Can US diplomacy get religion?

In a world where religion is pushing events, US diplomats need a greater expertise in it.

In much of the world, religion – not ideology – is the prime motivator propelling people and events, often leading to violence. Congress had a sense of that a decade ago when it began considering how the US might better promote religious freedom and tolerance in its foreign policy. It's a subject worth revisiting.

What lawmakers came up with was the International Religious Freedom Act, which was eventually signed in 1998. The law tasked the US State Department with the job of advocating for religious tolerance around the world – through an ambassador and through annual reports that rate country performance. The act also created an independent commission to advise the government.

But the world looks very different from 10 years ago. It's in a period of unprecedented religious pluralism and contact between believers. Religious interest and intensity seem to be accelerating. One result is faith-based tension. Look just about anywhere – the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and even Europe – and it's at a simmer or boil.

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A thought-provoking discussion of US diplomacy under the Act was sponsored in May by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Thomas Farr, a former director of the Office of International Religious Freedom summed it up best:

"There are hundreds of people, maybe even thousands of people, walking the earth free today because of our religious freedom policy." But, he went on, "if you ask the macro question, has religious persecution diminished internationally [in] the last decade, the honest answer has got to be, no, it hasn't."

The challenge now is to figure out how to make religious expertise more widespread than the department's 20-person staff – and how to move beyond a diplomacy of naming and shaming violators into action to one which better helps countries recognize that religious tolerance is in their own interest.

Not that there haven't been results so far. Steady US diplomatic and economic pressure on Vietnam, for instance, has brought about the release of all religious prisoners demanded by the US, a reversal of forced renunciations of faith, and the reopening of hundreds of closed churches. The turnaround has been dramatic enough to remove Vietnam this year from the department's list of "countries of particular concern."

And because of US prodding, Saudi Arabia (which is on the list) has curbed its religious police. It has committed to revising textbooks and other materials that describe Jews as pigs and Christians as dogs.

And yet, the US (and Britain) now hope the United Nations can facilitate dialogue between religious groups in Iraq because the UN is viewed as more neutral. The war has greatly complicated Washington's ability to promote religious freedom.

Not only that, countries misunderstand the Religious Freedom Act itself. They mistake it for proselytizing and view it as another example of US unilateralism.

At the Pew Forum, present and past diplomats discussed the need to become much more astute about the role of religion in world affairs – to gain more religious expertise and training of US diplomats, and perhaps update the law.

But if US foreign policy does a better job of "getting it," will the world take it?

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