenbach cites (among the many fascinating and varied sources that he brings) some of the more radical conciliarist writings, which do seem to stray from orthodoxy. In one case, Breidenbach informs us that the author of a claim that “all papal power—including in the spiritual realm—came from the consent of the people” himself admitted that the extreme phrasing was only for polemical purposes (485). Apparently, some conciliarism is in bounds, and some is not. Another provocative line is in Breidenbach’s statement: “By reframing Catholicism as merely religious opinion, rather than upholding its political implications, the [conciliarist] Carrolls concluded that the denial of civil and religious rights was unjust” (496). Is Catholicism merely religious opinion? Can one rightly jettison its political implications?

On the second question, Breidenbach does assert that the relevant American Catholics did not adopt conciliarism because it “proved to be an acceptable ecclesiology” and because those who held it were “more likely to be tolerated” (474, 473). Rather, they just happened to be conciliarists. To wit: “Their conciliarist and republican commitments were not the postures of mere political convenience” (476). To be fair, it is entirely reasonable that conciliarists, as opposed to papalists, would have been disproportionately attracted to the American project. But I think there is room to say more. When we hear that British Catholics had to “renounce foreign ‘interference’” by the pope in order to “gain equal rights,” we could be forgiven for wondering the pressure did not induce some to accept conciliarism who might not have otherwise (483-4). In several places in the article, Breidenbach returns to the language of utility, such as in affirming that “conciliarists ideas were especially useful for American Catholics” (471). Of course, conciliarism could be both sincerely held and useful—nothing wrong with that. But given the strong incentive to render Catholicism acceptable to the American republic, it is arguable that the pull of conciliarism also benefited from some push.

So, back to the historians to sort it out.

Female Genital Mutilation

My colleague at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Kristina Arriaga, had an important piece recently in the Wall Street Journal about female genital mutilation in the US. (Please note that neither this blog post nor the WSJ article necessarily reflects the views of the commission, which I chair.) FGM made the news earlier this year when doctors in Minnesota were charged for their roles in performing or facilitating this barbaric act. There is so much that is troubling in this story–and the article makes for tough reading–but Ms. Arriaga calls our attention in particular to the “religious freedom” defense being crafted by the doctors’ lawyers. The main point, to be sure, is that religious freedom most certainly does not include the right to inflict this serious harm upon women and most often young girls. But a critical secondary point is that the coopting of religious freedom for these nefarious purposes endangers the right writ large. Religious freedom is already in peril in so many places, and in the West it is increasingly slandered as a cover for bigotry and discrimination. Arguing that religious freedom includes awful practices like FGM gives credence to the detractors who say that religious freedom does more harm than good. It is simply wrong in principle to contend that religious freedom includes the right to practice FGM. But it is also dangerous in practice to defend FGM under the banner of religious freedom because doing so compromises all religious freedom claims by associating them with something that truly is harmful and, indeed, unjustifiable.

The Islam of Indonesia

Although the state of international religious freedom gives us plenty of reason for pessimism, I’d like to offer one glimmer of optimism. From my work I already know that this will be controversial with some, and I’m genuinely eager to hear varying perspectives. Moreover, I know this will sound like it is coming out of left field when everyone is so focused on the Middle East (understandably), but the glimmer of optimism to which I refer is: Indonesia. Though I knew it intellectually, I had to go to Indonesia to truly be struck by the fact that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, containing more Muslims than in all of Arabia. And the dominant Islam of Indonesia is a moderate, pluralistic Islam. I began to imagine what it would look like if the face of worldwide Islam were the Islam of the great archipelago instead of the Islam of the Saudi Wahhabis. And then I began to wonder why it wasn’t. Indonesians are reputedly modest, unassuming, even demure, but it was hard for me to believe that these personal traits carried over into international politics. But, indeed, Indonesia does not assert itself too strongly in the so-called Muslim world, instead following the consensus at the OIC and elsewhere. Nor does it have the economic might to fund mosques and madrassas all over the world the way the Saudis do. And it lacks the worldwide influence that comes with large stores of oil. But American foreign policy experts might do well to begin thinking about how the country of our president’s childhood could be more assertive on the international stage, promoting a form of Islam suitable for the modern world. I do not suggest this as a panacea, nor do I for a moment suggest that Islam presents the only problem for international religious freedom—there are extremist Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma, and godless communists in China all lined up together—but the ascendance of Indonesia would be a remarkable development.

Doing Something About ISIS (Or Not)

A well-known Pew study estimates that over three quarters of the world’s population live in places where restrictions on religious freedom (perpetrated or tolerated by the government) are high or very high. Of course, this terrible state of affairs has been severely exacerbated by the rise of ISIS, which is unrivaled in its barbarism. It is hard to find the words to describe it, but we need to avoid looking away. At a minimum, even if we cannot do anything, we must at least keep informed of what is happening. One day when we look back and wonder why more was not done, at least none of us should dare to say, “Well, I didn’t know.” In addition to the sheer brutality of ISIS, we must appreciate the historical catastrophe that this destruction also represents. First, there is the destruction of ancient statues and temples, historical treasures gone forever. Second, and more importantly, there is the destruction of living communities of ancient pedigree, Christian, Yazidi, and other communities that persisted in Iraq for centuries or millennia before being wiped off the map by ISIS. These historical (and historic) losses do not compare to the enormous human tragedy brought about by ISIS’s rapacious and murderous advance, but neither must they be overlooked.

Naturally, all of this bad news demands a response. This is one of the great questions of our day: What is to be done? Or, why is more not being done? Many call for action but decry military intervention. Many lament the disappearance of ancient communities but (understandably) support resettlement efforts that, incidentally, mean their permanent extinction. Unfortunately, I am not an optimistic about the prospects for corrective action to the grave violations of religious freedom by ISIS and others. Instead, let me briefly outline some of the institutional and political challenges facing those who wish to respond.

By “institutional challenges” I mean a lack of tools to do the job. For example, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, on which I serve [though these comments reflect my own views only], has a system for recommending offending countries for designation by the State Department as “countries of particular concern.” So designated, countries are sanctioned or face other appropriate measures mandated by the legislation. But this works only when there is a state to sanction or with which to enter into a binding agreement. This does not work for non-state actors such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria, to which regular diplomatic measures cannot be applied. Similarly, in states, such as the Central African Republic, that are essentially failed states, it is hard to apply the standard model. This is why USCIRF has called for a new designation to be developed for addressing non-state actors and failed states—though we have no illusions about how tough it will be to give that designation bite. (Even with states, we face the problem of giving our designations bite. The executive branch has many options for what amounts to inaction, even when it does make a designation.)

Another institutional problem is the inability to deal with the nearly unprecedented refugee crisis and the difficulty of dealing with such a problem even with the best intentions and best policies. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees recently put the number of refugees at almost sixty million, a staggering figure that represents a high water mark for the postwar era. The gripping stories and photos of boat people highlight the quandary that this represents. On one hand, we must protect the right of people to flee persecution. On the other hand, we must ensure that people are not driven into these unsafe and often fatal conditions, for their own safety and for the sake of not abetting the bad behavior of regimes that are only too happy to see unwanted populations leave. Though these problems are persistent in the refugee issue, they were easier to handle when the scale of the crisis was more “manageable.”

The other set of challenges is political, by which I mean a lack of will to address the dire situation for international religious freedom. Above all, there is little appetite for military action, which may in the end be the only option for sparing millions from the ravages of ISIS. Even with great political support, a military operation against ISIS might be complicated to execute, but that is a moot point if “boots on the ground” is off the table. In addition, the continuing economic woes of the West mean that fewer financial resources are available, whether for funding military action or humanitarian aid. More deeply, with respect to refugees, the unraveling of the European welfare state and its consistent failure to assimilate and integrate new immigrants translate into a diminishing willingness to welcome refugees—and that is to say nothing of the concern of terrorism from those admitted among the migrants. In the United States, the acceptance of refugees has been swallowed into a larger, highly-charged debate over immigration that has little to do with those fleeing religious persecution.

The most important political theme underlying the decline of international religious freedom is America’s retreat from the world and the growing prospect of a post-American order. We have been the world’s lone superpower long enough that we can take for granted the current balance of power. But we must think carefully about what the world will look like as countries like China, Russia, and Iran go increasingly unchecked by America.

So what can be done? Specific solutions to these problems will have to be hammered out, but let me touch on two broad points, one concerning internal affairs and one concerning external affairs. For domestic politics, we need to keep making the case that fighting for religious freedom is not just good ethics but good policy. There is more and more social science that shows that societies with more religious freedom do better across a range of measures. That is, our values and our national interest coincide, not just because our good values are worthy for their own sake but also because our values and our national interest coincide in practice. This is why America ought to remain invested in—indeed, redouble its commitment to—international religious freedom in its foreign policy.

With regard to foreign affairs, we need to convey the message that freedom is the solution, not the problem. In the past half-year or so, I have been to Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for religious freedom work. Probably the most common theme in our conversations with government officials is the need for restrictions, or what I’d call oppression, in the name of stability or security. They think—or at least they say—that freedom threatens the unity and harmony of their society. If you let people do what they want, who knows what will happen? But they have it backwards. Denying people religious freedom creates resentment and resistance that threatens stability. For the most part, people just want to be left alone. A free people is a happy people and quite likely a people far more dedicated to the well-being of their country than its oppressed counterparts. Freedom is the solution, not the problem.

Edge of Extinction

A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at the American Enterprise Institute called “Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iraq.” (Video and a description of the event are here.) Our panel discussion was headlined by former longtime-congressman Frank Wolf, whose new group, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, recently traveled to Iraq and published a report of its findings. The report (which can be downloaded here) covers both the world-historical scope of the tragedy, including the destruction of ancient communities of Christians and others, and the acute suffering of the victims of ISIS’s unimaginable barbarism. It tells of virgins being sold for twenty dollars and of women being separated by eye color so that their ravagers can select according to their preferences.

The report contains recommendations for protecting and restoring these communities of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, and they are all worthy of consideration. But, as I said in my remarks, the sad reality is that very few of these people are going home. We have the military capability to defeat ISIS but probably not the political will. If so, the best we can hope for is successful resettlement. That is to say, the damage can be mitigated, but, in many respects, it is irreversible. So, for us, it is another hard lesson from history about evil, genocide, and the precariousness of religious freedom and human rights.

USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve, released its 2015 annual report today, along with an introductory video. As anyone following the news this part year knows, the state of religious freedom in the world is not good. It is worth thinking carefully about what can be done (and what can be done by the US in particular) about this tragic state of affairs, and the report offers specific recommendations for US policy.

As the press release notes:

USCIRF, in its role as an independent U.S. federal government advisory body, recommends that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, where  particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.  These countries are:

Central African Republic (first time recommendation)









USCIRF also recommends that the State Department redesignate as CPCs the following nine countries and take additional actions to promote religious freedom:





North Korea

Saudi Arabia





Along with recommending CPC designations, USCIRF also places 10 countries on its 2015 “Tier 2” list, a Commission designation for governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious but not CPC-level.   USCIRF urges increased U.S. government attention to the following countries:












The USCIRF Report also highlights religious freedom concerns in countries that do not meet Tier 1 (CPC) or Tier 2 thresholds, but should also be the focus of concern.  These countries are:







Sri Lanka

Passover and the First Freedom

This week, Jews the world over celebrate the holiday of Passover. There’s a curious detail in the Passover story, the story of the Exodus, that is largely overlooked though it is well noticed by the rabbinic commentators. Before Moses makes his famous demand of Pharaoh—“let my people go”—he requests that Pharaoh grant the Israelites a three-day sojourn in the wilderness to go worship God. This is a strange request; we, the readers, know that God intends to take His people out of Egypt for good, not just for three days. Is Moses lying? If so, Pharaoh is wise to his trick because Pharaoh suggests that the men go on the prayer retreat and leave the women and children behind, thus ensuring the men will return. And even if Pharaoh did let them all go, to where exactly would they escape? Pharaoh could simply send his army to round them up, as he attempted during the real Exodus. Only a great and completely unanticipated miracle prevented the runaway slaves from being trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. So why the request (what good could it do), and why the refusal (what harm could it do)?

In America, we sometimes refer to religious freedom as the “first freedom.” For one thing, religious freedom is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights. But religious freedom is the first freedom in a deeper sense as well. The idea of religious freedom is where we first learn, conceptually and perhaps historically as well, the in-principle limits on the power of the state. The commands of a higher power mark out a realm of existence that is beyond the authority of the state. The state cannot rightly dictate how to act with respect to those obligations, nor can the state countermand them. Religious freedom teaches us that our lives never belong wholly to the state. Once we establish that fact, we open the door to consideration of the full panoply of human rights and of the limits of the state. For Pharaoh to acquiesce in Moses’s request for three days of worship in the wilderness would be to acknowledge that the Israelites were not ultimately subjects of the Egyptian god-king but of the transcendent God-King.

Though I am not an historian, I imagine that this is a significant feature of the enormous revolution that the Bible brought to the world. In the pagan world, a world in which the gods were the gods of the city, the state claimed everything for itself. To oppose the political order or the ruler was sacrilege. And then there came a time to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s but also to render unto God what was God’s. We would do well in our own time to remember the centrality of religious freedom not just for its own sake but also for its role in undergirding all of our rights.

Update on Raif Badawi

Before I move on to other topics, I wanted to provide an update on Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes for his criticism of the political and religious establishment in his country. Following the offer by seven of us on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to take a hundred lashes each on his behalf, by popular demand we also launched a site for people all around the world to sign up to take a lash (symbolically, at least) as well. Once that petition surpassed a thousand signatories, we sent a followup letter to the Saudi ambassador in Washington reiterating our stance and encouraging his government to take note of the worldwide support for the beleaguered victim. You can read the letter and petition here.

Since the first installment of the lashings (meant to be fifty a week for twenty weeks), there has been a series of postponements, so Raif Badawi has been spared further brutality–thus far. The question, of course, is what happens next. No one really knows, except that the intense international pressure (for which we are only partly responsible, to be sure) does seem to have convinced the Saudi government that it cannot go ahead with the intended barbarism. This is just the effect we hoped for, but it’s a tricky thing: Intense pressure is necessary to sway the government, but the government–especially under a new king–surely wants to avoid appearing to have bowed to international pressure. So then it becomes a matter of how, or whether, the government can find a face-saving way to back down. There was a glimmer of hope when the case was referred back to court, an odd (and therefore perhaps promising) development given that Badawi had already been sentenced and his punishment already begun. That optimism was dashed when it was reported that the referral of his case back to court meant that the apostasy charge, which carries the death penalty and which had previously been thrown out by a higher judge, could be back on the table. Fortunately, some politicians, including in Quebec, where Badawi’s family now lives, are keeping up the pressure; it is clearly bothering the Saudis. One hopes that they will soon capitulate and perhaps release him to Canada, even if they have to do it without ever admitted they were wrong. One also hopes that the international community can sustain the attention necessary to see this injustice brought to an end.


Six of my colleagues on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and I have been very gratified by the outpouring of support and prayers following the release of our letter to the Saudi ambassador, which I wrote about here, concerning the case of Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes. We’ve been especially amazed by all the people who have called and written to ask how they can join us in solidarity and offer to take a lash for Badawi as well. While we can be fairly certain the Saudi government won’t give a thousand people one lash each instead of lashing Badawi, the gesture of so many standing together for freedom of religion and freedom of speech–for justice, really–is deeply important. Those who wish to add their name can do so here:

Another frequent question I’ve heard is why we chose to take up this particular case among the far-too-many atrocities around the world. I wrote a bit about that this week in US News & World Report here.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.