walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: March 6, 2013
Ambassadors for Religious Freedom

As reported by Religion News Service and other media, on February 19, 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada appointed Andrew Bennett to be Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Bennett, a Catholic with a doctorate in political science from Edinburgh and dean of a small college in Ottawa, is to head a new Office on Religious Freedom within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was quickly pointed out that Bennett’s agency was given a budget of 5 million Canadian dollars, while the Ministry of which it is to be part has a budget of 2.5 billion. This raises the obvious question of what can be accomplished with the agency’s budget; theoretically the Ambassador will be able to use the many Canadian diplomats scattered throughout the world, but he himself will only have a very small staff and one can assume that the Ministry will not be generous in making its diplomats available. The reception of the news in the Canadian press was quite friendly, but also skeptical.

The appointment was made with some fanfare. Harper had promised this appointment in his last election campaign. The delay did not suggest a sense of great urgency in the matter and was interpreted by some as a gesture toward a conservative Christian base of the Tory party (a portion of the electorate much less influential than its counterpart in the United States). Harper was quite eloquent on the occasion. Speaking to those persecuted for their religion anywhere in the world, he said: “Canada will not forget you. We will use our freedom to plead for yours”. The venue of the appointment was chosen appropriately—an Ahmadiyya mosque near Toronto. The Ahmadis derive from a Muslim reform movement in British India founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (hence the name). The heaviest concentration of Ahmadis is in what is now Pakistan. There as elsewhere in the Muslim world they have been regarded as heretics, and persecuted both by state actions and by violent mobs.

Whatever political motives there may have been involved in this appointment, there is no reason to question the sincerity of Canadians’ belief in religious freedom, though there have been some instances of conservative Christians being prosecuted for their publicly stated views on homosexuality (sexual orientation being legally protected against discrimination).  But there have been similar instances in the United States and in Europe.  Canada’s record on human rights and liberties is as clean as that of any other Western democracy.

I have always liked Canada. It has always impressed me as the more reasonable, sober country in North America. (Classical Canadian joke: How does one get a group of Canadians to come out of a swimming pool? One goes to the edge of the pool and says, “Will everyone please come out of the swimming pool?”)  In the matter of government policy with regard to religious freedom, the comparison with Big Brother south of the border is inevitable. Compared with the enormous policy apparatus set up by the U.S. Congress in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Andrew Bennett has been allocated a little canoe to paddle through the turbulent waters of religious intolerance. Reasonably, soberly Canadian indeed!

The International Religious Freedom Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. It set up no fewer than three modalities to ensure that religious freedom is an important topic for US foreign policy: The Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State—it has the task of preparing an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country on earth, in addition to the annual report on human rights, previously mandated by Congress; the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a tax-funded organization of distinguished citizens from various faiths, independent of any government agency—it investigates cases of egregious violations of religious freedom in “countries of particular concern” and then makes recommendations to the President on a range of possible US actions; and finally an Ambassador for Religious Freedom, attached to the National Security Council in the White House. It is difficult to imagine a more massive effort to ensure that religious freedom is not forgotten in the halls of power in Washington.

How effective this effort has been in stimulating U.S. actions, or in actually influencing events in foreign countries, is obviously a different matter. I must say that I don’t know. From occasionally reading the reports from these agencies, I get the impression that they try very hard to be objective, both in reporting the misdeeds of enemies (such as Iran) and of alleged friends (say, Saudi Arabia). From occasional conversations with foreign service officers, I also gather that a good deal of research goes into the making of the mandated reports. However, I would like to make some observations about this kind of activity in big as against small powers, and in the routine business of diplomacy in general.

Advocacy of religious freedom in the foreign policy of a state is an attempt to exercise “soft power”.  I am aware of the controversy in the field of international relations around the term “soft power”, as it was first coined by Joseph Nye, a distinguished Harvard professor. I don’t want to delve into these interesting debates, which are rather outside my own competence. However, I will make some observations, as a sociologist not altogether innocent of the realities of international politics. It seems to me that the term “soft power” is somewhat misleading. I follow Max Weber in defining “power” as the ability to make someone do something that they would prefer not to do. In this understanding I exercise “power” no matter whether I am threatening to send in the Marines or to block a grant from the International Monetary Fund. These exercises must be distinguished from “influence”, or persuading without any threats. “Soft power” would seem to cover both cases where my threats are non-military and cases where there are no threats at all. It can be real power, “soft” only by abstaining from physical force in favor of economic or other non-violent means of coercion. I doubt whether real efficacy in changing the behavior of other states can be divorced from real power—if you will, hard power. Governments don’t respond well to sermons. If that is so, there is a vast difference in the ability to change the behavior of others on the part of big states (like the United States) and small ones (like Canada). This may well change in the not too distant future, but thus far no nation is more powerful than the United States, which (quite apart from its economic muscle) has the capacity to project its military power around the globe. What other military has actually imposed a grid of “commands” over most of the planet? It follows that, if the U.S. President or the U.S. Congress should decide to take action against a “country of particular concern”, this will carry much more weight than an action by the Canadian government. (Unless, that is, the latter rides piggyback on the former. As the mouse said to the elephant, after it crossed the river on the elephant’s back: “Boy, did we make that bridge shake!”)  If the US President says that he might unleash his drones unless a particular atrocity ceases, this has a greater chance to change a tyrant’s behavior than an assurance by the Canadian Prime Minister that Canada will not forget.

However, there is a more general problem with diplomats being charged with the task of making foreign tyrants change their ways. Diplomats have the job of representing the interests of their governments. In carrying out this job, they must often engage in polite conversation over tea with more or less appalling dictators. I can imagine the Secretary of State talking with Chinese leaders, trying with whatever arguments to dissuade them from hacking the computers of American companies, from encouraging North Korea to develop missiles that could carry atomic warheads to California, or from starting a war with Japan over some uninhabited islands in the China Sea. At which point in this conversation, could he slip in, “Oh, and I am supposed to ask you to stop beating up on Tibetan monks.” I imagine that his Chinese interlocutors would smile politely, and offer him more tea. (Unless, less politely, they repeated what a Chinese commentator wrote recently: “You don’t want to upset the guy who holds the mortgage on your house.”)

There can be no doubt that many people in Western democracies strongly believe in human rights and liberties. In a democracy it is both right and inevitable that citizens will seek to make their values effective in the actions of their governments. Thus I would not want for a moment to denigrate the aforementioned initiatives on religious freedom in Canada and the United States (there are similar efforts in the European Union). I am inclined to believe that they sometimes have the desired effect—if there are no more urgent national interests involved, and if the foreign government addressed has reasons other than moral insight to do what you want it to do. I would only urge you not to expect too much from the aforementioned initiatives, and to take to heart the following general propositions about political reality: Interests are generally stronger motivators than moral principle. If you want to achieve what you desire for moral reasons, it is much more promising if you can appeal to interests rather than moral principles. Soft power can be real, but it is likely to be much more effective if backed up by hard power. The calculus between morality and raison d’etat is different for a large state and a small one—the former has more real power at its disposal (and thus, sometimes, a greater responsibility to use it), the latter (precisely because of its relative powerlessness)  has more freedom to proclaim its principles. Perhaps, morally speaking, large and small states may have different missions.

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  • Canadian

    One recent development in the study of religious freedom is the attempt to link it to national security. There is a great deal of evidence regarding the emergence of violent religious extremist groups and religious persecution. One example is the emergence of al-Qaeda and Salafi-Jihadism in general. Salafis as a group have been brutally suppressed by the Saudi monarchy. The radicalisation process of Salafis correlated with increasing persecution by the Saudi states, crystallizing in events such as the Grand Mosque seizure.

  • Suzume

    Most all the wrinkles that arise to do with religion would be ironed out when Islam is reclassified to its genuine status – which is not a “religion” nor is it a cult. It is a complete system. Islam has religious, legal, political components, economic components social and military dictates. The religious component is a beard for all the other components.
    It was designed out of the desire for revenge and wealth and Mohammad’s need to make a name for himself. He had no parents and was all alone in the world and was put out in the dog house and treated like he was a dog by the woman of the household where he stayed. As such, the ideology exists also to keep the male believers happy no matter what they chose to do in life. The only way a male can be punished in Islam is to either be homosexual or to be a “bad” Muslim by not following its dictates to a “t”.

  • Peter Jessen

    The use of the term “Ambassador” by Harper and the modalities. Berger asks with two penetrating questions: the “obvious question of what can be accomplished with the agency’s budget,” and “What other military has actually imposed a grid of ‘commands’ over most of the planet?” Could we say that the second question provides the “hard power” that enables the “soft power of the first, with the budget of the first then actually supporting the work of the second?

    Regarding the 3 religious modalities: how akin are they to what St. Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NRSV): that we are called to be “Ambassadors for Christ” (v. 20)? Is this a compromise between the mission of the Western countries (a pacified world) and that of the church, pacific with Christ (leaving aside that some of the historic “pacification” has been with hard not soft power)? St. Paul describes the mission of transforming everything into newness, that God, through Christ, reconciled everything to himself. St. Paul then offers two statements that make up what Christians are to be “as Ambassadors for Christ”: (1) God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation,” as God is (2) “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

    Or are these new “Ambassadors for Christ” part of the “hard power” of the state to encourage peace and discourage tyranny (hence the “grid of commands”)? Which message entrusted to them, by God, by Caesar, will prevail? Will they find the middle ground that will work for both. I’ll watch with fascination.

    I would have hoped that Harper would have been more inclusive with his “We will use our freedom to plead for yours,” as if persecution were only for the religious. Wherever there is religious persecution there also occurs persecution across a whole spectrum of of socio-economic-political activities. Religious freedom is not enough (as Berger reminds in books and articles). Do other liberties have to be present before religious liberty? Is this another chicken and egg question? On the other hand, what about the position of militant Islam that religion has to come before full liberty, with liberty defined as having the freedom to follow the dictates of Islam?

    Berger well reminds us that “Interests are generally stronger motivators than moral principle.” And thus, from the standpoint of religious freedom, he expresses the equivalent of what younger readers will recognize: the principle of “Saint” Spider Man: “with great power comes great responsibility.” So whose interests will these modalities represent if continuing budgeting dictates “adjustments”?

    Berger is both reporting and being prophetic. Reporting: “There can be no doubt that many people in Western democracies strongly believe in human rights and liberties.” Prophetic: “In a democracy it is both right and inevitable that citizens will seek to make their values effective in the actions of their governments.” Back in 2008, I did a study of pollution control technology for Chinese in Singapore seeking to build a business on pollution abatement/cleanup enterprises, which they felt would reduce pollution, make money, and contribute to reducing the nearly 20,000 local uprisings or revolts or reactions (call them what you will, with emphasis local), that were based on reaction to pollution and pollution generating activities upstream causing damage to their rice paddies, etc. I suggested that they could kill two birds with one stone: pollution and uprisings(“revolution”) by instituting that which makes capitalism great: democracy. They said a Chinese version was coming.

    Barnett has lately been maintaining that China to succeed without going through a disruptive revolutionary stage (see de Tocqueville), they would have to give up the reins of power to the localities, through some democratic structure that allows free expression, ownership, and more localized market freedoms as well as those associated with many of our Bill of Rights.

    So you can imagine the satisfaction I felt reading in the Feb 22, 2013 WSJ, p. A11, that “the Chinese communist party have recently instructed their underlings to secure and read Tocqueville’s book, ‘Ancien Regime and Revolution’” (which, in the Age of the Internet, can lead to them also encountering, purposefully or accidentally, de Tocqueville’s “Democracy”). De Tocqueville, of course, applauded what Berger calls “mediating structures,” volunteerism, and the market oriented economy. This could have influence throughout the Chinese sphere of influence, including Vietnam and North Korea.

    Or is one a Trojan Horse that is not recognized by the other?

    It will be interesting to see which “masters” or both that these religious modalities serve, especially in China, that meets the missions of both the USA and the religious “modalities:” which morals and values, with accompanying change in social policy, will occur inevitably or accidentally, and how their missions will benefit from the new de Tocqueville reading list given to the boots on the ground.

  • Bill

    Thanks for the interesting and well-written post. While I agree that interests tend to be more powerful motivators that moral principles, I think that most of the time (if one looks carefully) they are in alignment. Perhaps the challenge then is to help persuade those guilty of persecution that religious liberty, for its own sake, is in their nation’s best interest. A formidable task, to be sure.

  • Gary Novak

    Jessen asks if we could say that the hard power of military commands (regions) enables soft power. I think Berger is saying that the soft power of the U. S. isn’t really soft and that the soft power of the Canadians isn’t really power. The use of hard power can be religiously justified (e.g., “just war” in defense of the defenseless), but states do not make the best ambassadors of religion. Berger contrasts power (whether it is called hard or soft) with non-coercive influence. Effective ambassadors of God operate in the latter realm, with Christ showing the way through innocent suffering (driving will-to-power Nietzsche up the wall). But in Nazi Germany, Jesus would be rounded up and gassed before he could even start his ministry. So the use of power (let’s drop the adjectives—I’m not as careful as Berger in not speaking beyond his competence) is, indeed, important in enabling meaningful lives in which the way we live our lives becomes existential testimony to our values.

    I don’t read Berger’s blogs solely for the jokes. But one could: they are pointed as well as funny. One of my favorites illustrates the “mythic deprivation of capitalism” (in “The Capitalist Revolution,” 1986). Two dressmakers are having financial difficulties and draw straws to see who will jump from the top floor for the insurance to save the business (a more chilling image, post-9/11). On the way down, the loser looks in the windows of their competitors and then shouts to his partner, “Abie, cut velvet!” Capitalist “greed” is not something to die for. But many have died for the socialist myth that socialism brings about the noble goal of social justice. Capitalism is not very inspirational, but empirically it provides the economic freedom which, when combined with political and religious freedom, enables us to work out our salvation with meaningful life choices. Socialism provides a fraudulent religion.

    We may be “condemned to freedom” (Sartre) in any case, but our existential choices will be a lot more interesting if they are made under conditions of political freedom. States can use power to “export democracy” (which, despite what social problems texts usually say, is not synonymous with ethnocentric, militaristic, imperialistic policing of the world). But the real ambassadors of God touch hearts at the I-Thou level of interpersonal relations. (That’s what I was getting at in questioning the concept of a global neighborhood.) So, when Jessen asks how akin the government religious ambassadors are to St. Paul’s ambassadors for Christ, I would answer “not at all.” State power can help to make the world safe for St. Paul’s ambassadors, but the government religious ambassadors themselves are mostly window-dressing. Indeed, Berger is suggesting the diplomacy in general, as opposed to the power that backs it up, is mostly fluff—“Would you please stop beating up on Tibetan monks?” That only works with Canadians who are out of the pool before you can finish your request.

    So I would prefer to say that power can enable non-coercive influence and that, therefore, states have an indirect role to play in the drama of salvation by making room for the real ambassadors of God.

  • Peter Jessen

    Novak is to be thanked for exposing my sloppiness that hid my thought regarding “ambassadors.” His statement of their being “window dressing” is correct (I researched and wrote for three U.S. National Commission is the 70’s, and so experienced it, at least in those three encounters).

    Reading Novak’s response enables me see I should have been more clear in distinguishing Berger’s “Ambassadors for Religions Freedom” and my use of St. Paul’s term, “Ambassadors for Christ.” I did not mean to suggest that these three modalities represent Christo-centric Ambassadors, and welcome this opportunity to clear that up. My focus was the word “ambassador.” Clearly, if there was religious freedom everywhere, you’d reduce 2/3 of the armed conflicts (leaving mostly political conflicts, as at the U.N. or in Congress or in various Parliaments). That would make it much easier to deal with those still wanting to be ambassadors Mao style with the barrel of a gun.

    I got caught up in the power of transcendence, which was not Berger’s point in this essay (in his Facing Up To Modernity, Berger reminds us that religion will not have a renascence trying to be “relevant to modern man”). And Ambassador-ness is as relevant to modernity finding as you can get.

    Government ambassadors reflect the major definers of reality (what Berger wonderfully refers to as “reality police”) that have essentially declared transcendence “inoperative” but not religion. If I understand Berger correctly, the point, which may be part of why we have these three modalities, is that “a world view without transcendence must eventually collapse, because it denies ineradicable aspects of human experience,” and it is that collapse that such nodalities seek to prevent in the minds of those who create them, who still can’t understand what Berger calls a “demand for contraband transcendence” (p. 210), almost as if these modalities are like next levels on the pyramid of modernity, levels used by non-transcendent secularists to cover over any potential transcendence underneath (the dark side of the modalities is to show that if all religions should be free to be, enabling reality police to entertain their notion that the Babel of beliefs, if allowed, proves their point of no transcendence).

    Thus, in Berger’s coined phrase, reality police can contain their secularist reality through “enforced triviality.” That unintentionally, as Novak put it, “makes room for the real ambassadors of God.” This is where we can insert Novak’s “indirect” role of the states (unintentional) “in the drama of salvation” by (unintended consequence) “making room for the real amabassadors of God.

    When Novak says “many have died for the socialist myth,” I’m sure he means in both senses, (1) dying in battle for it and (2) killing those who won’t believe (the 1930’s left who stated that if it took 30 million lives to create the socialist utopia by Stalin, it was worth the price. I relate because in the 1970s in graduate school, I was told, in the most friendly terms possible – nothing personal – by the nore fervent “ambassadors for socialism,” that I would be one of the first ones shot come their socialist revolution because I was not a Marxist.

    Which bring me back to Berger’s “A Mormon Moment,” of July 13, 2011. Having forgotten everything I probably never knew about Mormons beyond Zane Grey western novels read as a youth, I was surprised that little was said about it by Romney. Then I was invited to a Mormon friend’s daughter’s wedding at the L.A. Temple in summer 2011. Signing a visitor card was rewarded with a knock on my door. Intriqued and wanting to learn more, I agreed to teaching sessions and Ward (church) attendance when possible (their Ward building has two congregations, switching twice a year between holding services in the morning and afternoon). Three hours: sacrament worship then gospel or doctrine study then split into women (Relielf Society) and men (Priesthood lesson) groups.

    I’ve also attended their Stake (bunch of Wards) young people’s afternoon service (18-30 year olds, 1/3 of which are former missionaries). What wonderfully engaging discussions. Here are real ambassadors, and without government subsidy. It is projected that the 14 million Mormons worldwide will grow to nearly 280 million by the end of this century. And now with the new revelation allowing women to become missionaries at 19 (a 400% rise in applications by young women) they reduce the “separation” of young men going off and then coming back after two years only to then see their girl friends taking off for two years. When I sit in the young people’s groups it reminds me of sitting in on between session discussions at the State Department training various level diplomats.

    So despite its attempt at “repressive triviality,” we might say that the “contraband transcendence” will still result in various forms of ambassadors, despite the “reality police,” carrying the message.

  • Gary Novak

    Jessen needs to offer no apology for merely asking about the kinship between political ambassadors for religious freedom and St. Paul’s ambassadors for Christ. He did not claim that they are akin. I was having trouble getting started, so I’m glad he gave me an entry point. And, if he got caught up in the power of transcendence, well, what a nice place to be! I turned to the page (210) he cited in “Facing Up to Modernity” and found I had underlined “contraband transcendence.” I once used that essay (“The Devil and the Pornography of the Modern Mind”) in formulating a response to a librarian’s discussion question about the popularity of vampire stories. We became friends.

    But on the question of the role of states in the drama of salvation, I was not thinking in terms of enforced triviality. I was thinking of the contrast between religious freedom in the liberal democracies and Nazi Germany or Saudi Arabia. I was endorsing the principled (intentional) protection of religious freedom. Jessen makes the interesting point that the very attempt to create modalities of religious ambassadorship implies a failure to grasp Berger’s claim that “a world view without transcendence must eventually collapse, because it denies ineradicable aspects of human experience” (a claim Jessen and I both accept). By attempting to protect all religions, the religious ambassadors are, in effect, trivializing transcendence by reducing it to (cultural) “religion,” which, in its plurality, cancels itself out. But, because transcendence is ineradicable, the repressed returns as contraband transcendence. It’s the religious ambassadors who are cancelled out! Sequester them!

    But I would distinguish between the ineffectual ambassadors (keeping their lists of good guys and bad guys—especially in countries of “particular concern”—you know, the countries God really cares about) and the state. The First Amendment is not fluff. I hope my image of Jesus being rounded up and gassed was not offensive to anyone. Jesus set Pilate straight about where the power to crucify comes from. But we ordinary folks fare much better if we don’t have to be martyrs to pursue our signals of transcendence.

    Chomsky says morality is not a property of states, which always act for reasons of state. He sees the purpose of the American state as “deterring democracy” both at home and abroad. C. Wright Mills saw nothing ineradicable in human nature. We could all become “cheerful robots.” That was the kind of intellectual milieu I grew up in. But today, thankfully, it seems that I have enough ineradicable common sense to recognize that liberal democracy does a good and moral thing in intentionally protecting religious freedom. Berger and Jessen had enough sense to avoid Marxism in the old days. I’m a slow learner.

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