Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate
In 1998, many diplomatic and advocacy elites opposed congressional action to entrench religious freedom in U.S. policy as a core human right. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said doing so would create a "hierarchy of human rights," and some objected to the key role of evangelicals and Catholics in supporting the agenda, fearing these were out to advance Christianity abroad.
In his Harvard address noted above, Shattuck called out what he described as "threats to religious tolerance" at home, accusing the Religious Right of seeking to "promote special religious interests overseas." The vehicle for this, he said, was the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
"The burden is probably on the U.S. government to show that in this Act they're not engaging in, crusading or proselytization on behalf of the Christian religion," said Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch at a 1999 conference in Hartford, Conn.
Shattuck further expanded his critique in a 2007 Pew forum, arguing that the International Religious Freedom Act is a stalking horse for missionary work. Pushing the freedom to openly live one's religion and to change religions could undermine social balance among people that "may or may not want to change their faith," Shattuck argued. The goal of tolerance should be to reduce religious conflict, not to expand religious freedom, he said. There is danger in taking universal human rights too literally, Shattuck suggested, and religious freedom practiced too robustly can be provocative.
The view of these skeptics was that "religious persecution should be vigorously opposed," wrote Thomas Farr of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in a recent book. "But religion itself was not seen as a human good to be nourished. Rather, it is more often a source of conflict to be managed via tolerance."
Some human rights advocates also feared that emphasizing religion would undermine their agenda for less traditional and more secular human rights. The tension reaches back to the 1994 United Nations population control conference in Cairo, where the Clinton administration and its allies hoped for major breakthroughs on abortion, family planning, the redefinition of marriage and children's rights. To the administration's surprise, a powerful counter movement developed, led by a religious coalition of Catholics, other Christians and Muslims. In the end, all the controversial proposals were defeated in a fractious conference. When the congressional religious freedom agenda was launched three years later, the last thing secularist rights advocates wanted was to share the field with such contrarians.
Jeffrey Goldberg highlighted the tension in a 1997 New York Times article. He noted an odd conversation between religious freedom agitator Michael Horowitz and Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch. Horowitz was building a coalition of religious leaders for religious freedom and wanted Roth to meet with the Christian Coalition about religious freedom abroad. Roth immediately questioned the group's position on abortion, and Horowitz was stunned at the nonsequitur. Roth said he told Horowitz that certain evangelical views "are contrary to the views of the human rights movement, around the issue of the rights of women, and around the issue of religious tolerance, but we are here to defend the rights of all, including the intolerant."
In short, the same voices that suspected Western religious imperialism in the religious freedom movement were firmly committed to spreading their own secular version of universal Western values. As Thomas Farr wrote, the new religious freedom activists "represented a traditionalist version of Christianity that would very likely contest the administration's vision of human rights. If this kind of religious advocacy got a foothold in the foreign policy establishment, it could mean trouble."
A SHAKY FOOTHOLD: Against this backdrop of contested values at home and abroad, U.S. religious freedom advocacy has struggled to find its foothold. In Part 2 of this series, we will survey the policy solutions put in place in 1998, look at how they evolved over the next 10 years and see what happened when the Obama administration came to town.
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