Connecting the Dots: Religion and Foreign Policy

Before saying a final farewell, we invited our graduating research assistants to reflect on their time working with the Religious Freedom Project. We asked them to comment on how their experiences with the RFP have affected their success at Georgetown and how an understanding of religious freedom has influenced their perspective on certain issues in fields such as political science, economics, and theology. 

By: Olivia Lamb

Over the past school year, I have had the unique opportunity and privilege to work with the Religious Freedom Project. The past ten months have been both personally enriching and academically enlightening. During my time with the RFP, I was able to publish my first publication, a blog post on the history of religion in China. It has also provided me with access to scholars and researchers that are in the field and doing the research that I am interested in. All of my papers I have completed in my graduate program have been about religion in China, a crucial country in the future of religious freedom, as it is projected to have the world’s largest Christian population by 2035. Whether it was writing about the historical relationship between economic prosperity and the status of religious freedom in China or attending events about Muslim minorities in Western Europe, the work of RFP scholars has helped inform my time at Georgetown and my understanding of the issues facing the future of religious freedom. 

Attending the various conferences and conversations hosted by the RFP has also provided me with a more dynamic view of the issues affecting religious people around the world. I found the event Muslim Minorities and Religious Freedom: A Public Dialogue to be especially insightful, highlighting a myriad of voices and perspectives on issues impacting the Muslim community. I can specifically recall an issue about the social segregation that some Muslim minorities face and the impact it has on their economic earning potential. This lack of economic mobility can lead to disenfranchisement and create fertile ground for extremist ideology. 

Being able to illustrate the economic issues related to religious freedom is an important connector that makes religious freedom more approachable and resonant with non-religious persons or people of different faith backgrounds. This realization was part of what inspired me to write a research paper on whether or not there was a historical relationship between freedom of religion and economic prosperity in China. The paper examined China over the past 200 years, tracking its religious regulations and economic growth, among other factors. 

This past semester, I took a class on Chinese foreign policy, learning about the different motivations for China’s diplomatic efforts and who shapes said efforts. One of the main points of the class was that more often than not, the actions taken by China are related to its domestic situation and are made in an effort to maintain domestic stability. Another component frequently discussed was how China’s focus on domestic stability manifests in various bilateral relationships, namely the United States-China relationship. Currently, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has experienced a number of high points and is improving.

At the same time, religion and issues of religious freedom as a universal human right are still creating tension. Working with Dr. Farr and knowing his background with the US Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the US International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) inspired me to look into the religious dynamics impacting the US-China relationship. More specifically, I wanted to look into the way that the United States’ obligation to promote religious freedom under the IRFA and China’s history of religious restriction and oppression shape the dynamics of their bilateral diplomacy. 

One of the main issues involves the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom. Since the initial report in 1998, China has made an annual appearance as "a country of concern" or worse. For a government that prefers the quiet approach to diplomacy, "naming and shaming" is not very well received. In 1998 and 2001, China denied the ambassador-at-large of international religious freedom and other delegates from official meetings.

When I completed my research for the paper, I was able to conclude that religion does play a significant, though asymmetrical, role in bilateral relations between the United States and China. The role of religion is asymmetrical because the tensions and issues around religion or religious freedom are rarely, if ever, about religious ideology. Instead, religion matters because it is not viewed equally or in the same manner by the United States and China. In China, there is a threat perception associated with religion that is not present in the US framework. In the United States, religion is a regular part of life and religious freedom is a protected human right. The dichotomy in perceptions causes actions by either country to be misinterpreted and leads to tensions in the relationship. If not rectified, seemingly innocuous incidents can have a detrimental impact on the future of the Sino-American relationship, which could have far-reaching consequences. 

Without my time at the RFP, I would not have gained a new perspective on the role of religion in foreign affairs or domestic affairs. Before working at RFP, I was not sure that there were people who would be interested in what I have to say about religion and China, or where to look if I wanted to pursue that line of research past graduation from my Master’s program. Working with the dynamic scholars at the RFP and seeing the response the RFP generates has shown me that there is a way to research something interesting and meaningful while also making a difference.

Olivia Lamb is a graduate student in the Walsh School of Foreign Service master's degree in Asian Studies program, concentrating in International Political Economy/Business in East Asia, with a China country focus. 

This piece was originally authored on May 19, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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