Some Canadian Advice for the Next President: Don't Treat Religious Freedom Like an American Possession

With primaries already under way, the future of religious freedom is one of many significant issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election. This week Cornerstone asks contributors to comment on how our new president could shape religious freedom policy by reflecting on the following questions: What are the various candidates’ records on religious freedom within the United States and around the world? What domestic and international religious freedom issues are candidates likely to prioritize, and how important are these issues to voters? 

By: Robert J. Joustra

This election season, as candidates try to out “religious freedom” each other on the campaign trail, this Canadian is peeking his head above the border to offer a piece of advice: Don’t treat religious freedom like an American possession. While religious freedom is part of what makes America great, it is not an exclusively American achievement. When Americans treat it that way it does more harm than good, even, amazingly, to some of their closest allies.

Religious freedom is a human right that has found enthusiastic endorsement in a range of very different cultures and very different institutional arrangements. Context deserves attention. Diffusion of religious freedom norms and advocacy has been slow and uneven at times, but it also really exists. It has shown up on the radars of close allies like the United Kingdom, in its Foreign Office, both in training diplomats and in new (if modest) resourcing. In Canada, a $5-million Office for Religious Freedom has existed within the foreign service since 2013.   

And this is just to mention the most obvious examples from the Anglo-sphere. Countries like Norway, Germany, and others not only have enviable human rights records, compared against the global standard, they are also starting to flex their human rights muscles abroad, even on religious freedom.   

To be sure, even in countries now embracing religious freedom advocacy, there remain pockets of critics who suspect that the whole religious freedom agenda is a cover for Americanization and American-style Christian proselytization. These are real fears, whether reasonable or not, and the only way to answer them conclusively is to consistently demonstrate, in word and deed, that religious freedom isn’t just the product of Christian America. It’s a universal human right.   

This means that even America’s best friends and allies must find their own voice, their own unique arrangements and political-cultural justifications, for advocating freedom of religion or belief. The goal is not to make the world an exact replica of America. Rather the goal is to find ways of recreating the greatness of America, things very much like freedom of religion or belief, in and for diverse, indigenous reasons abroad.   

There are a few tangible things the next American president can do to help that along.   

First, the next presidential administration should engage directly not simply with other countries executive leadership, but also sponsor training and encourage all levels of political leadership. Emerging groups such as the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) or the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB) are low-hanging fruit. An American president’s presence at even a single event would send a strong signal.   

But this, second, points to the need to build more than political capacity. At least three other groups need sustained support and attention: (1) international think tanks, public intellectuals, and journalists; (2) academics; and (3) religious groups. All three of these sectors have made major progress on understanding and engaging religious freedom in the last decade inside the United States, but have made much more limited progress in allied countries. Without the underlying intellectual and social architecture, policies on religious freedom in these countries risk being niche interests that are disposed of when the governing party loses (the fear in Canada right now), lacking the depth of expertise needed to really operationalize policy, or assailed as “imports” from abroad (read: America). Building global capacity and credibility, intellectually, publically, religiously, should be a priority for the incoming American president. Even small seeds of “capital investment” from the White House could bear exponential goods in receptive, foreign contexts.   

In short, America doesn’t need to go it alone, doesn’t need to “do it all,” and shifting focus to encouraging and enlarging the capacity of allies on issues of human rights and freedom of religion or belief creates international momentum and also—crucially—shows that believing in religious freedom isn’t just an American thing. Contrary to campaign rhetoric, it is not merely America’s gift to the world. Religious freedom is a human thing, not one or another country’s possession, and investing heavily in an international coalition to prove and move that idea forward should be a top priority for any incoming American president.

Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. 

This piece is a preview of an article that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs on “Faith, Freedom, and Foreign Policy: Recommendations for the Next President.” It originally appeared in this form on February 24, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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