Three Reasons Congress Should Embrace International Religious Freedom

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in International Christian Concern on May 31, 2021.

The release of the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report this month confirmed the dire situation of many religious believers around the world. The evidence of widespread suffering is a call to action for world leaders, and the U.S. Congress should take note. Although the executive branch is ultimately in charge of U.S. foreign policy, members of Congress nevertheless have an influential role to play.

With a heated political climate and an election always around the corner, it is all too easy for members of Congress to focus on stateside political crises and neglect atrocities happening far from home. But they might find that Americans are interested in promoting religious freedom abroad.

While making the world a better place, advancing religious freedom can also elevate a member’s political profile. Here are three reasons why Congress should diligently prioritize international religious freedom.

  1. Americans care about religious freedom.

Even as legal challenges to religious freedom have mounted in this country, Americans continue to value this basic right. One poll conducted in 2020 by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that eight in ten Americans say religious freedom issues are at least somewhat important to them, and 55 percent say they are very important.

Members of Congress often understandably keep one eye on their next election. Support for religious freedom may actually help candidates in the voting booth. The 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index found that more than six in ten registered voters say a candidate’s stance on religious liberty is important to them. Supporting the expansion of religious freedom as the universal standard around the world, in addition to the U.S., is an effective way for politicians to prove their commitment to religious freedom.

  1. The American people want to see the U.S. government advance basic human rights around the world.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to a 2017 Gallup poll said that promoting and defending human rights in other countries was a very important or somewhat important U.S. foreign policy goal. And 70 percent of respondents to a recent Pew Research Center study said the United States should promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations with China. It is significant that such a large majority of Americans prioritize the promotion of human rights over economic ties with the second-largest economy in the world.

  1. Working on international religious freedom is an opportunity to foster bipartisan cooperation.

Ever since the bipartisan passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, the issue of international religious freedom has been a source of unity, with effective advocates residing on both sides of the aisle. Although American politics is suffering from hyper-partisanship and a divided culture, long-standing agreement concerning international religious freedom enables Democrats and Republicans to work together, even when they agree on little else.

Religious groups of all faiths face persecution around the world. This includes Christians in Nigeria, Uyghur Muslims in China, Yazidis in Iraq, and Hindus in Pakistan, just to name a few. Because the victims of religious persecution are diverse, the advocates for religious freedom are diverse as well. A broad coalition of non-profits associated with a number of different faiths regularly join forces in Washington, D.C., to advance the same international religious freedom policies.

Religious freedom is an essential part of America’s heritage, and the United States should display leadership in promoting this fundamental human right. The “first freedom” enshrined in the Bill of Rights has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and passed down to contemporary Americans intact. On the world stage, even Western countries that share our democratic values tend to wait for us to take the lead. Setting the example for parliamentarians across the globe is a role that Congress should embrace.

There are many ways for members of Congress to engage on the issue of international religious freedom. A few easy steps include: adopting and advocating for a religious prisoner of conscience through the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s Defending Freedoms Project, co-sponsoring bills that seek to address religious persecution abroad, introducing resolutions to condemn violations of religious freedom, and engaging with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) regarding their policy recommendations.

While our attention is often focused close to home, it is a mistake to brush aside international concerns. Just because they are not right in front of us at all times doesn’t mean they are unimportant. And when they do arise, it is often matters overseas – involving questions of unstable regimes, weapons of mass destruction, and other weighty matters – which keep us up at night.

Americans are increasingly attentive to human rights abuses, especially those committed by top offenders like China. This is an opportune moment for Congress to set differences aside and lead on a critical issue. For the millions of affected believers across the globe, let us hope they choose to do so.