The Unfulfilled Promise of the International Religious Freedom Act
Twenty-five years ago this month, a unanimous Congress passed the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. IRFA created a new office at the State Department, headed by an ambassador at large, with a mandate to condemn religious persecution and advance religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.
At the time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright resisted the law on behalf of the administration, arguing that religious freedom should not be given special treatment in U.S. diplomacy. Political realities (including President Clinton’s looming impeachment trial) induced the president to sign IRFA, but the Albright objection has survived to become a major impediment to the law’s successful implementation.
Achieving IRFA’s goals was never going to be easy. Religious freedom is viewed by many nations as a Western Trojan horse designed to undermine their own religions. Religious persecution is rampant and growing. Millions of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and countless other religious minorities live in constant fear of persecution, including unjust imprisonment, violent expulsion, torture, rape, kidnapping, and murder. The persecutors range from governments like China, Russia, and Iran, to Islamist terrorists, like Hamas and Hezbollah, supported by Iran.
But the potential of the new policy was considerable. Even partial success would relieve terrible human suffering and advance fundamental U.S. national interests. If anyone could pull this off, it would be America, whose founding commitment to religious freedom for all people was, and remains, unprecedented in history. IRFA’s opening sentence observed that religious freedom “undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”
In addition, advancing religious freedom on the ground would further U.S. national interests. There is considerable evidence of religious freedom’s practical benefits, such as its contributions to stability and economic growth, and its capacity to counter religious violence and terrorism. America itself has experienced these benefits and would certainly profit if our diplomats could convey them to other nations.
But American success in combating persecution and advancing religious freedom has been elusive. Comprehensive annual reports issued between 2007 and 2022 by the Pew Research Center show that international religious persecution has actually increased, in some cases dramatically. The fundamental right of religious freedom for every human being is as fragile as ever outside the West, and is under increasing pressure in Western Europe and the United States.
Small victories have occurred. U.S. IRF diplomacy has rescued a few souls from persecution, but such laudable outcomes have been extremely rare. State Department reports have identified and condemned persecutors, but almost none of the punitive actions authorized by IRFA have been employed against them. A poster child of persecution, Iran, has received billions in U.S. aid.
As one who served alongside the first two IRF ambassadors, and has known and supported the others, I can personally attest that their efforts have been energetic, noble, and often creative. But ambassadors are not magicians. If U.S. religious freedom policy is to succeed on the ground, it must have the active support of our entire executive branch, especially our foreign policy leaders. As a rule, that has not been the case. Indeed, many of our leaders appear no longer to believe in the American model of religious freedom for everyone.
That problem was previewed when Secretary Albright gave her reasons for opposing IRFA. In a 1997 speech she asserted that any elevation of religious freedom “would create an artificial hierarchy among human rights with the right to be free from torture and murder shoved along with others into second place. … [N]either religious freedom, nor respect for human rights were invented” in America, she said. “[I]f we are to be effective in defending the values we cherish, we must also take into account the perspectives and values of others.”
But in a very real sense, religious freedom for all people was invented in America (or, put more aptly, it was discovered and articulated most fully here), as were the “self-evident truths” of our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
While those concepts had ancient roots, no other nation had ever codified them in a constitution and sought, even imperfectly, to actually implement them in society. Crediting the “values” of the many nations who utterly reject religious freedom, and the very idea of inalienable rights for every human being, is hardly the way to success.
Unfortunately, under the Biden administration, Albright’s logic has reached its logical end point, and it’s not good for U.S. IRF policy. In his first rollout of the Human Rights report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially rejected, on behalf of the Biden administration, a report commissioned by his predecessor, Secretary Mike Pompeo, that called for a retrieval of the principles of inalienable rights in U.S. foreign policy.
Blinken declared: “All people are entitled to [human] rights, no matter where they’re born, what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristic. [All] human rights are co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.”
But if inalienable rights do not exist, and all human rights are co-equal, then those with political power can simply manufacture their own “rights” and coerce others to affirm them. That is now happening in American domestic and foreign policy.
At home, the so-called Equality Act would punish those who publicly embrace the sanctity of human life, marriage, and immutable male-female distinctions. In its foreign policy, the administration is threatening the withdrawal of U.S. aid to societies that do not accept its regime of newly constructed human rights. Such cultural imperialism is worthy of China and Iran, not America.
Thus have IRFA’s goals effectively been abandoned. The powers of the United States are being employed to repudiate what is arguably America’s most valuable gift to the world – the truth claim that religious freedom is necessary for everyone, everywhere.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.