The Common Good

Obama's Religious Freedom Record

Barack Obama’s critics allege that the president doesn’t practice what he preaches on international religious freedom policy. Last week they pounced on an apparent gap between presidential rhetoric and reality.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. Photo: Courtesy Judd Birdsall

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On Thursday, the same day that Obama issued his annual Religious Freedom Day proclamation, Religion News Service published an article highlighting his administration’s failure to quickly nominate a new ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October and a successor has yet to be named. It took the administration well over a year to nominate Johnson Cook in the first place, and then a skeptical Senate took an additional year to confirm her. During her brief tenure Johnson Cook never escaped criticism that she was unqualified for the job.

Even so, Obama used his proclamation to affirm, “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose.” He promised that his administration “will remain committed to promoting religious freedom.”

Critics aren’t so sure. The RNS article quotes Georgetown University’s Tom Farr as lamenting, “A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims, and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority.”

So who’s right? Does the current administration stand for religious freedom globally or does the delay in appointing an ambassador cast doubt on that stand? My answer: Yes.

Both sides are right, at least partially.

Critics like Farr are right to press for an expeditious nomination. The ambassador is the face of American religious freedom diplomacy. Without an ambassador, that diplomacy loses face.

And yet Obama is right to trumpet his administration’s commitment to defending belief rights around the world. He needs a new, qualified ambassador to take that commitment forward, but the ambassador is far from being the government’s only instrument of religious freedom promotion.

The United States has thousands of diplomats serving in nearly 200 nations. Collaborating with faith communities on religious freedom and other issues of mutual concern is increasingly part and parcel of American statecraft.

In an August 2013 speech, Secretary John Kerry made it clear that religious engagement is a priority for this administration: “I say to my fellow State Department employees, all of them, wherever you are, I want to reinforce a simple message: I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work.”

Thanks to several Obama administration initiatives, American diplomats have new resources to carry out Kerry’s orders. The Foreign Service Institute, America’s training ground for diplomats, offers intensive courses on religion and foreign policy. The new U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement offers guidance on partnering with religious leaders to advance foreign policy objectives like religious freedom. The 2013 creation of the State Department’s Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives, which reports directly to Kerry, has helped to further elevate and integrate these issues.

And the president’s rhetoric has imbued religious liberty with strategic significance. Freedom to profess, practice, and promote one’s faith is not some fluffy human right. It’s a necessity, not a “nice to have.” As Obama makes clear in his 2014 proclamation, religious freedom is a “critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty” and, for the entire world, “a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.”

In word and in deed, the Obama administration has demonstrated its commitment to promoting religious freedom. The slowness in appointing a new ambassador doesn’t negate that fact.

The three months since Johnson-Cook’s resignation is a blink of an eye in bureaucratic time. John Hanford, George W. Bush’s ambassador, began his duties 14 months after the start of the Bush presidency. Rarely did anyone question Bush’s commitment to religious freedom.

Obama hasn’t enjoyed the same reputation as a religious freedom fighter. It’s in his interest — and the interest of religious freedom worldwide — to appoint a new ambassador quickly.

The RNS article lists five of the IRF ambassador candidates currently under discussion in the Washington rumor mill. All have their strengths, and two have the added bonus of being seasoned diplomats. Previous State Department experience is a major asset for any would-be ambassador who, to be effective, must navigate the byzantine maze of executive branch bureaucracy.

Obama and critics of his religious freedom policy are both partially right. But what matters most are the rights of people who suffer around the world on account of their faith — and the strategic interest the United States has coming to their defense.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal.

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