Why U.S. international religious freedom policy fails

In his June 13 testimony before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform, Dr. Thomas Farr of Georgetown’s Berkley Center described the failures of U.S. international religious freedom policy over the past decade and a half and suggested some of the structural reasons for that failure: lack of strategic integration, such that religious freedom doesn’t “fit” with other U.S. foreign policy objectives; resistance in the Department of State against the very idea of an international religious freedom policy and a special ambassador for promoting religious freedom; little or no leadership from presidents and secretaries of state.

And the dismal result? According to Dr. Farr, “it would be difficult to name a single country in the world over the past 15 years where American religious freedom policy has helped reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way.

The problems, Farr continued, are not just structural. They’re conceptual.

Some ill-informed Foreign Service professionals imagine that U.S. policies that promote religious freedom violate the First Amendment. Still others fantasize that international religious freedom policy is an evangelical ploy to use American power to clear the way for Christian missionaries. Others are afraid of scaring Islamists into further violent reactions. These reasons are dumb, or unworthy, or both.

But the real issue here is a deeper and more disturbing one. In Farr’s direct, unambiguous language, “a significant proportion of our foreign policy officials no longer believe that religious freedom is the ‘first freedom’—of American history, of the U.S. Constitution, and of all people everywhere.

That is, too many members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in and out of public service, no longer believe that religious freedom is a foundational right, in that its acknowledgment in both culture and law protects something essential to democracy. Too many members of the foreign policy establishment disagree with George Washington that religious conviction is essential to “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” Too few members of that foreign policy elite understand James Madison’s conviction that religious citizens and their communities are essential parts of civil society, and thus important checks on the tendency of all governments to expand their power.

My own three decades of experience with the foreign policy establishment confirm Tom Farr’s judgment, although, like Farr, I know senior people in and out of government who share Farr’s conviction and mine that the defense and promotion of religious freedom, strategically conceived and intelligently executed, is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. But they are a minority. And they are a minority that rarely dares raise its head in the present administration, whose approach to these issues was defined by Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 2009, when the secretary of state declared that “to fulfill their potential, people … must be free to worship … and to love in the way that they choose.”

As I pointed out at the time, this was a degradation of religious freedom in two respects. First, it reduced religious freedom to “freedom of worship”: which is to say, religious freedom is a privacy right to certain lifestyle choices having to do with recreational activities aimed at personal satisfactions. Some people go to church or synagogue or mosque; some people go to Camden Yards or Fenway Park; some people keep parakeets; it’s all the same.

Second, this dumbed-down concept of religious freedom was equated to the LGBT agenda (which, as the discerning will have noted, has already morphed in subsequent years into the LGBTQ agenda—Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Questioning). This borders on blasphemy; it is certainly idiocy; and it is guaranteed to make America enemies around the world.

Still, it must be admitted that Secretary Clinton’s speech was not idiosyncratic. Reducing religious conviction to another lifestyle choice while ignoring the community-forming aspects of religious conviction and those communities’ impacts on civil society is of a piece with broader secularist currents in America. As Dr. Farr’s brave testimony suggested, those misconceptions are making a hash of both domestic policy (the HHS mandate and the marriage debate) and foreign policy.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”