Skip to main content

by Donald M. Bishop

America’s career diplomats—the Foreign Service—are assured when they deal with thorny political, economic, trade, and development issues. During my own Foreign Service career, however, I found them uncomfortable speaking of religion.

Like it or not, I tell younger colleagues, religious values move peoples and nations, and faiths, theologies, loyalties and causes animate many of the world’s conflicts. In too many cases, so are oppressions and killings, as horrific events in Paris, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have reminded us. Since American diplomacy must deal with the world as it is, it must learn how best to discuss religion and the issues it touches.

Many Americans’ understanding of religious liberty goes no farther than Thomas Jefferson’s phrase in his 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists—”a wall of separation between church & state.” I have heard “separation” deployed by Foreign Service Officers in conversations with religious leaders as if it is the last word that may be said on the subject. In my observation, rote recital of  “separation” is intended to signal that it’s time to Change The Subject, dodge discussions of religion and morality, and place religion out of bounds in international relations. With a foreigner who takes religion seriously—and most people in the world do— mentioning “separation” ends any dialog before it has begun.

Given the opportunity to prepare Foreign Service Officers for their assignments in a world charged by religion, I make three points:

  • Because the American norm is religious liberty, the first freedom, it is always and everywhere a goal of American foreign policy.
  • Education on religious liberty begins with the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and George Washington’s letters to religious congregations. Even after years of higher education, few young Foreign Service Offices understand the balance between the establishment and free exercise clauses in the first, and they have never read the last two.
  • Finally, I stress that discussions of religion and faith by American diplomats must begin with clear thinking and continue with clear word choices. Here’s my primer on key words.

Establishment: The First Amendment prohibited “an establishment of religion.” The examples that the Framers knew were European. The Church of England was (and is) an established church with the monarch as head. Roman Catholicism was established in France and Spain. In the eighteenth century, there were many variations, but in general monarchs gave their sanction to one “state church,” raised the cathedrals, paid its clergy, controlled ecclesiastical appointments, and set boundaries on religious doctrine.

Even in the 21st century, there are state churches in England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica, Monaco, Greece, and Tuvalu. Other nations grant special recognition or privileges for designated faiths short of formal establishment. Firm legal guarantees of freedom of religion for all citizens parallel these establishments, however, and many different places of worship testify that the freedom is real. In my judgment, these establishments raise no red flags for U.S. policy.

It’s worth noting that while the new U.S. constitution barred a federal establishment of religion, it did not touch churches that were established in some of the thirteen states. Before the revolution, eight colonies had established faiths—Anglican, “Protestant,” or Congregational. The revolution and the Constitution, however, eventually led to their “disestablishment.”  The last establishment—in Massachusetts—ended as late as 1830. Eventually, the Fourteenth Amendment and its incorporation doctrine – which applied the Bill of Rights to state and local governments—closed the door to any state establishment.

Though the word is not used, establishments are found in the Muslim world. Many states in the Islamic ecumene give official sanction to Islam, rest their authority on it, build mosques, provide stipends to imams, control their appointment, write or vet sermons, and set boundaries for what is licit and illicit in matters of faith, theology, the role of women, and morals. Some punish apostasy and blasphemy. These establishments do, in many cases, raise human rights concerns.

Toleration: The next word to understand is “toleration.” This term is different than the “tolerance” I discuss below. Here, the Virginia Statute and President Washington’s letters to religious congregations are clarifying.

Citing the examples most familiar to Americans, now and at the time of the founding, Catholics and Quakers in the United Kingdom, Protestants in France, and Jews just about everywhere endured long periods of active persecution.

All these minorities were eventually granted “toleration” through various acts, decrees, conventicles, or edicts. Tolerated, they were free to worship, but all were denied fundamental rights—to hold office, to trial by jury, or to vote, for instance—for many more years. (Jews could not vote in Connecticut until disestablishment in 1818. Only Protestants could hold office in New Hampshire until 1877.) The Virginia Statute abjured these “civil incapacitations.”

A modern parallel seems apt. The Chinese Communist Party is atheist. Religious believers thus cannot aspire to rise in government. Regulations of the People’s Liberation Army forbid attendance at religious services, so believers cannot maintain their faith if they wear the PLA uniform. In contrast, the Virginia Statute barred “an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion.”

The Virginia Statute also criticized “temporal punishments or burthens.” At different times and places, the burden was discriminatory taxes. The Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Galicia, Hungary, Poland, and many German states imposed taxes on Jews. The jizya tax paid by non-Muslims living in Islamic states—Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Christians among them—was another temporal burden. In past centuries Muslim nations ended the tax, but ISIS has revived it as the alternative to death or conversion to Islam.

George Washington well explained that religious “toleration” is a cramped concept of liberty. In his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens . . . [Emphasis mine]

Tolerance: Some carelessly use “religious tolerance” as a synonym for religious liberty. Others think it means religious pluralism. Both are imprecise.

Speaking to the United Nations in 2004, President George W. Bush said “America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity; the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.” His use of “religious tolerance” was an unhelpful word choice.

President Clinton, speaking at Foundry Methodist Church in the last month of his presidency, was more careful. “I know it’s sort of out of fashion, but I’ve kind of grown impatient with the word ‘tolerance,’ because tolerance implies that someone who’s better than someone else is decent enough to put up with them. And I think we need to move beyond that.”

Freedom to worship or freedom of worship: Franklin Roosevelt included “Freedom of Worship” among the Four Freedoms he described in the 1941 State of the Union address—”the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” The Norman Rockwell painting which gave visual expression to “Freedom of Worship” for wartime Americans showed men and women of many faiths openly worshiping together.

Roosevelt’s phrase was surely intended to mean “religious liberty,” but it is  imprecise because it has been stretched to describe the circumstances of Christians in some Muslim polities. They may worship inside their homes, but they cannot gather in public. This “freedom to worship” is a limited toleration gussied up to sound like religious liberty.

Freedom of conscience: Washington referred to “conscience” or “rights of conscience” more frequently than Jefferson or Madison, but all three were defending the individual right of religious discernment. A more modern take on this phrase is that it embraces religious liberty while it grants an equal freedom to those who are not religious.

Each of these phrases helps flesh out the place of religion in society, and their limits point the way to the full American ideal of religious freedom. Muddling these meanings can only compromise the American commitment to religious liberty and confuse our foreign interlocutors.

For instance, on Religious Freedom Day in 2012, President Obama recalled the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which “brought to life the ideal of religious tolerance from the texts of the Enlightenment in the laws of state.”  In the proclamation he also said, “Our long history of religious tolerance and pluralism has strengthened our country, helped create a vibrant civil society, and remained true to the principles enshrined in our founding documents.” Citing the Virginia Statute in support of “tolerance” isn’t right since the word is found nowhere in its text. Its key words are “religious freedom” and “religious liberty.”

On another occasion, the president spoke of “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution,” but Chapter XI of that Constitution reads “religious freedom for all.”

In his Cairo speech, the president noted that “throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance…” “Possibilities” is an elastic term. In different centuries and in different places, the civil incapacitations and temporal punishments and burdens on religious minorities in Muslim lands may have been heavier or lighter, their bite may have been moderated with some exemptions, and enforcement may have been more or less strict, but they were at best toleration, not religious liberty.

A candid look at American history would reveal a shift over the generations—from bigotry in colonial times, to toleration, to tolerance, to religious liberty. Given severe repressions of religious minorities in many countries, getting to “tolerance” may be the best that can be hoped for in the short run. Perhaps this is the reason why “tolerance” is so often mentioned. It gives the impression, however, that we have negotiated with ourselves and dumbed down a major American principle.

Freedom of Religion: Americans must speak of religious liberty, and we must feel it in our hearts as well. Jefferson’s and Madison’s arguments in the Virginia Statute are still bracing. Who can fail to be moved by Washington’s simple principles? In his 1943 essay that accompanied the publication of Rockwell’s painting, Will Durant hit the right notes. He described a valley scene of ordinary Americans leaving a place of worship:

…men came across the sea not merely to find new soil for their plows but to win freedom for their souls, to think and speak and worship as they would.  This is the freedom men value most of all; for this they have borne countless persecutions and fought more bravely than for food or gold.  These men coming out of their chapel—what is the finest thing about them, next to their undiscourageable life?  It is that they do not demand that others should worship as they do, or even that others should worship at all.

In the global war against fascism, Durant challenged “some paranoiac mania of racial superiority, or some obscene sadism of political strategy” that moved the persecutions of that time. In our century, they have new shapes, but paranoia, mania, superiority, and sadism still animate persecutions of those who will not worship as a leader commands.

“A man’s dealings with his God should be a sacred thing, inviolable by any potentate,” Durant continued.

No ruler has yet existed who was wise enough to instruct a saint; and a good man who is not great is a hundred times more precious than a great man who is not good.  When we yield our sons to war, it is in the trust that their sacrifice will bring to us and our allies no inch of alien soil, no selfish monopoly of the world’s resources of trade, but only the privilege of winning for all peoples the most precious gifts in the orbit of life—freedom of body and soul, of movement and enterprise, of thought and utterance, of faith and worship, of hope and charity, of a humane fellowship with all men. If our sons and brothers accomplish this, it will be an achievement beside which all the triumphs of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon will be a little thing.

I say, then, to new American diplomats: “Religious freedom” is the standard—not mere “tolerance.”End.


Author Donald M. Bishop, a retired Foreign Service public diplomacy officer, was Public Affairs Officer in Bangladesh, Nigeria, and China, and twice a foreign policy adviser at the Pentagon. His last assignment was Kabul. He is President of the Public Diplomacy Council.


Comments are closed.