Patrick Bohlin, Contributing Writer
This past week, the University of Dallas chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society hosted a debate on whether or not the United States should actively promote religious freedom in its foreign policy. The event featured University of Texas professor of public affairs Dr. William Inboden and Southern Methodist University chair of international politics Dr. Joshua Rovner with UD’s own Dr. Thomas Jodziewicz, professor of history, as moderator.
“Both debaters acknowledged religious liberty as a positive good,” junior Will Chavey pointed out, “but they disagreed as to whether that liberty, as a core principle, should be part of our basic international ‘relations package.’”
Inboden, who formerly worked for the State Department, stressed that not only is the United States fully capable of executing such a task, but it will also benefit substantially from a global increase in religious freedom. National security, economic interests and international peace would all be advanced with a wider realization of the right to free exercise, he said. The insurgent enemies of the United States almost universally were born and raised on a diet of religious intolerance, a diet that ought to be stemmed, according to Inboden. He argued that the United States ought to recognize religious liberty as not just an American value, but a universal human right. If Americans want to improve their world image, they ought to support this right by aiding religious dissidents in oppressive regimes. The United States has labored alone in this project of supporting religious freedom, and Inboden named several grateful activists who have been saved through U.S. advocacy.
Rovner shared Inboden’s esteem for the idea of religious freedom. However, he disagreed with Inboden’s optimism that such liberty can be enforced in tandem with other national interests. He claimed that the implementation of these standards cannot be done without intermingling in the politics of the relevant country, which the last decades have shown is nothing short of dangerous. According to Rovner, to get involved politically in questions of moral probity damages the credibility of the United States as it conducts international business. If American diplomats are too critical of an allied or partnering regime’s intolerance, that alliance or partnership becomes strained, making it difficult for interstate trade, Rovner said. Moreover, it makes cooperation in cracking down on terrorism and weapons manufacturing more difficult. In short, he argued, it costs too much political capital to enforce. Religious enforcement can also be dangerous for the dissidents themselves, who may receive additional unwanted attention. These arguments were enough to convince sophomore Nicholas McCabe.
“Religious freedom should not be pushed on other countries simply because it can often do more harm than good,” he said.
“The event was insightful because it was a scholarly debate on a topic with no clear answer,” said Benjamin Gibbs, president of AHS at UD. “Events like this one provide a balanced approach with multiple arguments, not just one that everyone wants to hear.”
The debate came at a time in which American elected leaders are befuddled about religious liberty not just abroad, but also on a national level. It is true that every American ought to be grateful for what is taken for granted – the opportunity to worship as one pleases. Nonetheless, the distinction between free worship and free exercise according to conscience is becomingly increasingly unclear even within the United States. Legislators are operating under the mistaken understanding that religious liberty is limited to the right to go to church on Sundays.
Can American diplomats properly consider religious freedom enforcement in other states when, on the home front, Americans are facing heavy fines for refusing to pay for medical treatments that run contrary to their religious beliefs? When adoption agencies are being denied the right to determine what is an authentic and safe family atmosphere? It seems that, before discussing religious freedom elsewhere, it might be time to examine more closely our own affairs.