Promoting Religious Freedom from the Oval Office

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: William Inboden

From the beginning of the United States’ development of a modern foreign policy, religious freedom promotion has held an important, albeit underappreciated, place. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, America’s debut in the elite ranks of global powers also brought with it a new sense of concern for religious freedom internationally. It is not that past presidents had not cared about religious freedom, but that the United States did not previously have the ability or interest in projecting power and influence abroad. 

A signature moment came in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt learned from American Jewish leaders of the vicious pogroms being visited on Jews in the Russian city of Kishinev. The American president departed from the diplomatic model of not commenting on the internal conditions of other nations and sent a petition of protest to Czar Nicholas II. This was a watershed moment for the development of international human rights, as it set the precedent for abridging previously sacrosanct notions of absolute state sovereignty. (Such deviations from precedent in matters of conscience were not unusual for Roosevelt, who two years earlier had invited Booker T. Washington to dinner and thus became the first American president to host a black man in the White House.) 

Roosevelt also set the precedent for many of his successors in the White House to incorporate religious liberty into their foreign policies. These spanned the diplomatic spectrum, from appeals on individual cases of religious prisoners of conscience to negotiations over the tenets of the international system itself. The exemplars of this presidential religious freedom diplomacy include many of America’s most consequential presidents of the twentieth century. For example, in the peace negotiations after World War I, Woodrow Wilson made religious freedom a priority in many dimensions, including in the constitutions of new states like Poland emerging out of the dissolution of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. 

Two decades later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enshrined “freedom of worship” as one of his landmark “Four Freedoms” of 1941 that defined the American vision for the post-war order—a dream partially fulfilled by his widow Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 as she led the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its robust protections for religious freedom found in Article 18. FDR did not confine his diplomacy to lofty rhetoric. As recounted by Cambridge historian Andrew Preston, at the outset of his presidency in 1933, Roosevelt also engaged in hard-nosed negotiations with the Soviet Union that successfully conditioned American diplomatic recognition of the USSR on Moscow’s willingness to grant religious freedom to Americans in the country.

Roosevelt’s untimely death thrust Harry Truman into the Oval Office, but a different president did not mean indifference to religious freedom. Truman soon confronted the perilous question of how the United States should respond to the growing power of the Soviet Union and its seemingly malign intentions. Part of why Truman decided on an assertive American strategy to contain Soviet expansion was his distress over the religious persecution that was so pervasive under communist regimes. Truman also did not limit his religious freedom concerns to America’s adversaries. He pressured American and European Protestants to be more welcoming to Catholic leaders, and he encouraged Catholic governments, such as Franco’s Spain, to show more toleration to Protestants, including missionaries. 

Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, was of a different party but held the same convictions when it came to promoting religious freedom internationally. Eisenhower shared Truman’s concern over religious oppression under communist governments and also expanded these diplomatic efforts to America’s Islamic allies. For example, in 1959, as the first US president ever to visit Afghanistan, Eisenhower personally appealed to King Zahir Shah to allow the Christian residents of Afghanistan to construct a church building, heretofore not permitted anywhere in the country. In successfully making this request, Eisenhower reminded the king that two years earlier, he had given welcome remarks at the dedication ceremony of the Washington Islamic Center, America’s most prominent mosque.

The concerns for religious freedom held by American presidents at the beginning of the Cold War were shared by those presidents who oversaw the Cold War’s final chapters. Among his many human rights and religious freedom initiatives around the globe, as a precondition to finalizing America’s diplomatic recognition of China, Jimmy Carter asked Deng Xiaoping to take a series of specific measures to improve religious freedom in the People’s Republic. Less appreciated today, Ronald Reagan gave religious freedom perhaps the highest diplomatic priority of any American president of the twentieth century. This was not just a boutique interest of Reagan’s, but was integral to his overall Cold War strategy. For example, to test Soviet credibility on a range of sensitive negotiating topics, Reagan first demanded that the USSR permit seven Siberian Pentecostals, who had escaped persecution and sought refuge in the basement of the US Embassy in Moscow for several years, to exit the country. 

Reagan’s advocacy was not confined to his fellow Christian co-religionists. The late Max Kampelman, a senior Reagan administration diplomat, recalled that Reagan directed the US Embassy staff in Moscow to station themselves outside the main Moscow synagogue every Friday evening to protect Jewish worshipers from KGB harassment. Reagan also regularly pressured his Soviet counterparts to allow more Russian Jews to emigrate. His cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support the mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan stemmed in part from a desire to protect Muslim freedom of worship from Soviet oppression.

The span of the twentieth century witnessed American presidents from both parties and of diverse denominational backgrounds promoting religious freedom in a range of geopolitical contexts and against an array of adversaries. Despite the carnage and destruction wrought by history’s most sanguinary century, when it comes to presidential promotion of religious freedom, it offers some promising models. 

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin.

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

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/7/promoting-religious-freedom-from-the-oval-office