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Religious freedom: Universal right or political pawn?

"Religious freedom" is an easy rallying call for western democracies. Most Americans hear the term and think, "fine by me." Not Northwestern University’s Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. In this Q&A, she argues that America’s religious freedom outreach efforts may do more harm than good.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

“Religious freedom” is an easy rallying call for western democracies. Most Americans hear the term and think, “fine by me.” Not Northwestern University’s Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. In this Q&A, she argues that America’s religious freedom outreach efforts may do more harm than good.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

BP: You wrote an op-ed in Foreign Policy earlier this year explaining your opposition to the U.S. government’s new office of religious engagement. What are your concerns?

ESH: When the United States promotes religious freedom and pursues religious engagement, groups that favor American political, economic and strategic interests are likely to be engaged and promoted, while those that the U.S. disfavors are likely to be classified as cults or extremists and cast aside. In this scenario, it’s surprisingly easy for the particular version of a religion that the U.S. supports to carry more weight politically than others.

A second concern involves the social effects of emphasizing and privileging religion as a fixed, stable, and politically and legally meaningful category. Protecting religious freedom pressures states and courts to eliminate the gray areas surrounding identities, and incentivizes them to classify and govern citizens as “religious” subjects. Not only does this exclude the “non-religious,” however defined, it also risks contributing to the very tensions that these projects are designed to eliminate by hardening what were once more fluid lines of difference between groups and inserting international dimensions into what were once local matters.

When it comes to religious freedom, we need to ask what is actually being protected when states, courts and others protect religious freedom. And what—or who—isn’t protected? Specific contexts and histories are critical.

BP: How do you define “religious freedom?”

ESH: I am more interested in what the discourse of religious freedom does rather than what it is. To define religious freedom requires knowing what religion is. Religion is a complex concept with a long genealogy. Today, the word religion brings together a vast and diverse, even shifting, set of social and cultural phenomena. It arguably can no longer convincingly underwrite legal action or international public policy. We need new words.

BP: You say that governments should relate to individuals in civic rather than religious terms. How can governments better identify and help oppressed groups?

ESH: There are no perfect categories, but the category of “persecuted religious minority” raises some concerns. Take the example of Copts in Egypt. One concern is that outside lobbying on behalf of local groups identified as “religious minorities” arguably underscores the very lines of division between Copts and other Egyptians that one  hopes would become politically irrelevant in a democratic society and polity. A second concern is that defending the rights of Egyptians as Copts not only obscures the internal diversity of the Coptic community but also erases those who might not choose to identify as Copts but as Egyptians, humans, environmentalists or something else.

I worry that these campaigns may actually inflame existing tensions by making it more likely that social difference is conceived through the prism of religion. Pro-Coptic intervention by U.S. and other governmental and non-governmental actors may fan the flames of intercommunal violence. Individuals and groups that face persecution and discrimination deserve outside support, but not on the basis of religious affiliation.

BP: The U.S. isn’t alone in its international faith-based efforts. What other countries are doing similar work, and how does it compare to what the U.S. is doing?

ESH: That’s right. Religious freedom has gone viral. Canada, several European states, and the European Union are creating their own versions of external religious freedom advocacy. These efforts are all rather similar, though of course there are always differences.

In the European case, these efforts tap into a long history of European colonial and postcolonial interventions in the Middle East and North Africa on behalf of Christian communities, often with violent long-term consequences for local people. Many Europeans that support today’s religious freedom programs are very explicit about reviving efforts to rescue persecuted Christians abroad.

In 2012, the Italian foreign ministry and the city of Rome signed a protocol creating an “Italian Oversight Committee for Religious Freedom” to monitor religious freedoms in Rome and around the world. The Italian narrative on religious freedom, according to one analyst, has been based on the concept of “protecting” Christian minorities. Officially, of course, the rationale for this program was the advancement of religious freedom as a universal value.

BP: You say that government efforts to promote religious freedom abroad violate church-state separation. Does (or should) the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause apply abroad?

ESH: Well, in a sense, it has never applied abroad. Americans have long viewed themselves as leaders of the free world and the world’s greatest champions and promoters of free religion. The U.S. sponsored Protestant missions around the world, forced conversion of Native Americans at home, and enforced Christianity in the Philippines. During the Cold War and up to the present, the U.S. has sought to cultivate tolerant and moderate foreign religious subjects and to marginalize those defined as political (i.e. communist) or religious (i.e. Islamist) threats to U.S. interests and allies.

Lori G. Beaman and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan make an interesting argument that all states could be said to have some form of establishment. Certain forms of religious expression are deemed politically and legally orthodox by the state while others are marginalized. This observation extends to global public policy. When governments and other public authorities such as the U.S., the United Nations or the European Union engage groups in policy terms as religious groups, they are forced to choose between them, and compelled to favor some over others.

BP: In a recent paper you wrote, “for many observers human rights and religion seem like oil and water.” What do you mean by this?

ESH: We often think of human rights as pragmatic global norms of human solidarity that have nothing to do with religion. Human rights advocates and religious practitioners, in this view, are engaged in different normative projects, or even distinct normative universes. My work questions this assumption. Far from occupying an autonomous sphere that is independent of religious affairs, human rights advocacy implicates religion in complex and variable ways.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is currently working on Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices, a research project that explores the history and politics of religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities around the world.


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