Since the end of the Cold War, public diplomacy has been in a
bit of turmoil. There was a sense that ideological struggle had
largely ceased or had at least faded into the background, but the
whiplash of 9/11 yanked attention back to ideological warfare -- and
it should stay there.
The United States should expect to be endlessly engaged in cold
wars of ideas. America is a nation built on an idea, specifically,
"that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights." That idea had its enemies in
1776, and it has them today.
In a war of ideas, one's ideas had better be "in good fighting
shape," to quote the late Adda Bozeman. Today, a
number of the ideas central to the American order are not in prime
fighting shape, including ideas about the importance of religious
liberty and practice in American society.
Self-government demands a high degree of social awareness about
the ideas that sustain the order. The principles and institutions
of a free society are inherently more susceptible to corruption of
purpose and meaning than are those of more authoritarian states.
Despite this imperative of self-government, Americans have not been
consistently diligent in defending the ideas at the heart of the
American order. Our disinclination to study our own history and
founding principles -- much less the history of foreign cultures and
thought -- has left us with an "unconvincing national self-image." A
vague, unconvincing national identity makes it difficult to
assemble a coherent public diplomacy strategy, and it exposes
America's defining attributes to mischaracterization at home and
U.S. public diplomacy aims to impart to foreign audiences an
understanding and appreciation of American ideals, principles,
institutions, and policy. This means that U.S. public diplomacy
must be firmly grounded in those principles and ideals, including
those concerning religion. Today, however, the religious roots of
the American order and the role of religion in its continued
success are poorly understood. The American model of religious
liberty and its thriving religious culture are significant defining
attributes of the United States, and this success story should be
told around the world.
Furthermore, religion defines the worldview of many whom U.S.
policy seeks to influence. As U.S. foreign policy seeks to win
hearts and minds, advance freedom, and promote stability, it must
systematically engage religious ideas and audiences. At present,
this engagement is isolated and inconsistent. Public diplomacy
strategy should include efforts to reach these audiences by better
explaining the role of religious freedom and practice in America
and by integrating this into the overall promotion of freedom
around the world.
The Significance of Religion in
The American model of religious liberty and its thriving
religious culture are defining attributes of the United States.
These features characterize the American order as much as its
democratic political system and market economy. Religion has been a
dominant theme from the earliest settlements to the great social
justice causes led by religious congregations in the late 19th
century and again in the 20th century. Today, almost 90 percent of
Americans say that religion is at least "somewhat important" in
their lives. About 60 percent are members of a local
religious congregation. Faith-based organizations are extremely
active in providing for social needs at home and in sending aid
Religious liberty is an American success story that should be
told around the world.The American constitutional order produced a
constructive tension between religion and state. One of the major
reasons for the success of the American experiment is that it
balanced citizens' dual allegiances to God and earthly authorities
without forcing believers to abandon (or moderate) their primary
loyalty to God.
This habit of reconciling civil and religious authorities as
well as the process of harmonizing the interests of competing
religious groups helped to fortify the discipline of
self-government. Meanwhile, the moral authority exercised by
religious congregations, family, and other private associations
helps to maintain limited government. The American Founders
frequently stated that virtue and religion are essential to
maintaining a free society because they preserve "the moral
conditions of freedom."
Today, the religious roots of the American order and the role of
religion in its continued success are poorly understood. The
constructive tension between religion and state is portrayed by
some as a radical separation. However, that idea is more French
than American. The American Revolution had a much different
character than the French revolution, and French
laïcité creates a much different climate
than what has been known in America. Yet America has generally
drifted toward that continental climate in recent decades.
One source of that drift is the notion of strict separation of
church and state, which suggests that the government should have
nothing to do with religion. This encourages the view that religion
is a personal, private affair that is irrelevant to public
Another source is the assumption that political and social
progress will increasingly marginalize religion. However, data on
religious belief and practice in the U.S. and around the world defy
The lack of understanding of religion's continued relevance in
America's constitutional order prevents clear thinking about the
relationship between religion and liberty. It also creates blinders
to religion's influence abroad. If policymakers are unfamiliar with
a religious framework for interpreting human action and motivation,
they will be ill-equipped to communicate effectively with highly
Telling the Story of Religious Liberty
and Practice in America
U.S. public diplomacy could take practical steps to better
highlight the significance of religious liberty and practice.
Specifically, U.S. policy should:
- Muster the full force of America's founding ideals,
- Better integrate the religious freedom agenda with the overall
promotion of freedom,
- Enlist appropriate mediators to reach target audiences,
- Find common Interest in religious liberty between religious
groups and state authority.
Mustering the Full Force of America's Founding Ideals.
Public diplomacy leadership calls for more than communications and
marketing credentials. The message itself is even more critical
than the modes and techniques for projecting it to the world. In
this 21st-century war of ideas, it is critical that U.S. public
diplomacy rely on the bedrock of the American founding principles.
Pop culture and commercialism cannot do justice to American ideals.
They are flimsy and inadequate in the fight against potent
ideologies that present strong, coherent, and deeply misguided
explanations of the nature and purpose of human existence. This war
of ideas calls for stronger substance than Coca-Cola and Britney
U.S. policymakers need to understand and be able to articulate
the role of religion in the American constitutional order. Foreign
Service training should promote that end.
One idea proposed by Thomas Farr, a retired Foreign Service
officer and former director of the State Department religious
liberty office, is to create a sub-specialty career track in
Foreign Service training and career advancement that would allow
for specialization in religious liberty. This training
should place religious liberty in the context of America's founding
Unifying the Freedom Agendas. The international freedom
agenda should better integrate the ongoing work to promote
religious liberty, the "first freedom." In a 2008 article on the
10th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, Nina
Shea related the story of a senior State Department official
working on Iraq policy who did not know that a religious freedom
office existed at the department. The office and the
ambassador-at-large need to be more visible and integrated into the
overall policymaking functions of the State Department.
Public diplomacy should more systematically assess and
communicate about religious dynamics. Evaluating religious dynamics
of target cultures should become a regular function of analysis,
and articulating the role of religion in the U.S. should be a
consistent feature of communications strategy.
The vision of religious liberty needs to be robust. Condemning
and curtailing religious persecution is a critical goal, but a more
expansive agenda should seek to promote political conditions that
consistently apply religious liberty tenets rooted in
The case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity,
shows the need to establish the fundamental relationship between
religious freedom and democracy. Afghanistan's constitutional
government does not engage in the systematic religious persecution
that characterized the Taliban's rule, but apostasy and blasphemy
charges are still brought. When Abdul Rahman was so charged, an
international uproar ensued. U.S. pressure helped to rescue Rahman,
who left the country.
This may have been a humanitarian success, but not for religious
liberty policy generally. Freedom of religion -- including the
freedom of conversion -- is essential to the long-term success of
democratic government in Afghanistan.
This calls for a wider view of the mandate of the religious
liberty office at the State Department. With its annual reports,
the office serves as an important human rights monitor, but U.S.
foreign policy engagement on religious liberty should go further.
The office should serve as a resource and offer strategic input in
the essential task of establishing freedom of religion as the
foundation of democracy.
Enlisting Mediators of the Message. Public diplomacy
should broaden dialogue between American citizens and institutions
and their counterparts abroad, including religious
individuals and groups. Engaging religious audiences to help to
develop the habits of a free and civil society is essential to
promoting liberty in much of the world. Religious groups in the
U.S. may be able to further the work of public diplomacy by
reaching religious groups abroad in ways that the U.S. government
Religious Groups and Individuals. The U.S. should seek
the counsel of religious individuals and groups with experience in
the target cultures. Military chaplains stationed with units in
critical locations can provide insight and assistance in
communicating with religious audiences. Christian missionaries
serving foreign communities through schools and hospitals and other
mercy ministries are one example of largely harmonious interaction
between the United States and non-Western cultures.
People with such experiences acquire valuable insights about groups
that continue to confound many U.S. officials.
For example, in January 2001, the Classical School of the Medes
in Kurdish northern Iraq was launched by American Christians to
provide English language education with a classical curriculum. The
school had expanded to three campuses by the time of Saddam
Hussein's fall. Today, the three campuses serve 1,000 students, and
about 95 percent of the students are Kurdish Muslims. What could be
better than a school teaching the classics to help to cultivate
Faith-Based Diplomacy. The U.S. should encourage and
build on "faith-based diplomacy." This is a type of Track II
diplomacy conducted by non-officials. It combines insights from
religious faith with the practice of international relations.
Pope John Paul II is the preeminent example of a "faith-based
diplomat," but many other religious believers would also qualify.
This sort of unofficial diplomat has moral authority and engages in
conflict resolution by appealing to transcendent spiritual
resources, including sacred texts and prayer. Such diplomacy
appeals to a religious tradition's own tenets, rather than trying
to minimize deep and irreconcilable differences among faith
For example, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy
is helping to reform Pakistani madrasas. The Institute for American
Values is sponsoring an Islam-West series of conversations between
scholars and religious figures from both parts of the world.
"While most American and European foreign-policy elites may hold
a secular worldview, much of the rest of the world lives in one of
the great religious traditions," writes Andrew Natsios, former
director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
By contrast, faith-based organizations "have much more in common
with the rest of the world and thus may understand ethnic and
religious conflicts, political movements driven by religious
devotion, and the way in which the religious mind functions, better
than secularized foreign-policy practitioners."
Finding Common Interest in Religious Liberty. U.S. public
diplomacy must convey to majority religious communities that
religious freedom will continue to promote a positive and public
role for religion. The American model of religious liberty includes
a favorable view of religious practice, both private and public.
Far from privatizing or marginalizing religion, it assumes that
religious believers and institutions will take active roles in
society, including engagement in the political process and
formulation of public moral consensus.
Religious believers seeking peaceful, strong, stable communities
can find considerable common ground in their views of human life,
family, and ordering society with respect for the transcendent.They
share concern about efforts to marginalize religious practice from
U.S. public diplomacy should communicate the continued
importance of religion and traditional values in American life.
Most Americans continue to attach great significance to religious
faith and practice, marriage, family, and raising children in a
morally supportive environment -- values shared in many highly
religious societies around the world.
The historical and continued role of religion in the American
order is not adequately understood today. This prevents clear
thinking about the relationship between religion and liberty and
creates blinders to religion's influence abroad. To win hearts and
minds, advance freedom, and promote stability, U.S. public
diplomacy must systematically engage the role of religion and
Policymakers can take specific steps to more effectively
communicate the significance of religious liberty and practice in
America. U.S. public diplomacy should convey a robust understanding
of America's founding ideals, including religious liberty. The
international freedom agenda should better integrate the ongoing
work to promote religious liberty, with the religious liberty
office at the State Department serving as a resource in
establishing freedom of religion as the foundation of democracy.
Religious groups in the U.S. may be able to provide unofficial
support that furthers the work of public diplomacy, reaching
religious groups abroad in ways that the U.S. government cannot.
Finally, U.S. public diplomacy should convey that religious freedom
is compatible with a positive and public role for religion.
Jennifer A. Marshall
is Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and
Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.