Article  Religious Liberty

Is religious liberty an American foreign policy priority?

Last month, the State Department updated the list of the worst violators of religious freedom around the world. The fact that the State Department took this step is noteworthy and significant: while the law requires the list to be updated annually, no president since 1998 has done so every year. The State Department maintained last years’ list, adding one new country, Tajikistan. There are now 10 countries of particular concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

However, the State Department released this news on a routine Friday press conference with no event, no press release, and no fanfare.

Those of us who are citizens of liberal democracies are ultimately responsible for the manner in which our democracy governs and conducts statecraft. And so for us, Psalm 94 contains a potent warning: “Can wicked rulers be allied with you [that is, with God], those who frame injustice by statute?” Likewise, the advice of King Lemuel’s mother is applicable to us as well: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31: 8–9).

While the designation of countries of particular concern this year was an important step, the United States can be doing more. Promoting and protecting international religious freedom must be a key priority within American foreign policy.

The State Department has tools at its disposal

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Congress gave the State Department a powerful and diverse set of policy tools to advance religious liberty around the word. The central mechanism is the designation of Countries of Particular Concern. Once a country has been added to this list, the State Department has the authority to take a number of actions, such as:

public or private diplomatic discussions
public condemnation
delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges
detail, delay, or cancellation of official state visits
withdrawal of security assistance and arms trade
a number of different economic sanctions

Is the State Department actually using those tools?

Given the wide range of options available, it is therefore troubling that the Obama Administration waived any action at all for four of the countries of particular concern: Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and newly added Tajikistan. In other words, Tajikistan was added to the list, but this was the only consequence.

Further, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended adding Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam. No action was taken on these countries. Given recent events in Pakistan, such an omission is particularly troubling.

One could argue that this is just semantics: placing the country on the list in the first place is condemnation enough. That further action was waived in the “important national interest of the United States” is irrelevant because the country remains on the list of countries of particular concern.

And we should also acknowledge that statecraft is chess, not checkers. Sometimes the most powerful actions the United States can take are behind the scenes, allowing violators of human rights to avoid embarrassment in exchange for doing the right thing. The public will likely never know many of the great accomplishments of American diplomacy in service of religious liberty and human rights for all.

Religious liberty vs. “important national interests”

But even with that said, the fact that the State Department was not even willing to publicly condemn Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan for violating the religious liberty of its citizens for shows the importance of this human right in relation to other interests. This condemnation was waived after all, in view of an “important national interest of the United States.”

Further, John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department acknowledged that the actions taken against the six other countries of particular concern are not new or additional: no additional sanctions were added. According to Mr. Kirby, this “adds a layer of validity to a sanction or an action that’s already in place.” That’s one way of looking at it. But another way is that there was no real consequence for any of the worst violators of religious freedom.

We are grateful for many of the actions the State Department has taken to focus on religious freedom, to engage with religious communities, and to better understand the role of religion in civic life around the world. Ambassador Saperstein is a tireless and powerful advocate for the oppressed around the world. The creation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been a useful step as well. Secretary of State John Kerrygave a strong speech on religion and foreign affairs at Rice University this week. In that speech, Secretary Kerry acknowledged that religious liberty is good for everyone, a topicERLC’s Matt Hawkins wrote about.

But in these remarks, Secretary Kerry did not mention the week-old designation of countries of particular concern, a curious omission in a speech on religious freedom and the role of religion in American diplomacy.

The designation of countries of particular concern is an opportunity for action, not just talk. Persuasion and engagement are important tools, and this is a good starting point. But inducement – another tool in the statecraft toolbox – is not being used in a meaningful way to advance religious liberty. This is why the ERLC supports congressional efforts to strengthen State's tool box with the bipartisan Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. We hope the State Department’s timid release is not a reflection of the importance of religious liberty relative to other human rights. We urge the State Department to make the violation of religious liberty – a fact that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world every day – a key priority in American foreign policy.

Related Content

Pastor's Role in Politics

Pastor Roundtable: What Is a Pastor’s Role in Politics?

Helping your church apply faith to the public square

The pressure during an election year is high for everyone, especially pastors. The last...

Read More
federal regulations

Explainer: 5 additional federal regulations the ERLC is pushing back against

Part three

Part 1Part 2 Over the past month, the Biden administration has finalized numerous problematic...

Read More
2024 religious freedom report

Explainer: USCIRF releases 2024 religious freedom report and observes 25th anniversary of IRFA

On May 1, 2024, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released...

Read More

Ethical and Theological Considerations on IVF from the Southern Baptist Convention

1. What do Southern Baptists believe about life, marriage, and family? Scripture clearly speaks...

Read More

Explainer: 5 harmful federal regulations the ERLC is pushing back against

Part two

Part 1Part 3 Over the past month, the Biden administration has finalized numerous problematic...

Read More
federal rules

Explainer: Biden administration finalizes extensive list of harmful federal rules

Part one

Part 2Part 3 Over the past year, the Biden administration has released and finalized...

Read More