On President's Day: How Have America's Commanders-in-Chief Have Promoted Religious Liberty Abroad?

In honor of President's Day, this Cornerstone series asks contributors to explore the various approaches that presidents employed in their promotion of religious liberty throughout the centuries. Writers comment on presidential leadership (or lack thereof) on the issue of advancing religious freedom at home and abroad. 

By: John M. Owen

When it comes to religious liberty, America was an early adopter. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1791, prohibited Congress from either establishing religion or limiting its free exercise. Content for its first century and beyond to be a virtuous example, however, the United States did very little to promote liberty—religious or otherwise—in other countries until the twentieth century. Why the change? A glance at history suggests that those presidents who advanced religious freedom abroad did so because they thought it important to the interests of the nation. As America became drawn into global affairs more deeply, its presidents came to believe that promoting its principles abroad actively would make the country more secure.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) was typical of his predecessors in speaking out against religious persecution abroad—in this case, the horrible Kishinev Pogrom of 1903—but doing no more than that. It is with Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) that American presidents became more activist in fostering religious liberty abroad. Wilson is famous for seeking to transform the international order by replacing traditional great-power domination—which he believed had brought imperialism and the devastating Great War—with self-determination and the rule of law among countries. Anna Su notes that Wilson strove to insert religious liberty language into the Covenant of the League of Nations, drafting language that included the words “Recognizing religious persecution and intolerance as fertile sources of war…” and went on to require that all member states allow freedom of religion. In the Covenant negotiations at Versailles, this article went down to defeat, as it became linked to the controversial racial equality article. Wilson did, however, succeed in injecting religious liberty requirements into some of the charter for “mandates” (ex-colonies) and treaties with newly independent countries such as Poland. He saw religious freedom as an essential component of a package of individual freedoms necessary to building a just and peaceful global order.

Wilson’s protégé Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) was similar. FDR believed that a lack of freedom in general had helped cause the Second World War, and he was determined that religious freedom be explicitly named. The second of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, enunciated in his January 1941 State of the Union address, was the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” The Four Freedoms became identified with US war aims. Roosevelt had greater success than Wilson in codifying religious liberty in international documents. Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations notes that one of the UN’s purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion…”

Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman favored a bill of rights for the United Nations and got it in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the UN in 1948. Spearheaded by Roosevelt’s widow Eleanor, the Declaration contains the full-throated Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The statement goes beyond the words of the US Constitution’s First Amendment in spelling out that all have a right to apostasy, or abandoning their religion for another or for no religion, and that liberty extends to practice and not simply conscience.

During the Cold War, American presidents thought about national security less in terms of preventing a general war and building a permanent peace, and more in terms of thwarting the Soviet superpower. Presidential emphasis on religious freedom was tailored accordingly.

All American presidents at least implicitly spoke out for religious liberty in the Soviet bloc by criticizing the Soviets’ communist regime for limiting personal freedom in general. Harry Truman and his administration (1945-1953) adopted the phrase “godless communism” as opprobrium against the Soviet system. At the safe distance of several decades, the phrase is now the stuff of embarrassment and ridicule, like bomb shelters and the duck-and-cover film shorts of the 1950s. But “godless communism” was close to the truth. Communist parties disallowed any religion that believed its god was above the state and persecuted Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who defied them. Eisenhower stressed the differences between Soviet oppression and American freedom, and he made clear that America’s religious nature helped constitute it as a free and cohesive society. The contrast to the USSR was clear.

Exemplifying religious liberty did remain a concern of American presidents during the Cold War. Thus in the 1960s presidential campaign, as many Protestants worried that the Catholic John Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican, Kennedy’s opponent Richard Nixon stated in one of the famous televised debates: “I say—say to this great audience, whoever may be listening, remember, if you believe in America, if you want America to set the right example to the world, that we cannot have religious or racial prejudice.”

Global religious freedom was less prominent in presidential statements and policies from 1945 to the late 1970s, perhaps because the United States had allies in the Cold War that restricted religious belief and practice. Then, as now, Saudi Arabia is an extreme but instructive case; its strict form of Islamic law prohibits or severely restricts any religious practice other than the regime’s own Wahhabist Sunni Islam.

The end of the Cold War in 1989-1991 freed up American foreign policy in many ways, and among the results was a return to an emphasis on universal religious liberty. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was marked by violence among Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim peoples. Once again, it was evident that religious toleration was necessary to peace and stability and threatened in some areas of the world. President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, creating an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and an advisor on religious liberty on the National Security Council. The twentieth century, then, ended much as it had begun, with a US president taking a more active role in promoting the first freedom around the world.

John M. Owen IV is the Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project. 

This piece was originally authored on February 12, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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