The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act of 1998 passed Congress almost unanimously, which reveals that the issue has always been a strong bipartisan cause. Rep. Frank Wolf (ret.), the Republican author of the act, has received strong praise from his Democratic colleagues, ranging from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) for his integrity and longtime commitment to this cause.
The IRF Act created several meaningful mechanisms, such as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the ambassadorship-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department. It also helped the US government prioritize this human right.
However, Shaun Casey—director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University—recently penned an op-ed for Sojourners that somewhat oddly includes both his political opinions and a series of proposals that would essentially gut the policies the 1998 IRF Act enacted. These include:
- De-commissioning USCIRF
- Eliminating the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom
- Ceasing publication of both the annual USCIRF and State Department reports on international religious freedom
To be clear, I am no political pundit and am not offering my thoughts on Casey’s political commentary. However, I believe his injection of presidential politics into a humanitarian issue is counterproductive. While Casey is a man of the left, I have seen conservative commentators make this same mistake. It is wrong when conservatives politicize this issue, and it is wrong when liberals do so.
Even during this highly partisan age, bipartisan support on this issue is visible recently in Washington, DC. Last October the House of Representatives recognized the Armenian Genocide in a historic vote. This was a cause that united many Democrats and Republicans for decades. On the floor of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) praised Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), a longtime champion for global human rights (especially religious freedom), and stated:
Thank you, Mr. Smith, for your ongoing commitment to justice in the world in terms of respecting the dignity and worth of people and not ignoring atrocities when they happen now and a long time ago. It’s a pleasure to work with you now and always.
I also witnessed firsthand Rabbi David Saperstein, ambassador at large for international religious freedom under President Barrack Obama, collaborate with Rev. Johnnie Moore, a USCIRF commissioner appointed by President Donald Trump, in support of atrocity-prevention legislation that can protect vulnerable religious communities.
That’s right, Democrats and Republicans agree about the importance of protecting this vital human right internationally. There are countless other examples of people with sharp political disagreements working together to promote international religious freedom.
This should be the case. Christianity is at risk of disappearing in Iraq and Syria, and there are genocides against Christians and Uighur Muslims in Nigeria and China, respectively. These vulnerable populations need us, as Democrats and Republicans (and independents), to stand with them. They do not have time for us to politicize their plight.
Besides problematically politicizing this issue, Casey’s recommendations would greatly harm the way the US has effectively advocated for religious freedom.
His first recommendation is to shut down USCIRF because he sees it as too Christian, discriminatory against other groups, and ineffective. To be clear, USCIRF’s commissioners are bipartisan political appointees, so it will always have both conservative and liberal commissioners. On many policy issues the commission puts out, the commissioners are in unanimous agreement. Anyone who reads their annual report or press releases will find this to be the case. The current commissioners also represent multiple religious traditions and are not exclusively Christian.
Somewhat oddly, Casey claims the body “has made no difference on the ground anywhere in the world” and has an “inept staff with poor work products.” Yet USCIRF is in many cases the only body with the bandwidth to shed light on religious liberty violations across the globe. Their annual report also recommends countries to the Department of State for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) status, which can trigger several actions, including sanctions. At this point, the president can decide whether or not to accept the recommendations or use them to push changes in other countries. Criticizing a presidential administration’s response to the USCIRF report is fair game, but criticizing the existence of the commission or its report is counterproductive.
For example, USCIRF has been the leading body recommending Saudi Arabia for CPC status (since 2004) and has criticized administrations of both parties for putting a de facto sanctions waiver in place since 2006. The issue here is not USCIRF. If anything, the issue is that American presidents have not seriously considered USCIRF’s proposed policies.
Casey then recommends that the head of the Office of International Religious Freedom should be a career diplomat and not a political appointee. But statements from previous ambassadors offer a much better evaluation of who should serve.
Here is what Ambassador Saperstein, President Obama’s appointee, said about Ambassador Sam Brownback, President Trump’s appointee, after his nomination: “This is a very strong appointment, and I look forward to working with him in furthering the cause of religious freedom around the globe.”
Casey lastly attacks the fact that both the State Department and USCIRF release reports on the subject of international religious freedom because “there is no evidence our current tools change bad actors.” But many countries that the USCIRF report criticized respond to its recommendations seriously, and others attempt to delegitimize the report’s recommendations. If the report was an ineffective tool, bad actors would simply ignore it.
The issue, as mentioned above, is that the US has been hesitant to pressure allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt for religious freedom violations. This is a bipartisan political problem, but the root cause is not in the availability of data or the publication of human rights violations in government reports. The issue is American presidents’ unwillingness to prioritize religious freedom in bilateral relations.
Casey correctly asserts that America’s approach to international religious freedom needs a greater emphasis on bilateral relations. However, the solution is not gutting the 1998 IRF Act, but strengthening it.
International religious freedom is not a partisan issue and should never be framed as such. Democrats and Republicans have always worked together on this issue and should continue to do so.