PATTERSON: John Kerry’s questionable record on religious liberty

New secretary of state is no champion of important issue

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has left Foggy Bottom, and social and religious conservatives have mixed feelings. While she raised the ire of social conservatives by her liberal politics, and particularly her homosexual activism both within the department and on the international stage, she was supportive late in her tenure of international religious freedom initiatives, a major evangelical priority. However, her successor, Sen. John Kerry, has shown little overt interest in these issues. Most recently, he was instrumental in blocking a House initiative, led by religious freedom champion Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, to create a new international envoy focused on the rights of religious minorities worldwide.

Some claim that Mrs. Clinton’s interest in religious liberty goes back to the 1998 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act, signed by her husband. Others say that it resulted from a growing awareness of the salience of religious factors in international politics since Sept. 11, 2001.

In any event, over the past 18 months, she supported initiatives within the State Department to raise awareness of the nexus of religion and foreign affairs. A part of such efforts is to rely on internal expertise from the department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. However, her exit leaves large questions about whether her successor has much interest in such issues.

How are religious freedom advocates, particularly people of faith such as conservative Catholics and evangelicals, to forecast how Secretary of State Kerry will act (or not act) on this issue? It is a critical issue for many Americans because the freedom to believe and worship, not only as an individual but as a part of a community, is the foundation of what scholars call a “bundle of liberties”: speech, property ownership, assembly and the press are all integrally related to freedom of religion. Where there is no freedom of religion, there are no other “first freedoms.” Conversely, America’s greatest challenges on the international stage — China, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran — are all violators of individual religious liberty.

What, then, of the new secretary of state? Mr. Kerry has long been a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which scrutinizes all U.S. diplomacy, down to the budget for organizations like the State Department’s IRF office and the separate U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, another product of the 1998 IRF Act.

For decades, Mr. Kerry has shown no interest in the issue of religious freedom or prisoners of conscience languishing abroad in foreign prisons for their faith. It simply does not appear that this issue is on his radar as a matter of national security, global human rights or the rule of law. Perhaps even more telling is that the issue appears to be entirely disconnected from Mr. Kerry’s notion of Christian faith.

A year ago, Mr. Kerry gave the commencement address at Gordon College, a Christian university near Boston. The speech is an important window into Mr. Kerry’s view of his own vocation and his notion of how faith and action intersect. In the address, Mr. Kerry discussed his own experiences, from being the son of a diplomat to serving in Vietnam to many years in the Congress. He also mentioned he knew that his Catholic faith should inspire action in his chosen field of public service.

This begs the question: What kind of action did Mr. Kerry call on the next generation of Gordon graduates to pursue? Mr. Kerry specifically spoke about the poor, about religious tolerance, about the just war tradition and about commonalities among the major faiths. “Every religion embraces a form of the Golden Rule, and the supreme importance of charity, compassion and human improvement.” He challenged the Gordon graduates to make a difference: “What I’ve spoken of today — fighting poverty and disease, taking care of the earth, waging only just wars, and mutual understanding and respect among all faiths (even lack of faith) — are godly tasks.”

What he did not talk about was religious liberty. Amazingly — and it would have been red meat to some in the audience — the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said nothing about America’s role championing religious liberty abroad, about the nexus of religion and other freedoms, about religion as the fundamental human right, and about the challenge of confronting America’s enemies on this critical issue. The issue was not simply passed over, it was deliberately neglected.

Champions of religious liberty should immediately begin asking the new secretary of state about how he views the intersection of religion and U.S. vital interests, and how he plans to advance the cause of religious liberty and human freedom worldwide as he takes the helm at Foggy Bottom.

Eric Patterson is associate professor and dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and author of “Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy” (Continuum, 2011).

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