Obama and the Presidential Imperative to Promote International Religious Freedom

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 7, 2016

In honor of President’s Day, this Cornerstone  series asks contributors to explore the various approaches that presidents employed in their promotion of religious liberty throughout the centuries. Writers comment on presidential leadership (or lack thereof) on the issue of advancing religious freedom at home and abroad. 

By: Judd Birdsall

In a world ablaze with religious violence, persecution, and intolerance, President Obama is under constant pressure to “do something” to advance international religious freedom (IRF) and the security of vulnerable religious minorities.

We are told the president should do more to promote religious freedom in Country X, Y, or Z. He should (or should not) use the term “Islamic” when describing the ideology and actions of violent extremist Muslims. He should work to create safe havens for Christians in Iraq. He should add more countries to the US government’s official list of the world’s worst persecutors. And on the list goes. 

A case can be made that Obama “should” do any number of things consistent with America’s commitment to advance human rights and human dignity. Of course he can’t pursue every recommendation. Doing so would completely consume his time.  

All of these supposed imperatives beg the question of what, at a minimum, the American commander in chief must do to promote religious liberty overseas. What are his core IRF responsibilities?

The other articles in this collection are quite instructive as we try to answer this question. They all provide useful examples and historical perspective. Not until very recently did American presidents give more than occasional attention to IRF issues.   

Of course the world has become more interconnected, more religiously pluralistic, and the United States now pursues a much more interventionist foreign policy. Even so, we must be guarded in what we think the American president “should” do to promote IRF.

As we consider historical precedent and contemporary realities, I think there are three core responsibilities for any president as it relates to IRF. And as we explore these responsibilities we will get at least a cursory glimpse at how Obama measures up.   

First, the president should articulate a vision and offer rhetorical support for the IRF cause. The American president has a loud megaphone and his comments on IRF do have a significant impact.   

When the president highlights IRF he strengthens the hand of the State Department’s IRF Office and the community of IRF advocates inside and outside the US government, he encourages those who are suffering on account of their faith, and he signals to restrictive governments that IRF is priority for US foreign policy.   

During my four years in the IRF Office my colleagues and I frequently quoted from the president (George W. Bush and then Obama) to bolster our arguments both inside the bureaucracy and with foreign government officials.   

There are numerous opportunities for the president to offer rhetorical support for IRF: his annual Religious Freedom Day proclamation (January 16), his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast (early February), in White House press releases responding to egregious cases of persecution, and in his speeches on international trips and at international forums throughout the year.   

Obama has thoughtfully and energetically raised religious freedom throughout his presidency, from his speech to the Turkish parliament on his very first international trip as president to his January 2015 trip to India.   

At the February 2015 prayer breakfast Obama issued his latest clarion call for promoting religious freedom:   

“And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom—freedom of religion—the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”
Second, the president should use his position to raise high-profile IRF cases and raise the profile of key religious leaders and religious freedom advocates. In meetings with world leaders the president can privately and/or publically appeal for progress on major IRF challenges and for the release of religious prisoners. He can also demonstrate his support for faith leaders and activists by meeting with them in the Oval Office. Obama’s meetings with the Dalai Lama, for instance, have sent a strong message to Chinese authorities.   

Here it’s important to appreciate that the most powerful man in the world is not omnipotent. The president cannot get whatever he wants. He cannot force other countries to act against their will.   

The case of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini is a case in point. Despite repeated, vocal calls from the president and other senior US officials for Abedini’s immediate release, Iran has not budged. Iranian authorities must still feel it is in their interest to keep Abedini in prison. Obama could consider additional pressure, but his strategic calculation is necessarily informed by other US goals, not least a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Third, the president should have some role in selecting and empowering the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The White House also appoints three of the nine commissioners for the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Here Obama’s record has been decidedly weak—until very recently.    

As far as I am aware, the Obama White House deferred to the Clinton State Department on the selection of the administration’s first IRF ambassador. The result was a 28-month vacancy in the position and then the appointment of an unqualified ambassador who proved to be a complete disappointment.   

Finally, six years into his presidency, Obama has the right man for the job. Rabbi David Saperstein is universally respected as a smart, experienced, and passionate defender of the rights of all people.   

I recently took part in a transatlantic religious freedom conference with scholars and officials from across Europe and North America where I sensed, for the first time during Obama’s tenure, a measure of confidence in the IRF Office. Saperstein has brought new life and hope to a flagging institution.   

At the 2015 prayer breakfast Obama further enhanced Saperstein’s credibility when he said,   

“We’re grateful to our new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein—who has hit the ground running, and is heading to Iraq in a few days to help religious communities there address some of those challenges…Thank you, David, for the great work you’re doing.”   

Obama could say more. He could do more. There are any number of additional things he could to do to promote IRF. Space does not allow for a full evaluation of Obama’s IRF record here, but this brief survey suggests he has fulfilled the first two core presidential IRF responsibilities and has finally fulfilled the third.

Judd Birdsall is a former US diplomat currently completing his Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. 

This piece was originally authored on February 27, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.