Monday, June 28, 2010

Bottum: The Realism of religious freedom

Joseph Bottum notes the Obama Administration's disturbing shift from the language of "freedom of religion" to "freedom of worship."
If we give in on religious liberty, we will lose credibility with oppressed peoples around the world. We give a license to the states that violate human rights. We fail to assist totalitarian states in their movement toward freedom. And, most of all, we cease to be true to ourselves—cease to be a nation that, more than any other, testifies to the compatibility of modernity and religion.

We cannot run a foreign policy on the view that the United States alone can make a success of modern religion. It’s historically inaccurate, viciously arrogant, and fundamentally immoral.

So why is the Obama administration retreating on religious liberty? The answer seems to lie in the realism that sometimes overtakes this administration—or, at least, a kind of realism in which, without being systematic, the administration makes certain small gestures that, it flatters itself, are the result of seeing of the world as it really is.

Call it gestural realism: the gestures without the content. Across the board on foreign policy—from the White House to the State Department to the UN delegation to the military—this administration believes that interaction with Muslim populations means that we cannot insist on religious freedom. Similarly, with the watering down to “freedom of worship,” this administration has signaled that we will not complain while China goes through its periodic moments of religious oppression as it panics about the massive growth of religion, particularly Christianity, within its borders.

The reason that this isn’t genuine realism about foreign policy—the reason it’s only gestural realism—is that it fails to address the terrorism that is the fundamental foreign-policy problem we face. A genuine realism would understand that the best way to deal with religious radicalism is to promote counter-currents of religious moderation. For that matter, a truly brutal and hard-headed realism would want the introduction of rival religions into closed religious societies, as a way of turning the attention of religious radicals away from the Western democracies and back toward their own cultures.

My distaste for that kind of cold-bloodedness is one reason I remain an idealist, and not a realist, in foreign policy. But this is a case where true idealism and true realism curve toward each other. The United States must push the world toward religious freedom—because it’s the moral thing to do, and also because it’s the smart thing to do.