Merely Tolerable

Gregory W. Hamilton March/April 2012

Thomas Jefferson, in an unsent letter from Monticello, dated September 27, 1809, to a James Fishback that addressed his own views on the proper roles of church and state, provided a rather extraordinary response line. He passionately observed that “among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!” When it came to disputing over metaphysics and theology, Jefferson emphatically reminded Mr. Fishback that on such questions “oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren.”1

Thomas Jefferson had to confront Islamist realities during and after the Barbary Pirates War in North Africa.2 As in Jefferson’s time, the proper role of religion and religious powers always seems to make for a potentially explosive conversation in America. We sometimes forget, however, that it is a growing conversation on an international scale.3 The longing for some kind of democratic reform is shaking up the world, and particularly the Arab-Muslim world as they deal with their own internal “clash of civilizations” between the younger and older autocratic generations, and between those who want to modernize and secularize, and those who do not.4

But the question that continues to emerge from this revolutionary fervor is whose version, whose values will emerge, and more important whose values are we promoting when encouraging these countries toward freedom and democratic forms of government? When President Barack Obama speaks of championing “universal values,” what exactly is he saying, and what does that translate into in terms of policy in the Arab-Muslim Middle East? Are we intent on only going halfway in the mode of a real politic that risks the hijacking of these movements by radical Islamists? Or do we insist on going all the way in an idealistic manner and guiding them to America’s—to a universal ideal? Is there room for both approaches? This continues to be the pressing question. One has just to listen to the language being used and look at the methods adopted to try to reform the world in order to make sense of what is going on.

Prior to the start of their working dinner during the Middle East negotiations, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel check their watches to see if it is officially sunset. During Ramadanm fasting continues throughout the day until after sunset.

Many observers of U.S. policy pronouncements of late have noted that the phrases “freedom of worship” and “religious tolerance” seem to have replaced “freedom of religion” in public speeches and formal pronouncements made by President Barack Obama and his administration. To some this may seem like an unnecessary exercise in semantics, but it is a subject that represents a subtle but significant shift toward religious “tolerance,” away from the ideal of “freedom”—or somewhere in between—as the national and international norm for religious freedom policy. In a broader sense this exercise reveals the president’s emerging foreign policy.

This shift in language was highlighted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2010 Annual Report to Congress, the White House, and the State Department. The USCIRF observed that “this change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications.”5

One could legitimately argue that tolerance is, for international purposes, one step closer to the ideal of freedom and the only realistic approach toward achieving world peace in spite of an increasing clash of civilizations-like environment. So to argue that this is a sudden shift in language, and thus a shift in international religious freedom policy may be to miss the point; which is there never was a shift to begin with—that the president was set on this path all along, as evidenced early in his presidency with his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt. The use of interchangeable language is meaningful if policy is affected in a significant way. And it appears that it is.
 Carl Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri and Faith-based Initiatives expert in the Bush administration, argues that this interchangeable use of language signals a possible shift in foreign policy and is perhaps meant to diplomatically appease the sensibilities of Muslims, both at home and internationally. He says it is an effort to repair relations fractured by September 11—and perhaps a mistaken approach that signals Islamic countries that the United States is not looking to interfere with their internal matters,6 and in particular their record of upholding or not upholding the U.N. Charter on human rights and its covenants in which they are signatories.

Parallel concerns have been raised in regard to Obama’s and the State Department’s policy toward China, where human rights has apparently been soft-pedaled in a calculated exchange for cooperation on a wide range of shared national and international security interests, and in particular Iran’s and North Korea’s projected development of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, as Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a member of USCIRF, lucidly observes, “freedom of worship” connotes “tolerance,” not “religious freedom,” thus falling short of the U.S. constitutional and international human rights standards. She points out that what is not commonly understood by the American public is that “freedom of worship,” as a basis for interpreting policy, specifically “excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with coreligionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training.”7

An Interfaith Approach to Global Democratic Reform
Ms. Shea’s insight corresponds with the most remarkable section of President Obama’s “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, in which he appeared to equate religious freedom with tolerance when glowingly commenting about his experience as a boy in Indonesia. He said: “The fifth issue that we must address together is religious freedom. Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it’s being challenged in many different ways.”

Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo was aimed at the worldwide Muslim community in an attempt to provide an olive branch to them, and to make clear the distinction between violent Islamist extremists that exploited fellow Muslims and the West, and the vast majority of peaceful Muslims around the world. Yet it revived long-running arguments between foreign policy experts regarding exactly how the U.S. government and its Foreign Service apparatus should define and apply “religious freedom” terminology to countries that are in continual gross violation of the United Nations Charter on human rights.

Some may question that this shift in language is also an indicator of at least a subtle, if not major, foreign policy shift by the Obama administration and the State Department. But Obama repeated this theme during his speech in Jakarta in November 2010,8 referring to his stepfather’s Muslim identity as one that taught him as a child to recognize that “all religions were worthy of respect.” Obama said that “in this way” his stepfather “reflected the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution,” and “symbolized in mosques and churches and temples.” He said that this “remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.” In diplomatic speak, Obama said that the concept of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika—unity in diversity,” where Indonesia “is steeped in spirituality—a place where people worship God in many different ways”—“is the foundation of Indonesia’s example to the world.” Addressing the leaders of the world’s largest Muslim nation, Obama emphatically declared that “America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam.”9

President Obama then emphasized the term Pancasila, which references Indonesia’s five national principles and the philosophical basis of its constitution. These philosophical principles are: (1) “belief in the one and only God,” (2) “a just and civilized humanity,” (3) “the unity of Indonesia,” (4) “democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives,” and (5) “social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.”10 These five principles are summarized by the one word principle of “inclusivity,” as opposed to “exclusivity.” Another way to describe this is the spirit of dynamic and functional pluralism.

Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, a prominent Indonesian intellectual and the leader of Muhammadiyah, a moderate but politically influential Islamic sect, points out that Pancasila is important to the people of Indonesia because it “eliminated” “the threat of an Islamic state” “once and forever.” He says, “Under the umbrella of Pancasila, all the religious minorities—Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists (together around 12 percent out of a population of 235 million)—have felt secure in their religion as an inseparable part of the Indonesian people.” The key ingredient for making Pancasila such a success is “peaceful coexistence” through “waging peace through interfaith dialogue and cooperation”11 among all the religions, including unbelievers and atheists, and among the various factions of Muslims who interpret the Koran differently.

But this is where interfaith dialogue and cooperation (i.e., “peaceful coexistence”) has severe limitations, because it stops at the door of religious tolerance where the marketplace of religious ideas is anything but competitive or freely available to those who would wish to convert. According to Professor Maarif, “the only condition required for this peaceful coexistence is that each party must have mutual respect and no hidden agenda to eliminate each other,” particularly through the act of proselytization or evangelization.12

If Mr. Obama is indeed carefully attempting to avoid imposing upon the world—and in particular the Islamic world—the American ideals of religious freedom and human rights, he is missing the point of the essential purpose of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Allen Hertzke, presidential professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, points out that “because virtually all of the globe’s nations are signatories to the Universal Declaration and subsequent covenants, U.S. officials legitimately can claim that they are not attempting to impose ‘our values’ on the rest of the world. Rather, in implementing IRFA the United States is merely calling upon other nations to live up to covenants they have approved.”13

Interfaith Limitations
So the question begging to be asked regarding Mr. Obama’s speeches is if religious freedom is to be equated with tolerance, and the terms used interchangeably to mean the same thing (as many of us sometimes do); what message is being sent, if any, in regard to his vision and leadership when it comes to international religious-freedom policy? In light of the revolutionary demand for democracy in the Arab-Muslim world, which direction is he going—toward the international consensus of religious tolerance, or the American democratic experience and ideal of religious freedom that is central to the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Also, is there a sense beyond the stereotypical Islam versus Christianity scenario in which the proverbial “clash of civilizations” is at play here?

Religious Freedom in Reverse: Zero Evangelism
In the Islamic world, as the president made obvious in his Cairo and Jakarta speeches, Indonesia is now the oft-touted model of religious tolerance and democratic advancement—and in a nation that has, by far, the largest Muslim population in the world, combining secular government, Pancasila, and Shari’ah law. It is cited as the example of how democratization, modernization, and peaceful coexistence of nations with troubled human rights records can safely rejoin the world community. More specifically, this first-step emergence is wrapped up in the international consensus of religious tolerance as the realistic policy ideal: the right to be tolerated, which means that one has the right to believe and worship but not the right to evangelize a person of another faith, and in particular those of the Muslim faith located in many of the global cultural regions described by Samuel Huntington. In a cultural sense, then, the words “coexist” (as in “peaceful coexistence”) and “tolerance” are synonymous when used in the context of precluding the practice of active proselytization of another person of faith.

Yet here is exactly an example of the “clash” that Huntington identified. Indonesia’s “model” does not square up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognizes the right to switch one’s religion and to convince others, without compulsion, to change theirs. Article 18 of the ICCPR reads: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” In Indonesia there are severe laws regarding proselytization and restrictions on non-Muslim activity.

In October 2009 the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, tried but failed to get the United Nations Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that would have barred the defamation of religions and removed free -speech protections regarding religious questions affecting Article 18. In 2009 and 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom to state U.S. objections to this approach of interpreting and applying human rights standards, particularly in the area of supreme concern, that of religious freedom. She stated, “Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would [actually] restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.” In the clearest language possible, she lambasted this regional “anti-defamation” trend by retorting, “I strongly disagree.” She went on to say that “the United States will always . . . stand against discrimination and persecution,” and emphasized that “an individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech.”14

President Obama’s goals are popular and realistic. But they also seem misguided. This is because there is a very fine line affecting all interfaith dialogue these days. It seems hardly coincidental that the unspoken rule of thumb most commonly associated with interfaith groups in the United States, and elsewhere in democratic countries throughout the world, is centered on this commonly understood “freedom of worship” axiom: “Let’s live in peace and harmony, but do not dare, in the sharing of your deeply held faith—which we welcome and value—make appeals to convert to your faith.” Even among Protestants it harkens back to the old seventeenth- and-eighteenth-century Anglican taboo in the American colonies against “sheep stealing,” or proselytizing people of other faith expressions. Is this the international religious freedom policy being signaled, and if so, what is driving it? Adherence to either model for dialogue and peaceful coexistence is, in fact, a major step backward and is just as subversive of religious freedom as are strong-arm tactics of a religious right to coerce the state into doing its every demand.

Thomas Farr, who served as the U.S. State Department’s first director of the Office of International Freedom, and now serves as visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, points out in World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security that there is a clear difference between the evangelical approach to questions involving religious freedom and policy, and the secularist approach—what he refers to as “the heart of liberal internationalists’ secularist views on religious freedom.”15 The evangelical approach is one that values religion “as a human good to be nourished” by the international community and the U.S. in its international religious freedom policy. The secularist approach—which holds that religion “is more often a source of conflict to be managed via tolerance”—values U.S. constitutional standards for “separation,” as in “separation of church and state.”16

Farr is right in one sense. One needs to factor that the United States—dating back to its constitutional founding era—has historically made a concrete distinction between mere “tolerance” and “religious freedom.” Put another way, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom found in the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment is not “tolerance,” or the right of mere toleration, as if to be tolerated or endured were a minimal benefit or favor rendered by government and thereby society. Rather, it is a state of religious equality under the law, with all the rights and benefits accorded to American citizens.

It appears that the Obama administration is scrambling, having no concrete plan to advocate and influence religious freedom on a level that includes in that definition the ability of other religions to proselytize freely in newly minted democratic outcomes in Arab-Muslim nations once the so-called democracy movements play themselves out in northern Africa and the Middle East.

Gregory W. Hamilton is president of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). NRLA is a nonpartisan 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, judicial, academic, interfaith, and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

1 Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to James Fishback, Monticello,” September 27, 1809, in Dickinson W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts From the Gospels: “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 343-345.
2 See Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to Present (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2008). Even before James Madison, it was Alexander Hamilton who first called for a federal convention in Annapolis, Maryland, and then Philadelphia, to write a more comprehensive Constitution. This was to establish a strong central government far more efficient than the Continental Congress with its Articles of Federation. However, one of his primary motivators was to develop a strong Navy fleet in order to protect its merchant shipping interests, and the interests of European nations in the Mediterranean against the rampant pirating of it ships by Muslim pirates in Tunisia and Algiers. The constitutional Founders had every reason to believe that their merchant ships were being reequipped for naval war purposes by these radical Muslim communities, and possibly to attack the newly formed United States. U.S. foreign policy had this “clash of civilizations” beginning at the very outset of our country’s history.
3 See Scott M. Thomas, “A Globalized God: Religion’s Growing Influence in International Politics,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010.
4 For a rich discussion on the competitive nature of political power in the Middle East, with its mostly Muslim citizens, I highly recommend Lee Smith’s The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
5 Retrieve the 382-page report at It was released on April 29, 2010.
6 Quoted in Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “’Freedom of Worship’ Worries,” Christianity Today, July 2010.
7 Ibid.
8 See Norimitsu Onishi, “In Jakarta Speech, Some Hear Cairo Redux,” The New York Times, Nov. 10, 2010.
9 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (speech transcript), “Remarks by the President at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia,” Nov. 10, 2010.
10 See Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, “Pancasila: The Coexistence of Religions in Indonesia,” in Religious Pluralism: Modern Concepts for Interfaith Dialogue, Studies and Comments 12, edited by Richard Asbeck (Munich: Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, e.V., 2010), p. 31.
11 Ibid., p. 32.
12 Ibid.
13 Allen D. Hertzke, “International Religious Freedom Policy: Taking Stock,” The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Summer 2008, p. 18.
14 “Clinton Lambastes Global ‘Anti-Defamation’ Trend,” Agence France-Presse (AEP), Oct. 29, 2009. In her only other public policy speech fully touching on religious freedom, given before a packed audience in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the International Religious Liberty Association, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, of New York, demonstrated that she is committed to upholding religious freedom as not only America’s first freedom, but also the international community’s first freedom. This speech can be found by searching Adventist News Network online.
15 Thomas F. Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 129.
16 Ibid.

Article 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