(RNS) — With the third international religious freedom summit approaching at the end of January, it’s a good time to consider how the United States advances religious freedom abroad.
In many ways the international religious freedom movement today is better organized and resourced than ever. Yet the actual state of religious freedom globally continues to worsen each year. There is an urgent need to identify and overcome obstacles to greater effectiveness in the movement.
One such barrier is an internal tension within the movement itself, a tension between two different philosophies of how to improve religious freedom conditions. In one camp are the folks I call “advocates” and in the other are the “builders.” In my more than two decades in the modern IRF movement, I have seen firsthand how their rivalry — often treated like a zero-sum contest — undercuts the common goal.
Advocates brought about the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established the office of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, its annual report and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Advocates, generally speaking, work outside-in: That is, they call public attention to situations worldwide where states or societies (or both) are restricting the freedom of conscience or belief of any citizen. They are relentless in holding individuals and institutions accountable to international norms.
At their best, advocates generate awareness about religious freedom violations, pushing governments to address the issue (which creates space for builders to operate). Many of those who have spent time in prison on religious grounds will tell you that it gave them hope to know that people who lived in the greatest power in the world were advocating for them, by name.
At their worst, however, advocates can be single-issue in their approach, ignoring complexities while seeking to “name, blame and shame” a particular government for its policies. Not surprisingly, this tends to lessen their own influence with that country. Such shortsighted advocates publish op-eds oversimplifying the issue, simultaneously helping to raise awareness and thus money at home while alienating the people they most want to influence abroad.
Government officials of a foreign country once told me about a delegation of advocates who made positive remarks in private about the country’s progress while they were there, only to make negative comments in public upon their return to the U.S. The advocates did not receive any more visas to visit.
A former advocate recently told me about participating in a campaign seeking the release of a pastor from jail overseas. The pastor was released, but because there was no change of mindset among government officials, they simply changed tactics and arrested many more.
Builders work inside-out: They seek to engage government officials and religious leaders in the country of particular concern privately. Builders understand that religious freedom is often inextricably related to matters of state and society; they look for leverage points, while seeking to educate government officials and religious leaders in order to change minds and therefore behavior.
Builders try to harness local self-interest by presenting religious freedom as relevant to security, business and cross-cultural religious literacy and covenantal pluralism — i.e., the social harmony that is possible when citizens of multifaith and multiethnic countries are equipped to mutually engage and even respect one another across deep difference.
At their best, builders understand the local context and culture, walking with the reformers of a country as they seek to steadily transform the restrictive environment to one in which both the society and state value religious freedom as essential to the overall well-being of the country.
Such an approach inherently takes more time and more relational diplomacy than does advocacy, but it also has a greater possibility of effecting positive change that is enduring — precisely because local people see the result as consistent with who they already are, and in their self-interest.
I was once asked to monitor a sham election. Everyone told me not to go, except the believers in that country. They knew that the regime would one day change and that now was the time to build relationships with rank-and-file government officials, especially those who seemed to be reform-minded.
At their worst, however, builders can worship at the altar of access, rationalizing any action by the local government or society as long as they can get a visa or visit with national leaders. Such builders become propaganda pieces for the repressive government, which maintains that there are no problems.
While I have largely aligned with the builders, I’ve been aware of the risks and tried to mitigate them. I learned this delicate balance from my parents, who in September 2000 founded the Institute for Global Engagement, a “think tank with legs” that works to cultivate sustainable environments of religious freedom for all. My father had spent the prior two years as the first-ever U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
My parents respected religious freedom advocates who spoke out against the injustice of jailing people because of what they believed. But they asked themselves if there was a way to build religious freedom so that citizens of all beliefs (and ethnicities) would be treated with equal dignity and not have to go to jail in the first place.
They asked me to join IGE and help develop and articulate this more systemic and long-term approach to the religious freedom cause. Along the way I came up with a global theory of change to build religious freedom, a theory rooted in the founding of Rhode Island.
But the tension between “advocates” and “builders” has remained perennial in the movement, and I’ve encountered it in numerous ways over the years. For example, advocates still ask me, as a builder, how can I work with “them,” referring to the Islamists, communists and anyone else I engaged in authoritarian contexts. “Those countries” are bad, I am told, and I legitimize “those bad people” simply by talking to them.
I must confess, however, that I have often asked myself over the years how “they,” those advocates, can be so naïve as to think that things will change in a particular place through #hashtag activism and mobilizing moral outrage. Don’t “they” know that there are good people in bad places seeking the good of their country and all of their fellow citizens?
It is high time both sides accept that it should not be either/or, but both and more. Both approaches have a role — and their respective practitioners must figure out how to work in complementary, rather than competitive, ways.
In the end, none of us should think of “advocating” and “building” as entirely incompatible, mutually exclusive options. Advocates can create space for builders to offer practical solutions, even as builders can create opportunities for advocates to publicly applaud the small steps of transformation.
The simple truth is this: Advocates and builders need one another. Advocates and builders, however, need to be sensitive to each other’s gifts, and how they might complement the other in a specific situation. In particular, advocates and builders need to be in regular conversation with one another, sharing strategies as trust is built. If they are united, then the possibility of a sustainable environment for religious freedom can take root.
(Chris Seiple is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is the principal adviser to the Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative and a senior fellow at the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)