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.
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."