Int’l Religious Freedom Has Not Featured Prominently in 2012 Campaign

By Patrick Goodenough | November 30, 2011 | 5:12 AM EST

Egyptian Copts protest violence and church attacks carried out by radical Muslims in Cairo last October. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

( – A religious freedom advocacy group is challenging all 2012 presidential contenders to sign a pledge committing themselves to promote religious freedom at home and to make it a foreign policy priority.

As of late Tuesday, Republican former Sen. Rick Santorum had signed the Open Doors USA pledge and the other candidates – including the Democratic incumbent – were “considering” doing so, the organization said.

Signatories to the “pledge for religious freedom” commit themselves to uphold religious freedom for Americans of all faiths; to nominate federal judges who are committed to upholding religious freedom (including the right to employ religious arguments in contending for or against laws and policies such as those “designed to protect the unborn and traditional marriage”); and to prioritize religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.

Several dozen institutions, organizations and individuals in the religious freedom field have endorsed the pledge, and Open Doors is also inviting Americans to sign a petition urging candidates to sign.

“Open Doors will approach candidates, informing them how many Americans have signed the petition,” the ministry said in a statement. “This will help them understand that the public cares about religious freedom and wants our president to protect and promote it.”

“Religious freedom is foundational to American society, and a key indicator of prosperity in most societies worldwide,” said the group’s advocacy director, Lindsay Vessey. “Candidates need to hear from American voters that this is an important issue.”

Promoting religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority moved onto Washington’s agenda 13 years ago, with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

The legislation established an office in the State Department led by an ambassador-at-large to oversee the issue and produce an annual report. It also set up an independent advisory commission, and provided tools and incentives including the “countries of particular concern” designation for regimes that perpetrate or condone religious persecution.

‘Anti-Christian spring’

International religious freedom has not featured strongly as a stand-alone issue in the 2012 GOP presidential primary race, although the issue has made brief appearances in platforms, debates and interviews.

One of the most direct references to the issue came during a Nov. 12 foreign policy debate in South Carolina, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich responded to a question about Egypt.

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“Candidly, the degree to which the Arab spring may become an anti-Christian spring is something which bothers me a great deal,” he replied. “And I would certainly have the State Department intervening on behalf of the Coptic Christians, who are being persecuted under the new system, having their churches burned, having people killed. And I’d be pretty insistent that we are not going to be supportive of a regime which is explicitly hostile to religions other than Islam.”

Gingrich, who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism two years ago, identifies “Protecting life and religious liberty” as one of eight “solutions” in his campaign platform.

His 13-strong “national security advisory team” announced a week ago includes an international religious freedom expert – Tina Ramirez, director of international and government relations for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Santorum, a conservative Catholic, has long championed the issue, and while a senator founded and led the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom, a group of lawmakers meeting regularly to discuss international and domestic religious freedom concerns.

In a video message last June, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), an evangelical, voiced concern about developments in Egypt and Libya, noting that those rising up to replace Arab tyrants were not “necessarily peaceful lovers of liberty.”

“Upholding American values doesn’t require us to support the rise to power of those who reject the bedrock notions of liberty, of individual rights and freedom of religion that are the foundations of the American creed – just because they manage to convince a majority of voters to support their intolerant message,” she said.

In his 44-page foreign policy strategy released last month, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, said that as president he would “vigorously support and engage civil society groups within China that are promoting democratic reform, anti-corruption efforts, religious freedom, and women’s and minority rights.”

Romney also pledged that as part of his response to the upheavals in the Middle East he would “convene a summit that brings together world leaders, donor organizations, and young leaders of groups that espouse the principles of representative government, religious pluralism, economic opportunity, women’s and minority rights, and freedom of expression and conscience in the Arab world.”

‘Freedom to worship is a basic human right’

In a newly-released “vision for foreign policy and national security” – essentially his assessment of 20 key bilateral relationships – former corporate executive Herman Cain, a Baptist, cautioned that in supporting Syria’s anti-Assad opposition the U.S. must keep “a keen eye toward protecting Syria’s significant Christian minority.”

Cain also warned that a “nightmare” may be unfolding in Egypt, pointing among other things to what he called “open season on Coptic Christians, with churches being burned and mobs on killing sprees.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Protestant, declares on his campaign site, “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and I endeavor every day to follow Him in all I do and in every position I advocate.”

The libertarian and fiscal conservative opposes policies that he regards as interference in other countries’ affairs, including attempts to promote religious freedom abroad. He was one of 14 Republicans to vote against the IRFA in 1998. (The bill passed in the House by 375-41, and in the Senate by 98-0.)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Methodist who is outspoken about his faith, recently condemned the authorities in Iran for sentencing to death an Iranian pastor convicted of apostasy.

“There is no shade of gray or room for equivocation here,” Perry said in a statement. “Freedom to worship is a basic human right, and the charges against Pastor [Youcef] Nadarkhani are an affront to the essential principles of the civilized world.”

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, referred to religious freedom as an American value during a foreign policy speech in New Hampshire last month

Describing his meetings with Chinese dissidents while serving as U.S. ambassador in Beijing, he recalled, “What was always clear to me was that those seeking reform and change drew strength from our nation’s values – the openness, the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion and press.”

“Half a world away they could see this country’s light. Dissidents around the world can see it,” Huntsman said. “That is America’s value in the world today. When we shine our light abroad magnified by a strong core at home, we are invincible.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow