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Religious Freedom -- Lead by Example

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In a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama declared that promoting freedom of religious faith around the world was a central goal of U.S. foreign policy, because "freedom of religion matters to our national security." Hardly.

Obama's remarks harkened back to memories of Al Gore saying that climate change was a national security issue. In fact, lobbying groups regularly try to dub their causes as vital to the national security to get more government attention, effort, and money thrown at them. For example, manufacturers of boots are always trying to say they are vital to the national security -- does that include women's Ugg boots, which seem to be the fashion rage?

And promoting freedom of faith overseas by the U.S. government actually might be dangerous. Does promotion mean using only rhetoric -- as Obama did at the breakfast when he was clearly pandering in an attempt to score points with the U.S. religious community -- or does it mean employing stronger means such as coercing foreign governments economically or even militarily to change their toleration of religion or particular sects or denominations. A U.S. war to bring religious freedom to a foreign country is hardly an irrational fear; U.S. leaders regularly use religious code words and phrases to sell more earthly policies. For example, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, he foolishly used the term "crusade," which is an anathema to Muslims.

In Obama's promotion of religious tolerance abroad, he seemed to be selective for whom he advocated. He mentioned by name Kenneth Bae, who did Christian missionary work in North Korea, and Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor who was thrown in prison in Iran for disturbing "national security" by creating a network of Christian churches in private homes. The latter shows the downside of pairing religion with national security.

Furthermore, public scolding by a U.S. president is unlikely to help these unjustly incarcerated individuals in countries unfriendly to the United States. Jimmy Carter found that such public pressure made autocratic regimes even more intransigent in their abuse of human rights. Perhaps here, diplomacy behind the scenes on behalf of these individuals is likely to have a better chance of gaining their release.

Even so, the question then arises as to how much political capital the U.S. government should spend winning the release of Americans who do something illegal or just plain stupid in authoritarian countries. North Korea is an atheistic autocracy, and Iran is a devout Muslim theocracy -- both of which, common sense, would conclude would likely be hostile to Christian proselytizing. Even Kenneth Bae's mother admitted that he was unfamiliar with how things worked in North Korea. But not necessarily singling out religious folks, the same question would apply to the naïve hikers who were detained after straying into Iran.

Moreover, Obama neglected to mention hypocritical U.S. government support for the suppression of Muslim freedoms. For example, the United States backed the Bahrain government's armed suppression of protests by its majority Shi'ite Muslims, because the U.S. wanted to safeguard basing rights for the American Fifth Fleet in that country. Also, the U.S. government has also tacitly accepted, with only a slap on the wrist, the secular Egyptian military's coup against the freely elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, religious freedom is very desirable, but the United States should promote it by setting an example, not by preaching it to the world or worse -- by coercion using economic sanctions or a military "crusade."