Religious Freedom in Search of Its Argument – Abroad

In my last two columns, I’ve argued for a critical need to recast our arguments over “religious freedom” as they are offered not only in the courts but in the political arena. That need has become ever more evident, I argued, in the recent litigation over the Hobby Lobby stores and the resistance to the mandates over Obamacare.

Those columns drew a note from my friend Thomas Farr, who is now directing the Berkeley Center at Georgetown with the project on religious freedom. Tom had served as the first Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, a post created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

He wrote to alert me to his testimony in June, before a committee of the House, giving a rather grim report on the state of religious freedom abroad – and the evident, low standing of this project within our own government. But his testimony also bears out the point of my recent columns on the problems of coherence that afflict the arguments for religious freedom.

To make the case for religious freedom in that vast outside world bears a critical resemblance to the task of making the case for religious freedom as a “natural right.” One has to explain, in terms accessible to other people, why that claim to religious freedom has a claim to their respect even when they don’t understand or credit for a moment the truth that commands the devotion of the religious.

The task of explaining that point has proven hard enough in our own country. And so we might understand the perplexity that would beset people in the State Department even if they took religion seriously, which most of them do not. As Farr remarks, “a significant proportion of our foreign policy officials no longer believe that religious freedom is the ‘first freedom.’”

The State Department has the authority to initiate sanctions against countries with serious violations of religious freedom, but as Farr remarks, “it would be difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom.”   

Chief among the victims of religious persecution have been you-know-who: the Christians. And their situation has become worse even in the countries in which, as Farr says, our country has “poured blood, treasure, and diplomatic resources”: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

       Thomas Farr testifies.

But Farr touches there a point that should have been seen as a key to the puzzle, for he notes the situation in Syria, marked by a history of “religious persecution, first of Alawites by Sunnis and then of Sunnis by the Alawite regime of the Assads.” As the people in the State Department look out on the world, they see the religious suffering persecution at the hands of other armies of the religious.

Michael Novak has often recalled that understanding of James Madison and other Founders that the God who gave us freedom and reason did not wish men to be coerced into religious obedience. And that has indeed been the Catholic teaching, as in Dignitatis Humanae.

But that is not the understanding of God and “religion” that animates the radical jihadists or many other groups that fill our landscape, here and abroad, and carry the banner of “the religious.” The God of the American Founders was the God of the Declaration of Independence – the Author of the Laws of Nature, including the moral laws. He was that Creator who endowed us with rights. And he was not a local god, of this tribe of Americans. He was the God of the logos, of reason, the Creator of that human person who was marked, in his highest nature, by that gift of reason.

As I’ve argued in these columns, our case for religious freedom should start there, not with the invocation merely of beliefs, but with the things that our religious tradition teaches us about the canons of reason as the ground of our judgments – and the grounds of the law.

And yet that touches the truth that seems reluctant to speak its name these days even among people who have devoted themselves to the defense of religious freedom: that we risk coherence when we treat, as equally plausible and legitimate, any group that flies under the title of “religion.”

If the people at the State Department seem at sea or wanting in conviction, we have to ask, “Have our own friends, working on religious freedom, helped make these distinctions clear and given guidance to them?” 

Tom Farr’s own work here has been valiant, and his testimony deserves to be read in its fullness. He may be right in his guess that, if the office dealing with religious freedom were lifted in its standing and its powers, that would mark a willingness to take the issue more seriously. But that might simply be a grand distraction when the people who fill that office are not clear, in the first place, on what their subject is.

What they need to understand first is the character of those “religions” they are seeking to protect. And to grasp that point is to grasp as well the moral ground of the political regime they are seeking to preserve.  


Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.