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Religious freedom and American security

Full disclosure, up front: Thomas F. Farr, author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American Security (Oxford University Press), is my friend. Friendship notwithstanding, Dr. Farr has written a very important book.

A 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Tom Farr was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. In that capacity, he traveled the world, trying to persuade persecuting governments to cease and desist. That was hard enough. Farr’s hardest work, however, was inside his own department in Washington.

The Department of State, like the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, is institutionally allergic to the idea that religious conviction has something to do with how the 21st century world works—and why the 21st century world explodes. That allergy reflects the bias of foreign policy realists, according to whom military and economic power are the only units-of-account in world politics; the biases of secularization theory, according to which a modernizing world is becoming ever more secular; and the personal biases of Foreign Service officers, many of whom were educated at elite universities where religion equals mythology.

You might think that 9/11 would have drawn these intelligent people’s attention to the fact that religious conviction is—to put it gently—a dynamic factor in today’s international environment. But you would be wrong. To this day, the chief foreign policy and national security agencies of the U.S. government live in a state of denial about contemporary history’s falsification of the notion that a modernizing world is getting ever more un-religious. By any empirical measure, the world is getting more religious, not less; that basic fact of life has yet to take hold at State, Defense, and CIA.

Thus the task that Tom Farr sets himself in World of Faith and Freedom is both essential and difficult: to change the corporate mind of the American foreign policy establishment on the relationship between religious conviction and world affairs, and on the role that promoting religious freedom ought to play in U.S. foreign policy. His tone is measured; his analyses are fair and balanced. He understands that policy-formation is a complex business in which competing goods must be weighed and trade-offs inevitably occur. No one can reasonably accuse Farr of being a naif.

World of Faith and Freedom also offers an intriguing look at the difficult legislative birth of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and the even more difficult labors involved in giving the State Department’s new Office of International Religious Freedom some bureaucratic traction. The late Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) used to say that the two things people shouldn’t see being made are sausages and laws—

to which Farr would likely add, “new offices at State that State doesn’t want.” The story is a fascinating, if sobering, look at what crawls out when you lift up the bureaucratic rocks.

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Tom Farr’s tests his own proposals for reconceiving the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy by applying them to two tough cases: religious freedom in Islamic states, and religious freedom in China (which Secretary of State Clinton unfortunately deemed less urgent than working with China against global warming). I’d argue with some of Farr’s specific proposals; he senses possibilities in the Muslim Brotherhood becoming a long-term force for decency in the Islamic world that I can’t quite see, for example. But with his general proposition—that religious freedom, successfully secured, advances American security because states that guarantee everyone’s religious freedom are less likely breeding grounds for terrorism or aggression—I am in complete agreement.

The liberals of the Obama administration seem oddly enamored of a “new realism” in foreign affairs. They will soon learn, as others learned before them, that there is nothing “realistic” about supporting tyrants on the ground that only nasties can keep the lid on in nasty places like the Middle East. It doesn’t work. U.S. policy that helps channel religious energies into building civil society where freedom is imperiled is far more realistic. Tom Farr’s learned, lively, and important book shows why, and how.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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