Religious persecution has sullied the history of every nation, including the United States.
But, led by such thinkers as George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, Americans learned that religious freedom was the only way to guarantee individual rights and prevent the Old World's sectarian conflicts, many of which rage on today. America's freedom of religion, based on separation of church and state, is a model for the world.
As a newspaper founded by a religious leader, we believe strongly in religious freedom. But we have mixed feelings about the new "International Religious Freedom Act" now awaiting presidential signature.
The bill establishes an ambassador at large for international religious freedom. It directs the State Department to report annually on the state of religious freedom around the world and to provide training for diplomats on promoting it. It creates a 10-member commission to review the state of religious freedom and report to Congress. Finally, it directs the president to impose sanctions against "particularly severe" violators, choosing from a menu of options.
Beside the obvious question of why religious freedom should be separated out from other human rights the State Department already works to protect, what this nation does not need is yet another set of sanctions to impose. US farmers and business are already disadvantaged by the explosion of trade sanctions created by Congress in the last 10 years - sanctions rarely matched by such competitors as the European Union or Australia. Such sanctions vent indignation and provide political slogans, but rarely deliver changes in attitude.
The law is clearly aimed at China, whose repression of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists has been egregious. But trade, cultural exchange, and direct persuasion, as well as exposure to greater freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are better ways to combat official intimidation than boycotts that punish innocent citizens, disrupt trade, and harm Americans as well.
It's also hard to see how sanctions will help desperate Iranian Bahais. US-Iranian relations are bad enough; what good will more sanctions do?
The law threatens to label religious minorities as US wards, giving even more cause for local prejudice against them.
Sensitively implemented, the law could be useful in fostering appreciation of religious freedom everywhere - for all, not just Christians and Jews. We devoutly hope for such a result, although the politics behind the bill give reason to doubt. And if it also fosters a harder look at some of the many ways in which religious rights could be better protected in the US, that wouldn't be bad, either.