Nine years ago Congress, under President Clinton, unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Act authorized the formation of a bi-partisan Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor the status of religious freedom around the world and identify countries that are inadequately protecting religious freedom within their borders. The legislation’s unanimous approval in both the Senate and the House reflected characteristics of the political situation of the late 1990s and of the Act itself.

The religious voter had come to be seen as a politically important, if not necessary constituency. Moreover, the Act appeared to fit in with one of our fundamental American values–freedom of religion. The Act also seemed relatively harmless. The bipartisan Commission set up by the Act had little power to compel either the president or the State Department to impose strong sanctions against countries identified as violating their citizens’ religious freedom. For a politician to go on record voting against upholding the freedom of religion in this climate would have been political suicide.

Today, religious freedom is a phrase that is increasingly linked to a strategy for attaining democracy in foreign, and particularly Islamic countries. But what do we endorse when we talk about religious freedom around the globe? In light of recent foreign policy strategies, we have to look particularly hard at how the Commission’s work may be used for increasingly controversial policy actions.

A Mixed Record

Since its formation, the Commission on International Religious Freedom has had a mixed record. Its reports on the status of religious freedom in every country around the globe, compiled by U.S. diplomatic staff on the ground, have become a quick and useful reference for scholars, journalists and policy makers seeking to gain background on the religious climate in any given area. The Commission has also successfully helped draft a number of symbolic pieces of legislation that call attention to or condemn violations of religious freedom in other countries.

However, it has failed markedly in its ability to get the State Department or the president to uphold a universal principle of religious freedom by evenhandedly employing negative sanctions against countries that are among the most severe violators of religious freedom. Violations by perceived political allies such as Vietnam have been largely ignored while those nations against whom we wish to seek leverage, such as Iran and China, have been sanctioned more vocally. This political gamesmanship severely undercuts the legitimacy and integrity of the Commission’s work.

The integrity of America’s commitment to religious freedom is particularly undermined by the refusal of the U.S. to submit itself to scrutiny by the Commission and provide a report on the status of its own religious freedom. Such lack of accountability is regrettable since a domestic debate on the difficulties the United States has faced in trying to preserve religious freedom might sensitize the relevant political players, and help them recall how American ideas of religious freedom have evolved over time, and been challenged repeatedly by circumstance.

A review of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 150 years suggests that America has selectively applied the first amendment in favor of Protestants and Catholics while penalizing religious minorities in its justice system. The prohibition against Mormons exercising their belief in polygamous practices is one example. On the other hand, the provision of federal aid for school buses and books and to children attending parochial schools, the tax exemption on clergy salaries, and the exemption on church properties are three examples of differential religious protectionism.

Self-scrutiny would also reveal that the United States has been unable to apply a consistent standard for balancing the rights of religious groups against broader social rights in its own case law, and has varied widely in its interpretations of religious freedom over time.

One cause of this confusion is that the question of what definitively constitutes a religion cannot be directly addressed by American policy and case law. The first amendment states clearly that there is to be “no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has resulted in judicial decisions that have been forced to address the constraints bordering religious practices without being able to say what constitutes or does not constitute religion itself.

The conceptual murkiness of its raison d’etre has not inhibited the work of the Commission. Each May it has produced a report on the global status of religious freedom, country by country, and identified various “countries of particular concern”. It has publicized the names of these countries and the reasons for its concern in reports to the president and the State Department, on its website, in press releases, and in support of legislation condemning acts against religious freedom. In a short time, the Commission has built upon its initial unanimous support in Congress to create a greater sensitivity and awareness to the idea of religious freedom as one of the more visible human rights on the American agenda.

From another perspective however, the work of the bipartisan Commission can also be seen as providing tacit support for a more dangerous turn in President Bush’s foreign policy strategy, namely, applying our definitions of religious freedom globally, and using it as a wedge through which to promote a particular interpretation of democracy.

Bush Agenda

Since 9/11 President Bush has firmly and closely associated the ideas of religion and terrorism. In remarks to reporters less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, he raised the specter of Holy War with his reference to “this crusade, this war on terrorism…” and it has been clear that he blames Islamic fundamentalists for many of the terror attacks on the United States.

When Bush laid out his national security strategy just a few months after 9/11 in his 2002 National Security Strategy statement, the stated focus of the strategy was on terrorism and al-Qaeda, not religion. Religion, when mentioned at all was embedded in a litany of broad goals: democracy, human rights, freedom of worship, human dignity etc. In fact, the statement explicitly claims, “the United States is fighting a war against terrorists of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion [italics mine] or ideology. The enemy is terrorism…”

Four years later his 2006 National Security Strategy shows a vastly different sentiment towards religion. The strategy statement clearly draws a line linking terrorism and Islamic based ideologies. The overview section of the 2006 strategy document states that “..a new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud religion [italics mine]. Its content may be different from the ideologies of the last century, but its means are similar: intolerance, murder, terror, enslavement, and repression.”

This paragraph signals a dramatic shift in the administration’s attitude towards Islamic beliefs. A few pages later it clearly highlights radical elements of Islamic belief to be the source of terrorism: “The terrorism we confront today springs from… an ideology that justifies murder. Terrorism ultimately depends on the appeal of an ideology that excuses or even glorifies the deliberate killing of innocents. A proud religion-the religion of Islam-has been twisted and made to serve an evil end, as in other times and places other religions have been similarly abused.”

Interestingly, in a preceding paragraph, the administration makes it just as clear what it feels terrorism is not, i.e., “Terrorism is not the inevitable by product of poverty…terrorism is not simply a result of hostility to US policy in Iraq…terrorism is not simply a result of Israeli-Palestinian issues…terrorism is not simply a response to our efforts to prevent terror attacks…Rather terrorism is the result of political alienation, grievances that can be blamed on others…subcultures of conspiracy and misinformation…and misguided religious ideology [italics mine].”

In other words, terrorism is the result of cultural rather than political or economic conditions. Or to put it more bluntly, a clash of world views and civilizations.

President Bush’s strategy for addressing these cultural problems is outlined in other sections of the report. He sees the promotion of effective democracies and the upholding of religious freedom as key components in his fight against the terrorist ideologies of Islam. “Against a terrorist enemy that is defined by religious intolerance, we defend the First Freedom: the right of people to believe and worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, free from the coercion of the state, the coercion of the majority, or the coercion of a minority that wants to dictate what others must believe.”

These statements suggest that Bush believes Islamic fundamentalism can be countered by religious freedom via religious pluralism. The implicit argument is that if there is a plurality of beliefs, fundamentalism will recede as a viable option. Religious pluralism will presumably operate as a countervailing religious and moral argument against violent religious radicalism.

A Flawed Strategy

Our recent experience in Iraq suggests that such a strategy may be naïve and foolishly optimistic. The argument has been made that America’s Iraqi strategy has been overly focused on religious identities, at the expense of understanding how political, tribal and regional loyalties also come into play. Before the U.S. liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, Sunnis and Shiites were well integrated with a high rate of intermarriage. Many lived together in shared communities and neighborhoods, went to schools together and visited one another. Today however, families are kept apart by the religious sectarianism that divides their cities, friendships between Shiites and Sunnis are increasingly strained, and religion has become a social litmus test for one’s standing on a whole host of unrelated issues.

The American strategy has been to dismantle party affiliations and allow religious affiliations to emerge in their place. By reinforcing the categorization of citizens into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, the U.S. strategy has resulted in a politicization of religious differences that has only strained relations between these groups. Today, families and neighborhoods are sharply divided with the kind of religious distrust and hatred that emerged after the break up of Yugoslavia in 1991.

Recent history in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now Iraq demonstrates the dangers of politicizing ethnic and religious differences. What makes religious categorization so much more different than categorizations by regional or political differences? Religion by its nature purports to provide absolute truths about right and wrong, good and evil, and the meaning of life and death. Religious and ethnic labels are more likely to take on the character of immutable and absolute categories. Such absolutism does not easily accommodate the language of political compromise and negotiation that is essential for the cooperation of different interests, and certainly for any democratic process to work. The danger of religious appeals, as secular regimes are often painfully aware, is that loyalty to one’s God often transcends the claims of community or nation state.

If the United States continues to see certain religions as the cause of terrorism, it has no recourse but to pitch itself into a battle against that religion. If its foreign policy strategy is to fight undesirable religious beliefs by supporting a plurality of religious beliefs then it backs itself into a position of supporting a modern moral relativism that is likely to be unacceptable to anyone who takes their religion seriously enough to believe that their religion is the truth. By politicizing religious differences and then arming those religious groups, the United States is moving its foreign policy into a highly disputed and potentially irreconcilable realm of religious belief and away from a language of pragmatism and diplomacy that is likely to be the best hope for peace and stabilization in this area.

The work of the Commission on International Religious Freedom is likely to exacerbate this religious politicization. At least one commissioner shares a view similar to Bush with regard to using religious freedom as a means toward a more pro-American political climate. In 2003, Nina Shea, who was a vice chair of the Commission at the time and also director of the Center for Religious Freedom, wrote in The Washington Times that “Without individual rights to religious freedom, Muslims in the Middle East may never be able to initiate the evolution of a more tolerant, pluralistic, pro-American Islam.”

The Commission’s stated goal is to call attention to, and protect, religious freedom across the globe. Insofar as this principle is shaped into a means of promoting a pro-American ideology, it risks losing its legitimacy and effectiveness to achieve these goals.

Patricia M. Y. Chang is a professor of sociology at Stanford University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( For more articles in the Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus, visit

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.