This week I had the opportunity to be a part of a discussion with Tim Keesee of Frontline Missions International about his new book, Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places.
In the book and the accompanying video series, Keesee shares his experiences visiting Christians and observing God’s work in places as diverse and dangerous as China, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, former Soviet republics, and Southeast Asia.
Jesus promised, “I will build my Church,” and try as they might, the Gates of Hell are no match for the Holy Spirit’s work.
It wasn’t long into the conversation before the growing problem of religious liberty came up. China is, in various ways and various places, cracking down on churches and arresting pastors. The Muslim world continues to grow increasingly intolerant of Christians, the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria being especially troubling. And many in India see Christianity as a pernicious “Western” influence despite the fact that it’s been Indian since the first century.
One of the reasons governments feel free to deny their citizens religious freedom has to do with the Obama administration’s apparent lack of interest.
Consider that it was more than two years after his inauguration before Mr. Obama filled the legally mandated State Department post of Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. Then he chose the Rev. Susan Johnson Cook, someone, according to Religious News Service, “whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.” That is, he chose someone no experience in diplomacy or expertise in international religious freedom, someone who would have little influence.
Cook served from April 2011 to October 2013 and the post is still vacant. As Thomas Farr, Director of the Religious Liberty Project at Georgetown University told Religious New Service this past January, “A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority.”
On February 6, the president told the National Prayer Breakfast, “We will keep standing for religious freedom around the world…. I look forward to nominating our next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to help lead these efforts.”
Now it’s July and we’re still waiting. Hardly the way that you treat an office that, as the State Department website puts it, “has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
And make no mistake: international religious freedom should be “a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
First, religious freedom is the first freedom. Without the freedom to live out of our deepest convictions about truth, life, and God, every other freedom—speech, assembly, press, and even economic—are hollowed out and empty.
Second, love for neighbor demands that we fight for the legitimate rights of others. No one should be arrested, beaten, imprisoned, or killed for attempting to live out a relationship with God according to his or her conscience. And the moral influence of the United States has in the past made a great difference in how religious individuals and groups have fared under repressive regimes.
Third, religious freedom is a national security issue. Take it away and you breed unrest, lawlessness, and terrorism. Having done the historical, sociological, and political research, Oxford Univerisity’s Monica Duffy Toft, Notre Dame’s Daniel Philpott, and Georgetown’s Timothy Shah concluded in their book God’s Century, “[I]f governments fail to respect the institutional independence of religious actors [their religious freedom], especially through systematic repression, the more these governments will encourage pathological forms of religious politics, including religious-based terrorism and religious-related civil wars.” And religious-based terrorism and religious-related civil wars spill over borders as we are seeing most poignantly in Syria and Iraq.
Toft, Philpott, and Shah describe how Saudi Arabia, which brutally enforces a single strand of Islam, encourages violence. “Since [Saudi Arabia] afforded no space for its militant dissenters to exist, much less operate, and since the political theology of these dissenters gave the a much wider set of ambitions, they went global, with an ever expanding field of operation that encompassed Afghanistan, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and—in time—New York and Washington.”
Religious freedom is not just of concern to religious believers. It is vital to peace in the world. Letting it slip away internationally or here at home creates a clear and present danger for everyone.
The third century Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian famously wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” While Timothy Keesee’s book demonstrates that it is still true today, U.S. foreign policy needs to do all it can to stop the bloodshed.
Publication date: July 9, 2014