"Who made you the international morality cop?" The Chinese official from Beijing's Religious Affairs Bureau did not care that I was the first-ever United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Nor did he care that the International Religious Freedom Act that created my office represented unprecedented bipartisanship and the overwhelming support of the American people. No, this Chinese official only saw another "ugly American" trying to preach American values to the rest of the world.

Seeing myself that way was but one of the lessons I learned in my 25-month stint as an ambassador at large. The second occurred over many, many meetings. During my years as ambassador at large, the number two man at the State Department, Strobe Talbott, would gather the assistant Secretaries of State together at 9:15 every morning to discuss global events.

In all of those "Talbott meetings," I was never once asked a question about religious freedom. Certainly, religious freedom indirectly came up in the context of disasters such as Afghanistan or Sudan, but the issue was never brought up in its own right—and this during an administration that cared deeply for human rights. But religious freedom was never going to wag the dog.

A third lesson arose as I got deeper into the job: Though I learned about many repressed people who had died for their faith, I unfortunately saw too many others who were more than willing to kill for their religion. There seemed to be little understanding that the right to religious belief brings with it the responsibility to demonstrate tolerance and respect for the faith of others.

These three lessons shaped not only how I tried to implement the International Religious Freedom Act; they also can give us insight into how the struggle for religious freedom should be carried forward.

Mainstreaming the Issue

The International Religious Freedom Act was written over 18 months with considerable input from Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Southern Baptists, and Jews, among others. It was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress (98-0 in the Senate, 416-0 in the House) and was signed by President Clinton in October 1998.

The language of the legislation—especially a section titled "Findings; policy"—is international, but the tone draws deeply from the American experience: "Many of our Nation's founders fled religious persecution abroad, cherishing in their hearts and minds the ideal of religious freedom. They established in law, as a fundamental right and as a pillar of our nation, the right to freedom of religion." The legislation brings to mind Thomas Jefferson's notion that religious freedom is the First Freedom, for where we find religious freedom, we also find the freedom of association, the freedom of speech, certainly the freedom to believe, and many times, the freedom of the press. Religious freedom is a fundamental strand of the fabric of American life.

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Yet the document also borrows heavily from the language of international covenants, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance." (See the U.S. State Department's site for the complete text.)

As I spoke with people like my Beijing interlocutor, I found myself falling back on this these "Findings" time and again. The reason was as pragmatic as it was true. America did not invent this issue. It has been in the international community for decades.

By highlighting the religiously marginalized and persecuted, this legislation gives hope to those whose situations seem hopeless. I am not naive concerning the role of hope. As we used to say in the Marine Corps, "Hope is not a methodology." It is not surprising that hope is not a prominent word in the lexicon of realpolitik. But to the more than 600 million individuals worldwide who suffer aggressive resistance to the practicing of their faith, hope is absolutely essential. Ask Solzhenitsyn and Mandela what their faith and their hope meant to them. When "the last remaining superpower" speaks on behalf of the religiously oppressed, legitimate hope is extended to them. This legislation means that they are not forgotten. We will take up their cause. The International Religious Freedom Act, then, ranks as one of our finest moments, reconnecting us with our best instincts and highest values.

The act has three components: the forming of the Commission on International Religious Freedom; the appointment of an ambassador at large, who works within the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau but reports directly to the Secretary of State; and the requirement of an annual report (drawn up by the ambassador at large).

The annual report institutionalizes this issue within the U.S. government. The report looks at the status of religious freedom in 194 countries around the world. It is a mammoth challenge, made possible only through the help and support of hundreds of Foreign Service officers, nongovernment organizations, and religious organizations around the world. This massive effort (the latest edition came out in September), more than any other factor, has helped to mainstream the issue both within the State Department and among Foreign Service offices.

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The mantra for the report was "truth without surprise." This involved visiting virtually every country where religious freedom was at risk. During my tenure, for example, I traveled to France in the name of Scientologists, to China in the name of the "house church," to Uzbekistan in the name of Muslims, and to Saudi Arabia in the name of private worship. Additionally, office staff met with denominational leaders, foreign ambassadors, and concerned citizens—all with an eye to explaining the legislation, debating the issues involved, and listening to the specific issues emerging from a given country.

It has been said that the beginning of wisdom is calling something by its proper name. The annual report is an attempt to do that. It is unarguably the best compilation of data and research that exists on this subject. And, while all of this was getting done, the positive, unintended consequence was the creation of a network of people sensitive to this issue and, increasingly, willing to work toward a better reality.

Troubling Signs

Unfortunately, some troubling signs accompany the early successes. The first is the report itself.

Though this report covers 194 countries, the United States is not one of them. At the very least, this presents the potential for hubris, arrogance, and hypocrisy. It suggests an inclination to report only on others, refraining from any sort of self-criticism. If a certain level of humility is important in implementing this legislation (and I believe it is), this abscence works against that characteristic.

A second troubling sign is the commission itself. The commission was created in part because many legislators did not believe the State Department would handle this issue properly without an independent force looking over its shoulder. This structure has created a certain redundancy and a commission bias to question State Department initiatives. The commission, understandably, has struggled with its own identity and has yet to develop a clear complementary role to the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom.

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More troubling still is the commission's "watchdog" role, which inclines it to react with a "yes, but" to many of the positive changes in religious freedom around the world. For example, in Laos, a combined effort of the Lao ambassador and the State Department managed to free half the Christians who were in jail during the summer of 2000. But the commission responded by saying that sanctions should be placed against Laos because of its failure regarding other issues.

We certainly have the ability to punish countries. But we probably have more countries under sanction then any five other nations combined. Sanctions seem to be an attempt to show we care. Unfortunately, many times they have the opposite effect on those who most need our help. The commission, though, has demanded more painful sanctions and placing more countries on "the list." At times such suggestions seem to be the way the commission justifies its existence, though sometimes members of Congress are the ones who egg the commission on. Regardless, sanctions are a blunt instrument, and we are far too ready to vent our righteous indignation in using them. The commission and the State Department rarely discuss how to promote religious freedom, but they are ready to pick up the club when it comes time to punish.

The Broad and Long View

Another problem is exclusivity. Some people have imagined that the legislation is designed to protect Christians around the world. Such thinking, however, is counterproductive. To echo Martin Luther King Jr., "If one is not free, no one is free." Any time we focus on one religion over another, we only exacerbate the differences between various religions. This heightens divisiveness and puts the entire religious-freedom issue in a competitive context.

In addition, some well-intentioned advocates have sometimes misrepresented the facts. For example, in 1999 when an American missionary in Senegal accidentally hit a Muslim child with his car, a rumor that the American would be hanged was spread through e-mail prayer chains in the U.S. Although this never was a possibility, and the incident quickly subsided, this man was prayed for by thousands for the next six months. Religious freedom is a passionate issue, and, unfortunately, one that is still supported largely by anecdotal research. This is a recipe for diplomatic disaster. Discerning and documenting what is really going on in a particular situation is an arduous process, but vital. Those suffering for their faith deserve this.

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Research needs to not only document abuses but also bring an understanding of the context in which religious freedom is curtailed. With no understanding of the local context, we can easily do more harm than good. Many countries that have a spotty religious-rights record are also confronted with massive illiteracy, deeply ingrained poverty, border skirmishes from leftover wars, a dependency on international aid. We need to recognize that in such situations, progress in religious freedom will advance much more slowly.

As much as anything, we need to take the long view. We need to remember that as a country we have been securing full religious freedom for our own citizens for more than 225 years, and we are still an imperfect nation—the right of religious people to practice their faith, for example, in public settings, like schools, is still contested. Why we think we can impose a five-year plan on some other nation, and one which does not have our heritage of human rights, seems both arrogant and naive. Unfortunately, because of the yearly assessments required by legislation, we feel the pressure to make annual improvements. The importance of patience and the applauding of small steps cannot be overstated.

The Future of Religious Freedom

As we consider the future of international religious freedom, I offer six suggestions.

  1. Include the United States in the report. If we can't report on ourselves, a number of countries mentioned each year in the executive summary would be more than happy, if invited, to write a report on our religious-freedom record.
  2. Emphasize a multilateral approach. No state, no nongovernmental organization, and no corporation can individually address the complex issues that face us all. We need to expand and strengthen the base for religious freedom. The world needs to know that the United States will continue to do its part, but there also needs to be a greater coalition of like-minded souls in the future.
  3. The State Department and the independent commission must play complementary roles. The tension that exists today is not healthy. A great deal of energy is dissipated as each "side" alternates between the offensive and the defensive.
  4. The State Department should focus more time and money on preventive diplomacy. If conflicts over religious freedom can be addressed before the advent of violence or repression, the world will be a safer place. A growing number of nongovernmental organizations specialize in teaching hostile parties how to reconcile. The State Department would be wise to help fund such organizations.
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  1. The United States government needs to take a comprehensive approach to religious freedom. In far too many cases, a delegation of government officials pursued only one part of a total U.S. agenda. Pursuing international trade without attending to human rights is a formula for greed run amok; expressing concern for human rights while ignoring international trade shows ignorance about political realities. Military intelligence without preventive diplomacy only makes for more wars than are necessary. Preventive diplomacy without military intelligence is usually a game of blind man's bluff. Similarly, religious freedom must be incorporated into all the elements of our international politics, not just the State Department.

Religious freedom obviously does not have to lead every issue and every delegation, but we as a nation must be mindful of who we are and from where we have come.

Robert A. Seiple is the president and founder of the Institute for Global Engagement, a "think tank with legs" in St. Davids, Pennsylvnia. He is the former president of World Vision and Eastern College & Seminary and the former vice president for development at Brown University.

Related Elsewhere:

Also appearing on our site today:

What Does 09.11.01 Mean for Religious Persecution Policy? | Persecution watchdogs fear religious freedom will suffer. (Oct. 10, 2001)

White House Takes Halting Steps on Religious Liberty | Bush invokes Washington's declaration of giving "persecution no assistance." (Oct. 10, 2001)

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has lists of commissioners, recent reports, and religious freedom information on specific countries.

Robert Seiple (read State Department bio) resigned last September as ambassador to set up a global think tank on religious freedom, The Institute for Global Engagement.

In September, President Bush nominated John V. Hanford as Ambassador at Large and appointed three new members to the commission. Michael K. Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School, is chairman.

The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed October 27, 1998, set up the Commission on International Religious Freedom and created the at-large ambassadorship for religious freedom.

See more articles on international persecution from Christianity Today.

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Related Christianity Today coverage includes:

Gordon-Conwell Grad Nominated to Complete Administration's Religious Liberty Team | Hanford pledges to bring a balanced approach and a "passion for religious freedom."

Freedom Panel Alleges Genocide | U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes suggestion on Sudan's worsening abuses. (May 4, 2001)

Religious Freedom Delegation Gets Cold Shoulder | Some Coptic Christians worry that foreign intervention on their behalf would spell trouble. (May 1, 2001)

Religious Freedom Act: One Year Later | Little progress seen so far, but advocates see hope for future. (Dec. 27, 1999)

'America Legislates for the World!' Muslims respond to the U.S. State Department report on religious freedom" (Nov. 19, 1999)

Religious Freedom Report Released (Oct. 25, 1999)

Religious Persecution Bill Encounters Stiff Resistance (Oct. 5, 1998)

Congress Approves Modified Religious Persecution Bill (Nov. 16, 1998)

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