Revisiting Religious Freedom as a National Security Lens: The Case of China

May 26, 2023

The following excerpt is taken from an article titled, “Revisiting Religious Freedom as a National Security Lens: The Case of China” published in Volume 21, 2023 (Issue 2) of the The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In recent years, the United States’ leadership on this issue has resulted in an increased institutionalization of international religious freedom activity, including the establishment of an annual meeting of government ministers (hosted by the UK in 2022), an annual International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, the International Alliance for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the creation of more than a dozen religious freedom special envoys in foreign governments. The United States continues to be the leading observer and critic of religious freedom violations, primarily through its two annual reports on international religious freedom, one written by the US Department of State and another by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

That being said, these important efforts have done little to achieve a global shift in culture and law toward more religious freedom. Indeed, if one thinks about religious liberty as a bellwether freedom intrinsically linked to other civil liberties and functioning democracy, we continue to see a rights and democracy deficit around the world. This deficit compromises the human security among people groups such as Burma’s Rohingya, Nigeria’s Christians, and China’s Uyghurs and other religious minorities. It also compromises the national security of the United States and its allies.

A decade ago, The Review of Faith & International Affairs published my article arguing that religious freedom provides a four-faceted lens for thinking about the intersection of religion and US national security (Patterson2013). That framework, influenced by the outstanding international relations scholarship of others, nonetheless remains distinctive for providing analysis and suggesting action.

Our foreign policy experts need such a model today in order to rightly evaluate the nature of the threat environment facing Western societies today. This is particularly true because so many mainstream expert analyses, as well as hopes, have proven to be inaccurate over the past decade. The reason for that inaccuracy is the continued unwillingness to learn about and assess the religious dynamics of conflict environments — from the political theology and resiliency of the Taliban to the overlapping conflicts within Nigeria to Putin’s religious nationalism as a justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many secularized foreign policy elites also wall off religion and religious freedom from their materialist analyses of weak and failing democracies.

This essay begins with a brief overview of the failed hopes and analyses of the past decade, most notably in three areas: with regards to democracy and human rights in the Muslim-majority world, among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic coalition, and with the rise of antagonistic populisms in the West. We will then look at the basis for U.S. religious freedom promotion, and then apply our four-part model as a lens to analyze one of the greatest threats to religious freedom in the world today: China. That model looks at how a government (1) treats its own people, (2) its neighbors, (3) the international system, and (4) how it frames, or propagandizes, its understanding of faith and religious liberty. In short, China represents a tremendous threat to religious freedom at home and abroad; and Beijing’s anti-religion activities are also destabilizing its neighbors as well as the global order.

Eric Patterson serves as President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC, and is a Scholar-at-Large at Regent University (USA).

Piper Smith served as an intern at the Religious Freedom Institute and is a student at George Washington University.

Linda Kamau earned graduate degrees in Government, Law, and Public Administration from Regent University and serves as a research assistant with the Religious Freedom Institute.