From Indiana to Iowa: What We’re Missing on Religious Freedom

With a tweet and a speech on March 23, Senator Ted Cruz became the first major presidential candidate to officially throw his hat in the ring. His chosen venue for the announcement – Liberty University, a Baptist school – was no coincidence; Dante Chinni at NBC News notes that Cruz was “announcing his intention to lean heavily on evangelical voters in his run.” In case more evidence is needed, on March 16 Cruz declared to the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators that “there is no liberty more important than religious liberty.” Similar venue choices and statements on religious freedom are likely to increase in the months ahead, and not just from Cruz – most Republican hopefuls will have to follow suit as the 2016 elections approach. Unfortunately, discussions on religious freedom are likely to focus on the issue in America, not international religious freedom (IRF). While both channels on religious freedom need attention, we cannot afford to let the domestic drown the international out, and the particularly divisive conversations on the topic at home continue to threaten vital, bipartisan work that’s badly needed abroad.

On President’s Day, Americans awoke to news that 21 Coptic Christians had been beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) in Libya. Tragically, the killing was only the latest in a string of publicized brutalities committed by IS since last summer. More tragically, what most of us see and perceive in the United States is only the tip of the iceberg. For starters, IS’s attitude toward Christians is, incredibly, almost mild compared to how it views Shiite Muslims. Furthermore, religious persecution – often violent – is the norm throughout the world, not the exception. According to the Pew Research Center, restrictions on religion – whether from government policies or social hostilities – are high or very high in 39 percent of countries. Roughly 5.5 billion people, or 77 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion. 

This is a time of both real opportunity and urgent need for international religious freedom.

But at this moment, ‘religious freedom’ in the United States is associated with the gay marriage debate. A Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of state-level gay marriage bans is expected this spring, and candidates for the White House and Congress will have to weigh in on that decision – especially during the Republican primaries. Meanwhile, around the country a range of religious freedom bills are being considered in state legislatures that address how businesses in the wedding industry might respond to gay marriage. Examples of such cases often involve bakers, photographers, florists, and other service providers who do not want to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies out of closely held religious convictions. While religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas have been amended, ending some immediate political disputes, the wider debate is far from over. Candidates will have to address the issue at some point in their campaign; for many it presents a tricky subjectbecause it often pits business groups against social conservatives.

Religious freedom, in other words, is increasingly big news. But drowned in that news is the question of international religious freedom (in fact, foreign affairs in general are unlikely to play a major role in the elections). This is a major concern for two reasons.

First, the domestic debate has politicized religious freedom. In a brilliant piece for the Huffington Post in 2012, Peter Henne anticipated this, warning that US culture wars threatened to turn religious freedom into a partisan issue and impede popular support for IRF. Will a Democratic candidate be able to say “I support religious freedom?” Probably not - even if he or she is talking about saving Shias from IS, the issue will be collapsed into the cul de sac of domestic religious freedom debates. In an age where one sound bite or tweet can damage a campaign, this will make any talk of religious freedom hot to touch.

Second, this is a time of both real opportunity and urgent need for IRF. IS atrocities both illustrate the need and focus the opportunity – all politicians can condemn violent persecution, even if they cannot speak openly about religious freedom.  Furthermore, President Obama has finally filled the post of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. His choice, Rabbi David Saperstein, has been welcomed by liberals and conservatives alike, and Saperstein is widely viewed as someone who has the knowledge, experience, connections, and charisma to get things done. Obama himself is starting to show signs of taking IRF seriously during his final two years in office.  During a January visit to ally India, the President called out religious “acts of intolerance” in the country, and the Administration has publicly connected religious liberty with international stability, security, and development. Moreover, a growing body of research supports the notion that religious freedom plays a crucial role in economic development.

The Iowa caucuses are less than a year away, and Ted Cruz has essentially kicked off the 2016 election cycle. Christians carry most of the burden for promoting IRF during these next 20 months in a winsome way. They should be very busy:

(1)  Throwing their full support behind Ambassador Saperstein and his office. 

The Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department faces numerous political and bureaucratic challenges, and often relies on informal networks to receive and disseminate information. You can start by following @AmbSaperstein on Twitter and keeping up with their work.

(2)  Urging the Republican-controlled Congress to prioritize IRF and support the Ambassador’s work.

Phone calls and letters – they’re the simplest methods for reaching your representatives but unfortunately, are often underused.

(3)  Challenging 2016 candidates to form and articulate positions on IRF policy.

This is perhaps the most significant opportunity right now for IRF – candidates must and will respond to voters. The next time Ted Cruz or another candidate talks about religious freedom, follow up with this: “Thank you Senator. But what will you do about religious freedom overseas?”

-Michael Searway is a Congressional and Transatlantic Relations Fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement. Photo via Trocaire.