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.