Might the United States be reconsidering its hands-off approach to religion in foreign policy?
That’s the hope of many religious freedom advocates, who are seeing a measure meant to beef up U.S. behavior get a friendly reception on Capitol Hill.
If a hearing today is any indication, Congress this year will commit more than $30 million over the next seven years – in the thick of intense budget fights – to reauthorize a small government commission that works to amplify the plight of persecuted religious minorities abroad. The lack of substantive controversy or debate today about HR1856 reflects the likelihood the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission will be reauthorized and that U.S. law will be strengthened to “integrate United States international religious freedom policies and religious engagement programs into democracy and civil society programs funded by the United States and into the counterterrorism policies of United States Government departments and agencies,” the bill reads.
These goals have generally been part of U.S. policy for more than a decade but have been largely ignored, partly because many view “religious freedom” as code for “Christian evangelizing.” The effort to overcome that perception hasn’t been helped by a pending EEOC complaint from a former staffer who alleges the commission discriminates against Muslims. Critics have questioned not only the fairness but also the general effectiveness of the commission as well as of the 1998 law that first mandated that protecting religious freedom abroad should be U.S. policy.
The pending measure would require the Government Accountability Office to review the effectiveness of all religious-freedom-promoting programs.
Thomas Farr, a scholar and religious freedom advocate who testified today in favor of the bill before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, said the 1998 law needs to be amended because every White House since then has blown it off.
Over the dozen years since the International Religious Freedom Act’s passage, “our policy cannot be said to have, in any substantial way, reduced religious persecution, advanced religious freedom, or increased America’s national security. In my view this constitutes a significant failure, and a major opportunity missed,” Farr said, according to a prepared transcript. “Nor has its general reputation been helped by the fact that even its staunch supporters have long questioned its effectiveness.”
One witness today did challenge reauthorizing the commission, but not because the person wanted to limit focus on religious freedom, but rather the opposite. Joseph Grieboski, chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, testified that every agency — not only the State Department, on which the religious freedom commission tends to focus — should be thinking about how to integrate the goal of religious freedom into its foreign policy mission.
But even as some questions remain, the pending measure could change the playing field if it passes. It hasn’t come up for a single vote yet but it’s expected to speed through since the commission will otherwise sunset in the fall.
It raises the status of the U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for Religious Freedom – a position that the White House, coincidentally, just filled today by a New York City megapreacher – and requires that every Foreign Service office receives religious freedom training.
It’s not clear what all this means. Of course it could mean nothing. “Religious freedom” has long been a top priority of religious conservatives, and therefore Republicans wouldn’t vote against it, even if the actual programs come under criticism. And Democrats are still fighting the perception that they are deaf to the concerns of the devout, so they are also not likely to stand in the way of such a measure.
Of course it’s possible that the beefed-up measure likely to pass means America is getting more serious about this measure – just as a swath of the Muslim World is realigning itself.
As Farr put it today: Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that religious freedom will help determine the success or failure of the whole Arab Spring, including in major countries such as Egypt,” he said. “The reality is that stable democracies will not emerge in the greater Middle East, and religious terrorism will continue to be incubated and exported, unless those societies adopt religious freedom.”