(RNS) Barack Obama’s critics allege that the president doesn’t practice what he preaches on international religious freedom policy. Last week they pounced on an apparent gap between presidential rhetoric and reality.

On Thursday (Jan. 16), the same day that Obama issued his annual Religious Freedom Day proclamation, Religion News Service published an article highlighting his administration’s failure to quickly nominate a new ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October, and a successor has yet to be named. It took the administration well over a year to nominate Johnson Cook in the first place, and then a skeptical Senate took an additional year to confirm her. During her brief tenure Johnson Cook never escaped criticism that she was unqualified for the job.

Even so, Obama used his proclamation to affirm, “America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose.” He promised that his administration “will remain committed to promoting religious freedom.”

Critics aren’t so sure. The RNS article quotes Georgetown University’s Tom Farr as lamenting, “A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority.”

So who’s right? Does the current administration stand for religious freedom globally or does the delay in appointing an ambassador cast doubt on that stand? My answer: Yes.

Both sides are right, at least partially.

Critics like Farr are right to press for an expeditious nomination. The ambassador is the face of American religious freedom diplomacy. Without an ambassador, that diplomacy loses face.

And yet Obama is right to trumpet his administration’s commitment to defending belief rights around the world. He needs a new, qualified ambassador to take that commitment forward, but the ambassador is far from being the government’s only instrument of religious freedom promotion.

The United States has thousands of diplomats serving in nearly 200 nations. Collaborating with faith communities on religious freedom and other issues of mutual concern is increasingly part and parcel of American statecraft.

In an August 2013 speech, Secretary John Kerry made it clear that religious engagement is a priority for this administration: “I say to my fellow State Department employees, all of them, wherever you are, I want to reinforce a simple message: I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work.”

Thanks to several Obama administration initiatives, American diplomats have new resources to carry out Kerry’s orders. The Foreign Service Institute, America’s training ground for diplomats, offers intensive courses on religion and foreign policy. The new U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement offers guidance on partnering with religious leaders to advance foreign policy objectives like religious freedom. The 2013 creation of the State Department’s Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives, which reports directly to Kerry, has helped to further elevate and integrate these issues.

And the president’s rhetoric has imbued religious liberty with strategic significance. Freedom to profess, practice and promote one’s faith is not some fluffy human right. It’s a necessity, not a “nice to have.” As Obama makes clear in his 2014 proclamation, religious freedom is a “critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty” and, for the entire world, “a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.”

In word and in deed, the Obama administration has demonstrated its commitment to promoting religious freedom. The slowness in appointing a new ambassador doesn’t negate that fact.

The three months since Johnson-Cook’s resignation is a blink of an eye in bureaucratic time. John Hanford, George W. Bush’s ambassador, began his duties 14 months after the start of the Bush presidency. Rarely did anyone question Bush’s commitment to religious freedom.

Obama hasn’t enjoyed the same reputation as a religious freedom fighter. It’s in his interest — and the interest of religious freedom worldwide — to appoint a new ambassador quickly.

The RNS article lists five of the IRF ambassador candidates currently under discussion in the Washington rumor mill. All have their strengths, and two have the added bonus of being seasoned diplomats. Previous State Department experience is a major asset for any would-be ambassador who, to be effective, must navigate the byzantine maze of executive branch bureaucracy.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal. Photo courtesy Judd Birdsall

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal. Photo courtesy of Judd Birdsall


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Obama and critics of his religious freedom policy are both partially right. But what matters most are the rights of people who suffer around the world on account of their faith — and the strategic interest the United States has coming to their defense.

(Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current doctoral candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. He was also founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs. Birdsall is an editorial fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal.)

 

YS/MG END BIRDSALL

 

15 Comments

  1. Mr. Birdsall, you write this in view of the details found in the Obamacare Act that not a single legislator read before voting for it? You write this in view of the all-out attack on Catholic-run facilities and on others whose owners have concerns?

    Really?

    • If the Catholic-run facilities weren’t making all out attacks on the personal liberties of their employees and customers, claims of them exercising religious freedom would not sound like so much bovine effluence.

      People like yourself believe religious freedom only means that your sect and faith gets to run roughshod over everyone else and notions of civil laws.

      • Larry, yours is a perverse understanding, it seems, of the entire debate about healthcare. I note, too, that there’s hardly been a single point that I’ve made that you’ve come back to argue.

        Again, I’ll state that you have nothing but an emotion-driven “argument” to make, most times. You are, this time, totally without substance, a husk.

        No Catholic facilities are attacking anyone’s personal liberties. People who disagree with Catholic positions on moral issues are free to take their business or employment elsewhere. What you want is everyone marching to the dissonant “tune” of liberal dogma, which hasn’t a coherent set of principles other than that “the self” is all that matters.

      • More liberal “logic.”
        Refusal to pay for employees’ abortificants and contraceptives isn’t violating anyone’s rights – the employees may still purchase and use these to their hearts’ content.
        What IS a violation of someone’s rights is to force someone to pay for something their faith professes is sinful.

        • Refusal to provide state mandated compensation to employees somehow is exercising an employer’s religious rights? No. Your right to free exercise of religion ends where it harms others. By your logic human sacrifice should be legal.

          Forcing others to conform to your religious views through coercion is not exercising religious freedom. The very opposite. Catholics and other religious bullies can ask people of their own faith to follow dogma, but can’t expect those outside the faith to do so. Nor should they expect to use coercive tactics to do so. An employee or patient at a hospital is not expected to get up and take their business elsewhere because the facility acts in a harmful manner.

          Somehow conservatives have defined religious freedom to mean “Christians can do whatever they want”.

          • So when the government mandates that Catholic institutions have to pay for, perform, refer for, and in every other way facilitate women in getting abortions for any and every reason, you’re going to be perfectly fine with that?

          • Of course.

            First of all, they did so before it became politically convenient to oppose it.

            This is nothing more than a conservative political ploy to attack the ACA. A law which was passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. How many bites of the apple are they expecting?

            Second, if a facility is serving the general public, they have to serve the entire public regardless of their beliefs. You cannot use your religious beliefs as an excuse to harm the rights of others.

            Third, there is no such thing as institutional religious belief. Individuals have beliefs, facilities do not. It is not a principled stand to attack the compensation of employees to further an employer’s alleged religious beliefs. It is bullying.

  2. When Obama mentioned support for “Atheists and Agnostics” he was talking about himself.
    But he would all do us a favor if he stopped mentioning religion or God at all. It has absolutely no place on the national stage.

    • Tell that to the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Max. Yours is nothing more than a personal judgment that has no Constitutional justification. But then, you’ve never written anything in support of that Document.

      That’s your privilege, and it’s anyone else’s right to point out your un-American position regarding the rights of all.

  3. Mr. Birdsall seems to confuse deeds and words as being equal. Exhortations and training are not deeds. They may constitute preparations for deeds, but deeds they are not. Mr. Obama’s policies have not had positive impact on worldwide religious freedom (look up the statistics on religious refugees and incidents of religious persecution, especially among Christians). And they have had a chilling effect here at home. Mr. Birdsall had a tough assignment from his sponsors, but he gave it a college try.

    • The freedom to not believe is just as important as the freedom of religion.
      The world has become much more free during the Obama years.
      Those who say they have no religion are on the rise.

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