Realistic Idealism at Work

A veteran of the State Department argues that US foreign policy must take religious freedom seriously, if only as a matter of self-interest.

One day last summer Tom Farr and a friend were having lunch in a Thai restaurant in Georgetown when the friend felt moved to ask Farr a question. President George W. Bush recently had announced his intention to attend the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, then just weeks away. Yet back in March the Chinese government had staged yet another brutal crackdown in Tibet, leaving over 200 dead and nearly 1,300 injured. Not a few people were upset with Bush for going to Beijing as if nothing had happened. What did Farr think about the trip?

The white-haired former diplomat paused a moment, then replied. Careful to note that he had no inside information, he speculated that the presidential visit could be the American half of an unannounced deal in which the Chinese agreed to ease up a little on the Tibetans. If so, he added, a more agile administration than Bush’s likely would have found a way to get that word around, without unduly embarrassing the Beijing regime.

The incident is worth recalling for what it says about Thomas F. Farr and his important new book, World of Faith and Freedom. Subtitled “Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security,” it’s part polemic, part memoir, and part insider account of an ongoing struggle to convince America’s foreign policy establishment of the need to recognize something it’s disturbingly disposed to ignore: the key role of religion in shaping world events and the imperative that creates for the US—as a matter of self-interest, if nothing else—to give advocacy of religious freedom a central place on its foreign policy agenda.

Farr, a veteran of the Foreign Service who was fi rst director of the State Department’s religious freedom offi ce, teaches a course on religion and foreign affairs at Georgetown University, where he’s a fellow at a university-based foreign affairs think tank. Although a passionate believer in religious liberty, he comes to the subject as a seasoned professional. Precisely from that perspective he makes the case that for America to give religious freedom its due in foreign policy would be not only virtuous but smart—realistic idealism at work.

“It could strengthen American national security by undermining Islamic transnational terrorism and regional or national extremism. It could help stabilize struggling democracies throughout the Muslim world and beyond in nations such as Russia and India. In China, it could help encourage a transition to political reform without domestic upheaval.

“It could reduce the perception a broad that America is imperialist, he do nistic, and peddling a value-free form of democracy that is intrinsically anti-Islam. It could encourage a broadening of US interest group advocacy and encourage cooperation among US religious groups, such as Catholics and Muslims or Muslims and Jews.”

The 359 richly documented, anecdotesprinkled pages of World of Faith and Freedom spell out the program. Three linked arguments are fundamental.

1. Religion plays, and for the foreseeable future will continue to play, a key social and political role virtually every place in the world. In adjusting to this fact, the American foreign policy establishment and its chief governmental embodiment, the Department of State, need to “rediscover the first principle of true realism, which is to understand things as they are and to call them by their right names”—something not happening now where religion is concerned.

2. Indifference to and/or ignorance of religion in American foreign policy are products of the secularist mindset (operating at times in unholy alliance with attitudes on the far right). Farr respects his former colleagues at Foggy Bottom—the Washington nickname for the State Department—but he’s all too aware of the limitations of their intellectual assumptions and values.

3. For the last 10 years, a potential solution to this problem has been in place—the statutory commitment of the United States government to promoting religious liberty abroad called the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, along with the structural framework it mandates. On the basis of a decade of far from perfect implementation, however, the law and its accompanying institutional structures need to be re-thought, re-sold at home and overseas, and fully integrated into the foreign policy apparatus.

Farr has credentials to say these things. By 1999 he’d spent 16 “satisfying” years in the Foreign Service, working on nuclear arms control, negotiating with the Greek and German governments, teaching foreign policy at the Air Force Academy, and serving in the State Department’s intelligence bureau. As the time approached for him to make another intra department move, he was scanning a listing of available positions when one caught his eye: deputy to the fi rst ambassador at large for religious freedom and director of State’s new office of religious freedom. To Farr, a devout Catholic convert, the position sounded interesting. He applied for the job and got it. He was to spend the next four years working with Robert Seiple, a prominent evangelical and the first IRF ambassador at large, and John Hanford, a former Senate staffer who was Seiple’s successor (he greatly admires both), on the Herculean task of moving “one of America’s most avowedly secular institutions,” the Department of State, to accept religious freedom as a foreign policy objective.

Resented by Foggy Bottom as an alien presence imposed by Congress, the new religious freedom team got little help. The Clinton administration opposed the IRF Act before passage, then paid lip service after its enactment. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was largely indifferent. The IRF office was attached to the bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor, which Farr calls State’s “least influential.” And when the Clintonites left, the Bush administration turned out in some ways to be even worse. The president was devoted to religious freedom, but many people around him were not. Thus nothing was done to elevate the issue within the State Department, where, Farr says, it was “effectively quarantined.”

Bureaucratic resentment and infighting were partly to blame for that, but more centrally at fault were ingrained attitudes. As in other sectors of America’s secular elite—academia, media, Hollywood—strict separation of church and state and the privatization of faith are taken for granted by denizens of the US foreign policy world. Farr writes: “Our ‘enemy’ at Foggy Bottom…was not so much hostility to our mission as indifference to, or confusion about, the policy value of religious freedom.”

Still, the IRF team persevered and had its successes. These have included winning designation of China as a country “of particular concern” under the terms of the international religious freedom law and publication of a candid and relatively hard-hitting annual report on the state of religious liberty around the world. Gratifying, too, have been instances in which American intervention won release from prison and the chance to start a new life elsewhere for individuals suffering religious persecution at home.

But even these isolated victories in the cause of compassion and decency carry a risk. It’s the danger that the religious freedom agenda of the United States will be equated with lightening the load of persecution borne by individual religious believers in some parts of the world—and not much else. Good and desirable as rescuing people from oppressive regimes really is, the longrange objective needs to be much larger: a consistent American foreign policy committed to convincing other nations that religious freedom should be important to them.

China is a crucial case in point. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, a communist regime drunk on ideology sought ruthlessly to stamp out religion. In the years since, a more pragmatic yet unyieldingly authoritarian government has pursued a policy of semi-antagonistic toleration, with the emphasis now on antagonism and now on toleration. As American Catholics are well aware, during these 30-plus years the struggle of Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome to preserve and practice their faith has been a tale of gritty heroism.

Early in 2001 Farr visited China to get the lay of the land at fi rst hand. American-Chinese relations were in a chilly phase at the time, and the government’s religious affairs chief, a man named Ye Xiaowen (nickname: “Ye of Little Faith”), refused to see him. So did lower-level officials who’d gotten the word from on high. But the cold shoulder was a blessing in disguise. Farr traveled widely, with comparatively little government oversight, and had candid conversations with many persons who play parts in the story of religion in China today, from Catholics to Buddhists to an Orthodox rabbi in Shanghai.

His conclusion is simple. “The Chinese, like most other countries with which we have human rights dialogues, see them as an America-management task, rather than an integral part of US-China relations and the vital interests that the two countries share…. The goal of US IRF policy in China should be to communicate a consistent, clear message that can overcome cultural and ideological resistance: it is in China’s national interests not simply to end persecution, but also to favor the religious life.”

If fault must be found, let it be said that World of Faith and Freedom, while it does a good job of describing a challenge, has little to say about how to change the situation. That’s hardly a surprise. As the book implies, altering the culture of Foggy Bottom to include an appreciation for religious freedom is part of America’s ongoing culture war. It will happen when, and only when, that larger struggle reaches a successful conclusion. Meanwhile, Farr can only offer hints.

Months after his China trip, and just one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was shepherding around Washington a Chinese delegation in town for human rights talks when he had a bright idea. He’d take the visitors to an AIDS hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity—Mother Teresa’s sisters— and let what they saw there speak for itself. An incident as they toured the facility provides the close for his book:

“We reached the room of an old man, weak and dying. He looked at us with sunken, hollow eyes. When the sisters approached, he brightened.

“The Chinese officials saw it. Did they understand?

“Will we?”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Russell Shaw 286 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).