If it be once permitted to introduce anything into religion, by the means of laws and penalties, there can be no bounds put to it.
—John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
reedom of religion is the most important right. It is more important than freedom of speech, under which some people subsume it. It is the foundation, too, for freedom of the press, the right to assemble peaceably, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. As vital as these and other rights are to the preservation of a just society, they all depend on freedom of religion for their ultimate security, and even for their intelligibility. The framers of the American Constitution understood this well, but they were so effective at securing religious freedom, and the society in which they lived was so well disposed to it, that they did not elaborate upon it at great length in the Republic’s founding documents.
The reasons for the priority of freedom of religion are no longer obvious in our more secular 21st-century culture, yet its undiminished role, like the air we breathe, is something we take for granted until deprived of it. We therefore need to remind ourselves where this foundational freedom comes from—first in its European historical context and then in its American one. This historical reminder will lead us to several far-reaching conclusions, especially for American foreign policy toward Muslim-majority countries. These conclusions apply to key U.S. foreign policy programs, including those concerned with foreign assistance, democracy promotion and public diplomacy.
rom the onset of the Protestant Reformation through the end of the 17th century, European governments endeavored to enforce favored religious doctrines both at home and abroad. The Continent was convulsed by repeated wars as governments sought to defend and expand not only their material interests but their preferred theologies as well. The principal contests were between Roman Catholic governments and those that endorsed one version of Protestantism or another. Suppression of dissent within nations and efforts to convert other nations reinforced each other, since dissent at home amounted to a national security issue.
These wars resulted in various political compromises, including the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion) and a more widely accepted understanding of national sovereignty in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. By the end of the 17th century it had become clear that it would not be possible for European nations to eliminate dissent and to be all one thing, either Catholic or Protestant. The religious wars had been fought to exhaustion.
Ideas like freedom of conscience and toleration long antedated the Peace of Westphalia. They had long been pressed into service by oppressed minority sects when toleration worked to their advantage. But the pre-modern concept of toleration was defined in communal, not individualist terms, and it corresponds best to our contemporary notion of forbearance. So long as each party believed it had true and exclusive access to divine revelation, one could hardly have expected anything more. In the 17th century thinkers like Locke and Spinoza developed a deeper and more principled intellectual foundation in order to attempt to solve what Harvey Mansfield has called the “religious issue.” They argued not merely that a measure of toleration would calm domestic and foreign politics, but that the idea of toleration was rooted in what human beings could and could not know. While these thinkers were usually careful to present their thinking in the arcane language of epistemology, they nonetheless challenged the very foundation of pre-modern religious belief. However indirectly, they asserted the fundamental unknowability of many tenets of revealed religion. As John Locke carefully said: “Whatever God hath revealed is certainly true: no doubt can be made of it. This is the proper object of faith: but whether it be a divine revelation or no, reason must judge.”
Reason was thus held up as the arbiter of faith, and any theology that advanced claims beyond the bounds of reason spun into the realm of the unknowable, in which one claim was just as valid (or invalid) as another. The conclusion was inescapable: The doctrines of revealed religion could not offer a firm and lasting basis for civic agreement. At best, a large majority of people in one nation at one time might hold the same supra-rational beliefs, but this was an inherently unstable basis on which to rest the common agreement necessary for a lasting, peaceful society.
This implied a substantial narrowing of the claims of theology. As a matter beyond reason, theology was stripped of its right to guide political power. Several diverse conclusions followed from this argument. Hobbes concluded that the sovereign should compel religious belief, not because this advanced true religion but because it was the only way to enforce peace. It mattered less what was believed than that all believed alike. Locke drew an opposite and better conclusion: Peace could exist only when sovereigns ceased to compel religious belief altogether. Laws and penalties could enforce outward behavior, but they could not bring men to the core characteristic of true religion: inner conviction. Inner conviction could be achieved only by free assent, and no one could compel the assent of another in a domain beyond the reach of reason.
The consequences were revolutionary. With no one able to claim exclusive access to divine truth, the heterogeneity of doctrine transformed the old idea of toleration as forbearance into a new idea of toleration based on humility. Toleration was not given grudgingly in this new dispensation; it stood instead as a mark of humanity, and was adopted by some Christian denominations as a badge of Christian love and piety. From this transformation ultimately emerged the ideas of a loyal opposition and of open debate as healthy, and necessary, to a democratic political culture.
Nowhere was the ground for these modern ideas more fertile than in the American colonies. There were two reasons for this: the great heterogeneity of mostly Protestant religious denominations and the fact that society preceded the state in the colonies. It has been said many times, not least by Tocqueville, but it bears repeating: In Europe the separation of church and state was designed to protect the state from the church, but in America separation was designed to protect the church(es) from the state. In Europe the post-Reformation tradition of established churches was deep and pervasive; in America it was shallow and unavailing. In Europe the new, modern state had no choice but to compete with the church; in America, it need not and dare not even try.
Almost from the beginning, then, freedom of religion had the upper hand intellectually and morally in America. To be sure, many states and localities made strenuous efforts to enforce religious conformity, but there always remained a deep reservoir of religious toleration in America. By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, no state maintained an exclusive established church. It was widely understood among the Framers of the Constitution that sectarian heterogeneity in America made the establishment of any specific religion nearly impossible. Indeed, in arguing against adding the Bill of Rights to the original Constitution, Madison said that the language of Virginia’s Bill of Rights, however admirable, would not have been sufficient to guarantee religious liberty if one sect had dominated there. Virginia’s true foundation for religious freedom—and the larger nation’s—was, as Madison put it, “that multiplicity of sects which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.”
How does the Constitution treat the issue of freedom of religion? Religion is mentioned only twice in the Constitution, and only once in the original unamended text. The latter provision, found in Article VI, states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The provision in the First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Other than these two provisions—the latter of which neither Hamilton nor Madison thought necessary to include—the Constitution is silent on issues relating to religion. This silence is telling, reflecting the Framers’ general confidence in “the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security” against the intrusion of religion into government. The Framers did not much worry about the imminent development of a national church.
Indeed, the variety of religious sects functioned as a model for other concerns. Madison in Federalist No. 10 observes that while the latent causes of faction include “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion”, the “most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” Madison then observes, in Federalist No. 52, “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights”, explicitly taking the benign variety of religious sects in America as a model for the way civil differences should also be balanced against one another.
This did not mean that the Framers favored driving religion from the public square. George Washington’s Farewell Address, for example, speaks of religion and morality as “the firmest props” of the duties of men and citizens, dispositions which are indispensable for political prosperity. The Framers’ understanding had nothing to do with the exquisite sensitivities of today’s legalists, who profess to find grievous injury in local crèche displays or high school valedictorians quoting Bible verses at graduation exercises. Such concerns Madison proposed to treat by the legal principle de minimus non curat lex (the law does not bother with trifles). The true “religious issue”, the use of political power to compel or shape the religious belief of a society, was not an open issue in America’s constitutional founding. It did not require explicit resolution in the Constitution as did issues like the representation of small and large states or the general separation of powers. It was the air they breathed.
n the 21st century, we breathe a changed philosophical air. We no longer intuitively understand why freedom of religion is the indispensable freedom. Our leaders no longer know by heart the lessons of Augsburg, of Westphalia, or of the English Civil War. That is why they are often at a loss to understand other cultures that have not experienced a Reformation, religious wars, and a deep and long-term intellectual and political settlement of the separation of church and state.
This settlement was a departure from long-standing historical practice around the world. Today we take for granted a division of religion and politics. Most of the world, for most of historical time, has not drawn this distinction; it has practiced what Mark Lilla, in The Stillborn God, calls political theology. It is natural to want to bring our deepest beliefs into mutual alignment. It is natural to want to apply the highest insights to all aspects of life. This is consistent with the breadth of traditional religious claims. Revealed religion offers extensive guidance on matters from the proper way to worship to how to treat other human beings, both fellow believers and non-believers alike. Revealed religion customarily contains detailed instructions about how, when and what to eat, what kind of clothing to wear, and other daily practices. This is why Locke argued that, once a political order takes it upon itself to enforce the commands of revealed religion, it is difficult to see how or where to put bounds on this enforcement—or indeed why there should be any bounds.
As a practical matter, most revealed religions posit a hierarchy of what is more and less integral to the faith and, over time, the hierarchy may gradually change. But clerics of a revealed religion are not content to let individuals pick and choose for themselves which commands of God to obey and which may safely be ignored. Indeed, within the framework of revealed religion there are no logical grounds for doing so.
Since the reach of politically empowered religion is unlimited, individual discretion is always in jeopardy. A government with an established church has no grounds to exempt some claims, or some people, from their enforcement. Some, like British monarchs who serve as titular heads of the Anglican Church, have not the slightest interest in doing so. Not even rigidly theocratic governments can enforce all commands on all of the people all of the time. Practical limits exist even where volitional ones do not—but as a theoretical matter no boundary can be justified. If religious leaders confront a government with its inconsistency in enforcing certain commands of God, the government will be shamed into at least the pretense, if not the reality, of new and stricter enforcement.
The totalism of political theology also reveals itself in another way, through the seriousness of religious vis-à-vis secular claims. The claims of revealed religion elevate the importance of life’s choices and practices. When one enters into a ritual, it is not simply because it is enjoyable or reassuring, as a mere ceremony; it is because one is commanded to do so. Revealed religion suggests that the choices and practices of everyday life connote something larger than themselves. Every practice of daily life, no matter how seemingly trivial, leads either toward God or away from Him.
This tendency is not unique to revealed religion. Other totalizing systems of belief illustrate the same tendencies—Marxism-Leninism, to offer a prominent example. Freudian psychology, where no belief or practice is without some deeper meaning, is another example. So is radical environmentalism in the case of individuals who are so deeply motivated by care for the environment that no aspect of their daily life is free from its commands. It is fascinating to be in the presence of a true zealot. The zealot makes connections not obvious to ordinary people. He or she seems to inhabit a deeper and more complex world.
That said, religion and secular ideologies are not the same, even though both can incline to totalism. The solutions of revealed religion are different in their force and power from the merely secular. Consider the example of consuming alcohol. Perhaps alcohol consumption should be regulated or prohibited because of its deleterious effects on the health of the drinker or on those around him. This, after all, was the public case for passage of the 18th Amendment (which is not to deny the religious strains behind it). But when the 18th Amendment did not prove effective, and even turned out to be in some ways harmful (the rise of organized crime, for example) it was repealed by the 21st Amendment a mere 14 years later. It is far different when governments prohibit alcohol consumption because it contravenes the will of God. The same is true of sexual behavior and gender roles, as well as of many political questions; setting interest rates, imposing taxes or establishing penalties for various crimes can all be prescribed, or proscribed, by the will of God. There is a significant difference between a consequentialist basis for such judgments and a categorical one carrying the force of a divine command. Consequentialist solutions are open to revision and adjustment; categorical solutions, while open to gradual reinterpretation by select authorities, are far more resistant to compromise and revision. Democratic methods align well with consequentialist judgments; they are irrelevant when it comes to categorical commands.
Theological justifications give enormous force to political claims and invariably point governments toward far-reaching compulsion. Where the government sees its purpose as enforcing the will of God, there is no end to the spheres of life into which it will intervene. The concepts of limited government and individual liberty make no sense in such a context.
Religious totalism, however, works one way in homogeneous societies and another in heterogeneous ones. Where conflicting claims about the will of God exist, government enforcement of religion guarantees civil irritation, conflict and repression. There is one and only one way to manage the “religious issue” in a society of competing religious faiths: Each and every religion must forego its claim to use the government to enforce its doctrines. In return, each and every religion is assured that no other religion’s claims will be enforced against it by government.
But what about a situation in which there is near unanimity on religious principles? This, after all, is Hobbes’s solution to the ills of religious factionalism. But this “solution” works only by eliminating freedom—a cure worse than the disease, as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10. Hobbes focused on the narrow question of political stability, but if the task is to create a society with any measure of freedom, the elimination of all faction, even were it possible in practice, would certainly not be the solution.
Moreover, we find no slackening of religious compulsion in societies made up of adherents of one religion. On the contrary, in such societies (Saudi Arabia is perhaps the best example today) enforcement tends to become more, not less, complete over time. A Hobbesian solution is not a one-time affair, but requires the permanent and ongoing imposition of religious conformity. Where religious fundamentalism is enforced by government, prospects for moderation, toleration and limited government are slight indeed. All other rights and freedoms are subsumed under the duty to enforce authorized religious behavior. Where governments enforce religious conformity, all other rights are secondary and conditional. That is why genuine freedom of the press, or of assembly, or of limits of any type on government power do not exist when government endorses and enforces theological claims. Where religion is compelled, no one’s rights are safe. The reverse is also true: Where religion is not compelled, other rights can safely exist.
hat does this mean today? We might begin with a politically incorrect truth, but a truth all the same: Every major world religion except one has made an accommodation in principle with autonomous civil authority. These religions operate as voluntary associations without the force of government edicts and penalties.
This has long been true for polytheistic religions and for immanent religions like Buddhism. It has been generally true of Hinduism in modern India despite the recent reappearance of political-theological currents in Hindu thinking. It is also true today for two of the three main monotheistic religions arising from the Middle East: Judaism and Christianity. Judaism has never enjoyed sovereignty, nor even sought to rule, in any place other than Israel. As a small minority religion in self-understood exile for 1,900 years, Jews have been satisfied by and large to remain separate from civil authority, hoping that civil authority would in turn leave their communities alone. In today’s Israel, though officially a Jewish state that empowers the Orthodox rabbinate in certain functions, there is no compulsion of religion. Citizens of Israel are free to practice religions other than Judaism or to practice no religion at all.
As a global and evangelical religion, Christianity’s history has been quite different. Many times it used political and military force to support religious ends. Governments often insisted that all citizens within their jurisdictions practice Christianity, and the locally dominant form of Christianity at that. This is no longer the case. Nowhere today is there any such thing as a Christian government, meaning a government that compels the practice of Christianity among all its citizens, or that bans other forms of worship. Even in the heart of the Catholic Church in Rome, Christianity is a religion of free association. Those who follow Christianity do so out of no legal compulsion but as a matter of inward conviction or individual choice.
The exception, of course, is Islam. Here we must be careful, because there is a great deal of vulgar prejudice on this subject. Only one Muslim-majority society is a theocracy, properly defined, and while most Muslim-majority states assert some Islamic identity, a wide range of practices prevails. Only Iran is ruled by clerics. Saudi Arabia is a special case of dual authority between the House of Saud and the House of Wahhab, a partnership sealed at the beginning of the modern Saudi state. Lebanon is a confessional state with a Muslim majority, but the weight of Maronite Christian influence in its origins has created a unique situation. In other Muslim-majority societies, Arab and non-Arab alike, there is a spectrum of Islamic clerical influence over social life, ranging from extensive in Sudan to minimal in Algeria. Its role in Egypt is presently being re-determined.
Consequently, too, the legal order in most Muslim-majority countries is mixed. Sharia law cohabits with other legal orders as regards torts, family law, inheritance and the like. Indeed, it does so even in Iran. In some Muslim countries the law states that women must be veiled in public; in one country, Tunisia, it has been against the law for a woman to be veiled in public. In Mauritania, which describes itself as an “Islamic republic”, it is a capital crime to renounce Islam, but that law seems not to be generally enforced.
The point, however, is that while Islam’s role differs from country to country, Islam per se, whether Sunni or Shi‘a or other, has never made an accommodation in principle to the validity of autonomous political institutions. We could speculate at length whether this is intrinsic to the teaching of Islam or not. But the main practical conclusion in inescapable: Whereas Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious clerics do not aspire by doctrinal compulsion to dominate a society’s political life, Muslim clerics do. What prevents them from doing so is a lack of power, not a lack of desire or doubt that this is their mandate.
To the extent Islamic clerics wield power in various countries, all freedoms—of speech, of the press, of the right to assemble and petition and so on—are vulnerable to the totalistic ambitions of religious compulsion. In such a system of belief, what we think of as a natural freedom is judged instrumentally through this lens: Does it promote or impede the practice and power of Islam? If it does not promote Islam, there is nothing logically or theologically to prevent authorities from banning the exercise of any right.
Wherever one finds overwhelming Muslim dominance in any country, that dominance extends to near unanimity which, depending on circumstances, is either supported or enforced by the government. Only in Saudi Arabia and the Maldives are other religions explicitly forbidden from holding worship services, but in no Muslim-majority country aside from Lebanon are other religions treated equally under the law—including Egypt, with its sizable Coptic Christian population. There are no significant cases in which orthodox Muslim clerics of any sect have argued that separating Islam from politics would be good for Islam, and there are no cases of genuine toleration in the sense described above. As a Saudi professor of Islamic law once put it, “Well, of course, I hate you because you are a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill you.” That is the outer bound of Islamic toleration. Where Muslims are a minority, clerics have learned to utilize the modern Western understanding of toleration and its legal rights and procedures to suit their purposes, as is so often on display in Western Europe. This is a tactical understanding of toleration, and if minority status should turn into majority status, as it has in some neighborhoods in France, Germany and the Netherlands, Muslim clerics reliably demonstrate that toleration for them has no return address.
hese realities have consequences for the conduct of American foreign policy. One relates to the foreign assistance program, an important and long-standing tool of American foreign policy. Some U.S. foreign assistance programs provide humanitarian aid in times of crisis. Others, like counter-narcotics or counter-proliferation programs, target specific goals. But the core idea of American foreign assistance programs since their initiation in 1961 has been what is called “development assistance.” Development assistance, which was originally based on Walt Rostow’s notion of stages of economic growth, aims to move less developed nations to a higher level of economic development. The theory behind these programs is that higher economic development leads to greater stability, which in turn leads to the formation of governments whose ideals are more consonant with those of the United States. Though development assistance displayed a decidedly Cold War cast in its initial years, it has continued to shape foreign assistance to the present day, even after the demise of the Soviet Union.
What has remained a source of dispute and puzzlement is an explanation for why some nations develop more quickly than others. Why, for example, have the non-oil exporting nations of the Middle East scarcely developed while nations in East Asia, South Asia, Latin America and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa all made considerable progress? It is certainly not for lack of American foreign aid dollars. For decades, Middle East nations have received the lion’s share of American assistance, military but also economic.
We might propose a hypothesis: Freedom of religion and toleration are excellent predictors of economic development. Where there is no freedom of religion, economic development is unlikely. Look around the world for exceptions to the rule that, where religious belief is compelled or controlled, economic development suffers. The only exceptions appear to be oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, which have been able to achieve a degree of economic development despite their policies. But accidental riches are not the same as organic economic development, which in any event has been highly uneven in these nations. Should Middle East oil decline in importance, these nations will rapidly exhaust their treasuries and collapse into the same poverty as their less oil-favored neighbors. As to those poorer neighbors, who, after all, are the targets of foreign assistance programs, there is little reason to suppose that they will develop economically to the extent that they will be bent on dictating the existence of an all but exclusive Islamic religious society.
The causal connection between a totalized and intolerant religious environment and the failure to develop economically is not hard to make. Where there is no freedom of religion, no other freedom can be secure. Freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to be secure in one’s person and property, and the latitude to pursue and create one’s own happiness are all subordinated either to de facto or de jure governmental enforcement of an established theology. Where people are encouraged to believe instead of think, to obey instead of question, to conform instead of experiment (and where women are virtually banned from the workforce), why would anyone expect entrepreneurial energies to flourish? What used to be said about the implausibility of economic development in the Soviet Union could well be said about totalized Muslim societies under the sway of an established religion.
Foreign assistance programs that aim to foster economic development in natural-resource-poor countries where there is enforced religious conformity are fated to fail. There may be solid reasons to provide foreign assistance to these nations anyway, such as securing military base rights or maintaining peace, but economic development is not among these reasons. If one is looking for a meaningful economic pre-condition for receiving development assistance, it would be this: No freedom of religion, no economic aid.
A second consequence for American foreign policy relates to the so-called Freedom Agenda. America must be in the business of speaking for and promoting freedom around the world. Doing so is consistent with both American interests and American ideals. However much American policymakers might privately debate the wisdom and the limits of intervention in any given instance, it is inconceivable that the United States should not be drawn to those who oppose tyrants. American policy must be—and inevitably will be—geared toward the support of freedom around the world. Hesitance to do so often puts the U.S. government in an untenable position.
That said, what of the argument that sometimes revolutions against dictators produce worse results than dictatorial rule itself? This is an argument, for example, currently made about Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance may turn out to be less consistent with American ideals and interests than was that of Hosni Mubarak.
If we look more closely at this question, we see that it does not extend worldwide. It is not difficult to choose between support for revolutionary forces and dictatorial rule in most places. We do not much worry, for example, that a democratic movement in Burma will produce a worse result than rule by the generals, or that the fall of the Castro or Chávez regimes would produce a worse result for Cuba, or Venezuela, or American ideals. Nor were we concerned when Charles Taylor was forced out of Liberia, for example, that there would be a downside for either Liberians or for Americans. Virtually nowhere in Europe, Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America is there a problem for either local interests or American interests and ideals when people rise up against dictatorial rule.
There is only one region in the world where this issue presents itself as a problem: the Middle East and North Africa. Here there are indeed legitimate questions about how to balance revolutionary fervor with dictatorial rule. Will there be religious intolerance under a post-Saddam Iraqi government? Will the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt persecute, or allow the persecution of, Christian minorities? Will a post-Assad, Sunni-dominated regime in Syria persecute Christian and Alawi minorities? Will these nations pursue the path of post-Shah Iran and create actual theocracies, or regimes that are less tolerant and less moderate than their predecessors? Will they more consistently oppose American ideals and interests? This could well be the case.
If we are honest, we have to admit that these are real and difficult questions. Neither advocates of American realpolitik nor those of the Freedom Agenda should feel comfortable taking a dogmatic position. Is it really the case, as the realists seem to suggest, that America can simply tune out when dictators brutalize entire populations? The experience of the Obama Administration, which did its best to stay out of the Libya conflict, is instructive. In the end, America intervened. Is it really the case, as Freedom Agenda advocates seem to suggest, that we must prefer the Muslim Brotherhood over Hosni Mubarak, if that is where a popular (if not exactly democratic) uprising leads? Is Egypt somehow required to run this gauntlet en route to freedom? What theory undergirds the view that theocracy-prone or totalitarian governments are one step on the path to freedom? Even if this is so, does it not condemn peoples to long periods of oppression in the meantime? After all, the Iranian revolution is now nearly 35 years old. Can anyone seriously argue that the Iranian theocracy represents a real, much less inevitable, way station on the road to freedom?
There is a solution to this dilemma, and it is found in the name of the Freedom Agenda itself. The essence of this agenda is freedom, not democratic majoritarianism as such. The goal of the Freedom Agenda is freedom, that is, limited government and individual liberty. Democratic processes are of course important; they are the way in which the consent of the governed is most clearly, most easily and most honestly expressed. It is difficult to imagine a genuinely free government that does not rely in some obvious way on the consent of the governed. But the Freedom Agenda must ultimately be about freedom, not about elections. The potential limits of majoritarian democracy are nowhere better illustrated than in the position enunciated on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website in 2005: “If democracy means that people decide who leads them, then [we] accept it; if it means that people can change the laws of Allah and follow what they wish to follow, then it is not acceptable.” We have yet to see whether theologically inspired majoritarian democracy in Egypt will aid or hurt the cause of freedom.
Support for democratic movements and the Freedom Agenda thus travel a long way together, but tradeoffs are sometimes required. There are times when the U.S. government must criticize, and even oppose, democratically elected but illiberal governments that tyrannize their minorities and deny them basic freedoms, especially freedom of religion.
Lest this seem too radical a conclusion, we have only to consult America’s own founding principles. America was founded on the idea that there must be limits on the power of majorities. No matter how popular, religious doctrines cannot be enforced by government just because majorities wish them to be. In America, pure majoritarian democracy is tempered by the ideal of freedom, which presupposes the protection of dissent and minority rights. We mightily oppose each and every restriction on our freedoms, especially religious freedom. Are we to conduct a foreign policy based upon principles different from those we espouse for ourselves? Upon what novel theory should we do so?
Our foreign policy must aim always to foster and promote true freedom. This means that we must stand firmly opposed to government compulsion of religion or to government denial of religious freedom, even when it is practiced by otherwise friendly governments, and even when it is supported by large majorities. We must oppose the growing and pernicious effort to limit free expression through international protocols against “insulting religion.” Using the force of government organizations, whether national or international, to restrict free speech about religion is separated by only a few degrees from religious compulsion. The U.S. government must oppose all blasphemy codes and apostasy laws wherever they exist, even and especially among otherwise friendly governments. Such laws and codes reflect a theology that, in Madison’s words, “foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies, to trust it to its own merits.”
We should oppose blasphemy codes and apostasy laws in all international venues as well as in our ongoing bilateral relationships. Beyond this, there is no economic rationale for providing development assistance to nations that maintain them or otherwise compel religious belief or deny religious freedom to minority confessions. We will not see meaningful economic development in these places.
inally, there is a lesson in this for American public diplomacy—the practice of communicating directly with foreign publics—which has been searching for a coherent mission since the end of the Cold War. The values that American public diplomacy should feature are the core values of the American republic. It is true that pontificating about these values to audiences whose heads are elsewhere is not a winning formula for successful persuasion. Nevertheless, making pop culture the essence of American public diplomacy or focusing on how accommodating American policy is to Muslim religious sensitivities is a mistake, as pandering always is. America is not great because it produces “cool” music and styles; it is great because its freedom and toleration allow and encourage these and many other diverse expressions of human creativity.
Youthful protestors around the world already sense what is superficially cool about America. What they often don’t “get” is what makes it all possible. That is what U.S. public diplomacy should do: convey America’s deepest values of freedom, toleration and limited government to those whose circumstances otherwise occlude that understanding. It should not be our goal to be liked by everyone. Our goal should be to lead others to understand the principles we represent, if not also to respect and emulate them.
Would this approach fly in the face of the totalizing Islamic social and sometimes theocratic tendencies among Middle Eastern populations? Yes, it would—in just the same way American Cold War public diplomacy flew in the face of Soviet totalitarian principles and doctrines. But what do we have to lose? Today public favorability toward America in Egypt is 19 percent; in Turkey 15 percent; in Jordan 12 percent; and in Pakistan 12 percent. This, after decades of outreach and economic support, including the Obama Administration’s many recent attempts to extend a friendly hand to Islam. Are we genuinely concerned that we will be less well thought of if we seek to explain the deeper principles that inform our own views? Are we afraid to argue that religion and government will both be better off if there is no compulsion in religion? Or if we explain to restless youth that we support freedom of conscience over and against de facto compulsion by religious orthodoxy? Who are we afraid of offending, and why?
We take our own core principles, and especially the freedom of religion, far too much for granted today. We inadequately understand these principles and their power. It is little wonder that we are mystified that our foreign assistance programs often do not work, why our Freedom Agenda is confused and conflicted, and why our public diplomacy programs often miss the mark.
The modern world has not solved once and for all the “religious issue.” We see in contemporary Islam that there is no permanent solution to the attractions of political theology. They will arise whenever and wherever men believe that the commands of God require enforcement by government. Large majorities of Middle East Muslim populations say they favor democracy; but these same majorities also favor government enforcement of the Islamic faith. This should temper our optimism about the possibility of freedom in these nations in the near term. And if we must live with this reality in the Middle East for years to come, we would be wise to pursue our foreign assistance programs, our Freedom Agenda and our public diplomacy programs with a clear head, modest ambitions and an unshakably patient commitment to the ideals that have made our own nation free and prosperous.