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Response from Gregory W. Hamilton

Discussion Question: How Involved Should The United States Be In Issues Of International Religious Freedom?

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations. It is currently under review for re-authorization. How important is it to continue to support this body? Is the U.S. overstepping its authority by monitoring the state of religious freedom outside its borders? Should we be concentrating our resources and efforts here at home?


The matter of renewing the funding and sponsorship of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) by Congress to monitor human rights violations in other nations, and to make recommendations to Congress on ways it can persuade offending nations to reform, is very much needed for reasons that the other contributors have already stated.

But what few understand is the domestic and administrative (i.e., political "behind the scenes") reasons why USCIRF remains vitally necessary. It is necessary to provide a balancing perspective to the often competing approaches to U.S. international religious freedom policy put forward by the U.S. State Department and USCIRF.

From the inception of the Congressional creation of USCIRF in 1998 as a political compromise in the successful passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, there has existed a partisan tenor (yeah, rancor) between evangelical right and secularist interfaith left advocates and their differing approaches to international religious freedom policy, and especially in regard to their contrasting interpretations and applications of 1) the U.S. constitutional ideal of religious freedom contained and expressed in the First Amendment, and 2) Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which mirrors the U.S. constitutional ideal, and in which every signatory nation to the Declaration guarantees that it will uphold the right of its citizens to both share their faith freely and to change their faith freely without state sponsored reprisal(s).

The State Department prefers a realpolitik, smart-power, approach to international religious freedom policy, and USCIRF prefers an idealistic, swift and heavy-handed economic sanctions, approach to international religious freedom policy. These two approaches have been at odds with corresponding tensions. The State Department and the White House, both headed up by strong Democratic leaders favoring the former approach, may partly explain the reason why the renewal of funding does not seem to be speedily forthcoming, if it comes at all.

Both approaches have positive and negative implications for U.S. international religious freedom policy, with the negative, if taken to extreme limits, representing disaster for religious freedom as we know it, both internationally and here in the United States. But this is the very reason why both perspectives are vitally needed for maintaining a balanced approach. You can read more about this in detail by previewing an article I wrote for the upcoming March/April 2012, issue of Liberty. In its unedited, rough draft form, it is titled "Obama's Olive Branch Doctrine: Interfaith Tolerance and the Reshaping of U.S. Foreign Policy." It will be abridged significantly into a much shorter article for Liberty's needs and purposes, but the unedited version can be found on the Northwest Religious Liberty Association's (NRLA's) website: http://www.nrla.com/article.php?id=94.

This article is part of a two-part article series. The first article was published in the July/August 2011 issue of Liberty magazine, and can be found and read on this website: http://www.libertymagazine.org/index.php?id=1753. It was titled "An Olive Branch Doctrine: Religion and the Path of Democratic Reform in the Arab-Muslim World."

Photo of Gregory W. Hamilton

Author: Gregory W. Hamilton

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.

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