Progressive Revival

Amid the final campaign push, the 10th anniversary of the nation’s landmark covenant on international religious freedom passed largely unnoticed on Monday. That is more than a shame. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president who proved to be better promoting this issue than his ostensibly faith-friendly successor, George W. Bush. 

This issue is not only one of the pressing moral concerns of the day, but good for national security, as well–and smart politics, if either campaign had noticed. The issue is one I have spent a good deal of time researching, and I wrote about IRFA and the lost opportunity in an op-ed for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey on Sunday. An excerpt:

For Obama, the benefit is obvious. Despite his church-going, Bible-quoting bona fides, the Democrat continues to lag behind McCain with regular worshipers, especially the white evangelical Christians whom Obama would like to peel away from McCain’s Republican base. Displaying an understanding of the varied travails of believers in different regions could also burnish Obama’s foreign policy credentials.

For his part, McCain is looking to put daylight between himself and George W. Bush, and — ironically, given the president’s faith-based rhetoric — experts and advocates in the field give Bush mixed grades at best on promoting religious freedom overseas. (The Beijing Olympics was the most recent, and most visible, disappointment.)

At the same time, McCain could buff his credentials with a religious right that is increasingly key to his election hopes. Moreover, attack ads haven’t been working for McCain, and embracing this issue would be a chance for him to showcase the kind of world leader he could be and has been: One of McCain’s acknowledged legacies is his push to normalize U.S.-Vietnam relations. Yet religious repression endures there, and addressing it could be a convincing way for McCain to connect his expertise with his experience as a POW.

In the piece I also cite Georgetown scholar-in-residence and former diplomat Tom Farr, and his excellent new book, “World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security.” Read an in-depth essay by Farr at The Immanent Frame.

And let’s hope that whoever wins on Tuesday, they’ll appreciate the advantages and virtues of promoting religious rights abroad.

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