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Religious Freedom and US Foreign Policy PDF Print E-mail

Toby Roth
Former US Congressman

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

I am honored to be with you this evening as you focus on the importance of “Religious Freedom and the New Millennium.” I share your belief that securing and safeguarding religious freedom for all people will be one of the most crucial issues in the new millennium.

Religion has been man’s central focus for all of human history. This coming century and millennium, even with all the changes taking place, will be no different. This is because religion serves one of the most basic needs in a way nothing else can. It gives us a clear sense of purpose. Religion provides us with a compelling reason for being. Religion defines who we are. Equally important, it nurtures our belief in a better future. Indeed, religion single-handedly sustained the human spirit throughout much of Eastern Europe during the darkest, most repressive days of communist rule.

Philosopher Alfred North White asserted that religion was behind the rise of modern science, because Christianity and Judaism taught us that everything in the world is intelligible, that even accidental events, are created by an all-knowing God. The existence of this order is the foundation of science. Religion gives us direction, without which there could be no progress or growth. Therefore, I am extremely excited about the insights you are going to generate at this conference, because I want to share this vision with the members of the U.S. Congress. Some 10 years ago, at the time of our Constitution’s bicentennial, congressmen had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia to reacquaint ourselves with our nation’s founding. While there, we studied the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and many other important works of our Founding Fathers.

Clearly, if Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin were here today, they would feel very much at home in your company. Religious freedom was very much in the minds of those who gave birth to the United States two centuries ago. The spirit of religion lives in their writings. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of America’s founding. Article 4 of the Constitution declares that no religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification for any office of public trust. All Americans, regardless of faith, would have had a chance to lead their nation. Unlike most nations at that time, there was no government elite in the United States. That was our goal: The new nation would be governed by all its people.

In addition, before the American people ratified the Constitution, they insisted on the adoption of the first 10 amendments, which we call our Bill of Rights. The first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” People would be free to worship as they see fit. There would be no state-sanctioned religions. In the eyes of the law, every person’s faith would be equal.

Now, two centuries later, we who inherited our Constitution remind ourselves of our dedication to our founders and to these freedoms. If there ever was a universal principle that has transcended national borders and cultures, it is that of religious freedom. That is why less than two weeks ago, on May 14, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. The vote was 375 in favor and just 41 against. Last week I asked Congressman Frank Wolf, who was responsible for introducing the legislation, “Just what is your intent in introducing this legislation and passing it?” He told me that religion should be protected from government interference around the globe, as it is in the United States. Congress opposes international religious persecution and believes that the policies of the U.S. government and its relations with foreign governments should be consistent with that core belief.

Personal factors were also involved. Two of the 131 congressmen who were the prime movers of this bill told me that they had visited Soviet prison camps during the height of the Cold War, Romania before and immediately after the overthrow of its ruthless regime, and Tibet, to investigate firsthand allegations in those areas. They said that in their recent visit to Tibet, conditions were the worst they had seen anywhere. Congressman Wolf told me it was more brutal than anything he had ever seen before. This, he said, motivated him to take immediate action.

Buddhist monks told congressmen on the fact-finding mission to Tibet that they were not free to practice their religion. Failure to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama, their most revered religious figure, from places of worship has resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of monks. Even prayers are restricted, and the Chinese government has placed overseers in every monastery.

The House legislation does not apply to only one religion. It applies to all religions. No matter what a person’s faith or beliefs, people around the world have a basic right to worship as they wish, free from fear of persecution, abduction, enslavement, and imprisonment, as Mr. Casino pointed out when he was talking about Sudan.

This legislation seeks to protect every person who is persecuted on account of his religious beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be. This is powerful legislation for people all over the world. It is the hope of Congress, and myself, that all those suffering from oppressive religious persecution-be it in Sudan, China, North Korea, Tibet, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, or anywhere else around the world-will be strengthened by the actions in the United States. It is our hope that one day everyone will be free for all time from such persecution. The goal of the legislation passed by the House is to underscore what has been set forth in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” That right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, whether alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion, his beliefs in the teachings, in its practice, in its worship, and its observance. The bill must now pass the Senate, and while the president has said he is not sure that he is going to sign it, I guarantee that when it comes to the president’s desk he is going to sign it. This bill should be signed into law.

The Freedom from Persecution Act will establish a new office in the Department of State called the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring. It’s director would be appointed by the president. This office will direct U.S. sanctions against countries and individuals who have been determined to be engaged in religious persecution. The bill would also provide asylum for religious refugees who face credible fear of persecution on account of their religious beliefs. This bill is precisely written to target those responsible for religious persecution. There is no general prohibition of exports. The ban on exports covers only those entities that have been deemed responsible for religious persecution, as determined by the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring.

For example, a farmer who exports grain to a foreign country that engages in religious persecution would not be compelled to find a new market for his grain. As long as the farmer sells that product to a party other than the group responsible for the persecution, the farmer can continue to do so. Nevertheless, many people in the United States and in the international business community are alarmed by the word sanctions. I understand their concerns. They fear that regardless of how economic sanctions are directed, they will prove ineffective and only harm honest business people. Moreover, others fear that these sanctions are isolationist.

Those who believe that sanctions are ineffective need to remember history. Sanctions worked in select situations where those targeted had no suitable alternative markets. Those totally opposed to sanctions have forgotten the important role that economic sanctions played in the free world’s triumph in the Cold War. When I was in Congress 20 years ago, no one dreamed that there would be no Soviet empire as we entered the new century. The Soviet empire seemed to be an immutable and regrettable fact of life. It appeared that we had no choice but to live with its existence. But it is no more. The bipartisan policy we followed for nearly 50 years of resisting the Soviet Union and communism throughout the world was the most internationalist policy the United States, or possibly any country, has ever undertaken. It was not isolationist in the least sense.

The efforts of the various churches and religious organizations were instrumental in the success of our policies. In Poland, the Catholic Church helped bring down communism. In Czechoslovakia and Romania, the churches helped people of conviction to rise up. It was the force of religious conscience within these countries, backed up by the moral weight of the foreign policy of the United States and its allies, that helped tear down the Iron Curtain. In another success story, economic sanctions helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Sanctions can work if applied properly. Today, however, we seem to have forgotten these lessons. More and more, our foreign policy is based on strict economic benefit. Our government is afraid to take on repressive regimes. We fear losing jobs, or at least that is the popular argument. The truth is that, many more jobs would be created by transforming repressive regimes into thriving free-market economies. Current policies preserve a few jobs, but more are lost because of the inability to take on harsh regimes.

Today, some claim that human rights are all but forgotten by U.S. policymakers. I have had the opportunity to hear Harry Wu testify before Congress about the brutal torture inflicted on religious dissidents in China. The House International Relations Committee has had many Chinese Christians testify about the conditions they face. We have heard other horror stories from Buddhists. The Dalai Lama opened our eyes to the real hardship endured by many as they suffer religious persecution. It was visits like that that brought about this legislation.

Worse still, Chinese persecution takes place even as the Chinese constitution prohibits discrimination under Article 36. We have to stand up and say, “If this is your constitution, you have to live by these words.” Article 36 says that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” It further declares that no state, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in or not believe in any religion, nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in or do not believe in any religion. When it comes to religious freedom in China, the constitution seems more than adequate. Unfortunately, its enforcement leaves much to be desired.

In Pakistan, Catholic Bishop John Joseph took his own life in public protest after a member of his diocese was sentenced for adhering to the wrong religion. At the funeral, the police fired tear gas and bullets into a crowd of mourners, killing many. The government of Sudan uses slavery, forced conversion, torture, the kidnapping of children, and starvation to oppress both Christians and animists.

We have to step back and ask ourselves, “What is the direction? Where are we going? How can we change things for the better?” Our policymakers have to relearn what Jeane Kirkpatrick advised us nearly 20 years ago, when she argued that the United States should confront those totalitarian regimes that incorporate religious persecution and other systemic abuses into the fabric of their national identity. Such regimes are unacceptable under any circumstances. Yes, Soviet communism is dead. But totalitarianism is not. We must prevail in this final battle. Only when mankind is truly free to prosper and pursue happiness will our goal be achieved.

Today we live in a world of change. Our world is radically different from the one we inherited as children. Nevertheless, no matter how pervasive the changes, man must not abandon the timeless principles that have guided us. You can argue that contemporary times and their growing assortment of opportunities and challenges demand the purpose that religion can provide. That is why the work you are doing is the most important work of all. Effective leadership and creativity are essential to economic, competitive, and political success.

It is not just Western religions that need respect and protection. Eastern religions offer valuable lessons as well. Buddhism’s eightfold path, though more than two millennia old, offers a valuable framework for today’s times. It emphasizes the need for people to seek morality and wisdom. Both are as important today as they were at the dawn of history. Morality helps people make the right decisions. Wisdom gives them the insight to see in a competitive marketplace. It gives them the ability to better value the demands of their consumers. The eightfold path also teaches that people can achieve morality, wisdom, and enlightenment through the pursuit of right speech, right livelihood, right action, right concentration, right mindfulness, right effort, right understanding, and yes, right thought.

In the more than 3,000-year-old Hindu religion, the epic figure of Arjuna chooses to confront the enormous challenge he faces, rather than turn away. In accepting his undertaking he asked, “What use is an existence without heroic deeds.” I think that is why you are here. You are looking to do heroic deeds, too. Today, whether one competes in sports, manages a business, or serves in government, little is more important than the pursuit of excellence. Few teachings can compare with the two I have just mentioned, and virtually all of them can be found in one religion or another.

When I was preparing my remarks last week, I talked with a number of members of Congress for their views on the matter. They agreed that we must all do our part to preserve the important truths that have sustained us for so long. In fact, as the rate of change increases, more than ever people will need a mooring—a constant in their lives. Religion plays that role. That is why the cause of freedom from religious persecution has become such a pressing matter. Faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life. The brotherhood and sisterhood of all people transcends the sovereignty of nations. And earth’s greatest treasure lies not in your bank account but in the human personality. Service to humanity is the best work of life.

The monetary system, free-market economies, and global trade are critically important. By themselves, however, they are not sufficient to advance mankind. Perhaps Mark put it best in the Gospel when he asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul.” The noted social philosopher Michael Novak has observed, “Those who have eaten awhile of material success know that there is more to life than bread.” They desire more than having. Man is both economic and spiritual. That is the essence of humanity. To deny the basic right to the freedom of worship is to deny nothing less than humanity. Religious freedom is vital.

Religion gives us our values. Our values shape our actions and our decisions. The decisions we make determine our destiny as individuals and our destiny as nations. As such, religion empowers; it gives us the important tools necessary for us to be authors of our own future. Foreign policy must have a moral focus. Much as our humanity cannot stand alone on economics, neither can our foreign policy. Instead, our foreign policy must embrace the fullness of humanity, in both economic and moral elements. Though difficult, we simply cannot afford to ignore the moral component in our foreign policy.

Our goal must be, as it always has been, for all men to be able to dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, and freedom. Religious freedom is perhaps the most important of our basic rights. As a Christian, I believe that the freedom we have is a right granted to us by Almighty God, our Creator. We are born to that right. No government or individual should be permitted to deprive us of it. As a Catholic, I believe John Paul when he said that “religious persecution is an intolerable and unjustifiable violation of the most fundamental human freedom”—that of practicing one’s faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.

Every religion defines those fundamentals from which our understanding of rights, liberties, and responsibilities are gathered. It is past time for the great nations of the world to stand up and say they cannot condone and will not tolerate nations that persecute people on the basis of faith. In all religions and philosophies the world over, the true leader is the one who leads by example. Now the great nations must exercise genuine leadership. This will be especially true in the new millennium. This is why I am so proud of the recent actions by Congress. I am also excited about the new century and the new possibilities.

Although my crystal ball is as murky as everyone else’s, I do feel that the spiritual side of life—the qualities of courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication founded in religion—will be absolutely indispensable. The 20th century was a century of commerce. The 21st century will be the century of meaning. Thomas Watson Jr., who brought about the rise of IBM, wrote that if an organization is to meet the challenge of the changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except its beliefs. The only sacred cow in the organization should be its basic philosophy of doing business. In the more difficult and yet more important endeavor of life, religion is the most important focus. Just as the core philosophies of the world’s outstanding companies—be it Shell Oil, Sony, or Coca-Cola—differ, so do the religions of the world’s many peoples. Companies have the freedom to embrace differing missions. People should at least have the same freedom to worship as they see fit.

Now is the time for the United States and all nations to take the lead in guaranteeing religious freedom for all people all across the world. While it is important for nations to do that, it is also important for each one of us to do that, because people today are more empowered than ever. In the United States we have a little saying which goes something like this, “When people say I am only one person, I can’t do much. I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. And what I can do I ought to do, and what I ought to do by the grace of God, I shall do.” That is a commitment and dedication you and I bring to this endeavor. Then this conference will have tremendous impact on the next century and the next millennium.

When, at some future date, the high court of history sits in judgment, recording whether in our brief span we were faithful to our responsibilities, let history record that you and I were men and women of courage, integrity, and dedication. Let history show that we answered our most important call.