The Importance of Religious Freedom

The top officials of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have set forth compelling reasons why religious freedom around the world is important. Its Chairperson, Robert P. George, and its Vice Chairperson, Katrina Lantos Swett, have done so in an essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion.”

Dr. Robert P. George
Dr. Robert P. George
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett

They assert, “To respect fundamental human rights is to favor and honor the [human being] . . . who is protected by those rights—including the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.” Therefore, honoring the individual human being favors “human flourishing in its many dimensions. For those who regard humans not just as material beings but also as spiritual ones—free, rational and responsible—it is obvious that their spiritual well-being is no less important than their physical, psychological, intellectual, social and moral well-being.”

Such human flourishing “requires respect for their freedom—as individuals and together with others in community—to address the deepest questions of human existence and meaning. This allows them to lead lives of authenticity and integrity by fulfilling what they conscientiously believe to be their religious and moral duties.”

Moreover, religious “faith by its nature must be free. A coerced ‘faith’ is no faith at all. Compulsion can cause a person to manifest the outward signs of belief or unbelief. It cannot produce the interior acts of intellect and will that constitute genuine faith.” Indeed, coercion “in the cause of belief, whether religious or secular, produces not genuine conviction, but pretense and inauthenticity.”

Religious freedom, therefore, must “include the right to change one’s beliefs and religious affiliation. It also includes the right to witness to one’s beliefs in public as well as private, and to act—while respecting the equal right of others to do the same—on one’s religiously inspired convictions in carrying out the duties of citizenship.”

As a result, “one of the aims of U.S. foreign policy should be to combat . . . [religious] intolerance—not just because religious freedom reduces the risk of sectarian conflict, but more fundamentally because it protects the liberty that is central to human dignity.”

Conclusion

This statement echoes the words of the international legal instruments that appropriately guide the work of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. supported in the U.N. General assembly in 1948, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992.

The Universal Declaration opens with these words in its Preamble: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”  It then declares in 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.”

These latter words are essentially repeated in Article 18(1) of the International Covenant. Its Article 18(2) goes on to say, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Structure and Composition

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as an independent U.S. government body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.  On December 16, 2011, the Commission’s life was extended by Congress through 2018 after a series of brief extensions had kept it in existence after its previous authorization expired in September 2011.

Its latest annual report on this subject and its views on Cuban religious freedom have been critiqued in prior posts. Now we look at the structure and composition of the Commission.

Under the statute, the Commission is to be composed of nine “distinguished [U.S. citizens] noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights and international law.”

The nine are to be appointed as follows: three by the U.S. President; three by the U.S. Senate’s President pro tempore and three by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Each of the sets of the congressional appointees is to be upon two recommendations from the leader of the political party that does not control the White House and one recommendation from the leader of the President’s political party. Currently there is one vacancy on the Commission.

Rev. William Shaw
Rev. William Shaw
Eric P. Schwartz
Eric P. Schwartz

 

The current Presidential appointees are Rev. William Shaw and Eric P. Schwartz. Shaw is a Baptist Pastor and Immediate Past President of the National Baptist Convention; he serves as a Vice Chair of the Commission. Schwartz is the Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He previously was a senior official of the State Department, the National Security Council, the U.N. and the U.S. Congress.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Dr. Katrina            Lantos Swett

The appointee upon recommendation of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights in honor of her father, Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. She also is a professor of human rights and American foreign policy at Tufts University and serves as the Commission’s Chair.

Sam Gejdenson
Sam Gejdenson

 

Sam Gejdenson is the appointee upon recommendation of Nancy Peloisi, House Minority Leader. He is a former Democratic Congressman, the first child of Holocaust survivors to serve in Congress and a leader in human rights, democracy and global engagement.

 

Mary Ann Glendon
Mary Ann Glendon
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appointees upon recommendations by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are  Mary Ann Glendon and  the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Professor Glendon also serves as a Vice Chair of the Commission.[1]  Dr. Jasser is a physician and the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy whose parents fled oppression in Syria.

Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams
Dr. Robert P. George
Dr. Robert P. George

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appointees upon recommendation of House Minority Leader Eric Cantor are Elliott Abrams and Dr. Robert P. George. Abrams is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former senior official in the George W. Bush and Reagan Administrations.[2] Dr. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and a distinguished appointee to various U.S. and UNESCO bodies.

Suzan Johnson Cook
Suzan Johnson Cook

These Commissioners are joined by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (ex officio and nonvoting). That currently is Suzan D. Johnson Cook.


[1]  Professor Glendon’s book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is an excellent account of the international development of the Declaration and the important role played by Mrs. Roosevelt in that endeavor.

[2] In 1991 upon his guilty plea Abrams was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal, but in December 1992 he was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. In 1997 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit publicly censured Abrams, an attorney, for giving false testimony on three occasions to Congress.

 

 

Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba

On August 13, 2012, I sent the following letter regarding Cuba to U.S. President Barack Obama.[1]

Many of the United States’ policies regarding Cuba are not in our national interest and should be changed. I write specifically about (1) the U.S. embargo of Cuba, (2) the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (3) the U.S. denigration of religious freedom on the island and (4) our refusal to enter into negotiations with Cuba on the broad range of issues that have accumulated since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 without Cuba’s satisfying various U.S. preconditions.

1. U.S. Embargo of Cuba

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, in my opinion, is an out-of-date relic of the days of U.S. hostility toward, and fear of, the Cuban Revolution. Today Cuba poses no serious threat to the U.S. Cuba’s regrettable human rights violations are understandable and could be more successfully addressed in bilateral negotiations. Normalizing relations, including rescinding the embargo, would be in the economic interest of the U.S. by creating export and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses. Moreover, ending the embargo would be in the overall interests of the U.S., especially with respect to our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. This is examined more fully in my blog posts: “The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba,” (May 21, 2001); and “U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns  U.S. Embargo of Cuba,” (Oct. 25, 2011),

The U.S. should end its embargo of Cuba.

2. U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 (July 31, 2012), assert two grounds for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor:” (a) its being an alleged safe haven for certain ETA and FARC terrorists and U.S. fugitives; and (b) its alleged financial system deficiencies relating to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

Neither ground withstands serious analysis as shown by my blog posts: “Yet Another Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 7, 2012) and “Additional Thoughts on the Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 9, 2012).

The U.S. should rescind this designation.

3. U.S. Denigration of Cuban Religious Freedom

The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 30, 2012), had many positive things to say about the status of this important freedom in Cuba in 2011 that is confirmed by my personal experience with the subject. The report also has certain negative comments on the subject with which I do not disagree.

The resulting question, I believe, is “Is the glass half empty or half full?” I believe it is more than half full of this important freedom. The U.S. needs to remember that Cuban society and history is very different from the U.S. and humbly recognize that those differences do not mean that its religious freedom is fundamentally flawed.

My real complaint here is with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s unrealistic overstatement of the negative aspects of Cuban religious freedom and its continued placement of Cuba on its Watch List.

My views on this subject are fully explained in my blog posts, “Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom,” (Aug. 3, 2012) and “The Cuban Revolution and Religion,” (Dec. 30, 2011).

The U.S. should cease denigrating Cuban religious freedom and instead explore through respectful bilateral negotiations whether there are ways for the U.S. to assist Cuba in further expansion of such freedom on the island.

4.  U.S. Negotiations with Cuba

In addition to the issues discussed in this letter, there are many others that need discussion, negotiation and resolution. They include Cuban compensation for expropriated property in the Cuban Revolution, enhancement of human rights on the island, emigration and immigration between the two countries, the status of Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S., the continued U.S. imprisonment of four of the so called “Cuban Five,” Cuba’s continued imprisonment of Alan Gross, the status of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, exploration and drilling for oil in the Caribbean Sea between the two counties, Cuba’s re-entry into the Organization of American States and re-establishment of full diplomatic relations.

Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.

Cuba repeatedly has said that it is willing to engage in respectful negotiations with the U.S. on all issues. Most recently on July 26th (Revolution Day marking the 59th anniversary of the Cuban uprising against former President Batista), Cuban President Raul Castro in a public speech reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. (Assoc. Press, Cuban president Raúl Castro willing to hold no-limits talks with America, Guardian (July 26, 2012); Assoc. Press, Cuba–An Impromptu Invitation, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2012).)

The U.S. should accept Cuba’s offer to engage in broad-scale negotiations over all issues between the two countries.


[1] Copies of the letter were sent to Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Secretary of State; David Benjamin, United States Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism; Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; John F. Kerry, United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Amy Klobuchar, United States Senator from Minnesota; Al Franken United States Senator from Minnesota; and Keith Ellison, United States Representative from Minneapolis, Minnesota.