Religions Among Nations


Review of Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power, by Anna Su

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016

Americans reading the news around Christmas of 2015 encountered a flurry of references to global religious freedom. On December 23, President Obama issued a statement in which he joined “with people around the world in praying for God’s protection for persecuted Christians and those of other faiths.” Particular concern was directed to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East by the Islamic State (ISIL). But the president didn’t stop with prayers for the persecuted. He offered prayers for the Americans “engaged in our military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts to alleviate their suffering and restore stability, security, and hope to their nations.” The concern, not just for global religious freedom, but specifically about what the United States can do to promote it, appeared in other statements. On Christmas Eve, the Washington Post published an op-ed calling for greater American action to help these persecuted Christians, coauthored by senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore. The following week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an appeal for the State Department to recognize the persecution of Christians by ISIL as genocide.

This combination of religious freedom with American foreign policy is no new fad, but probably few current policymakers are aware of quite how long a history it has. In her new book, Exporting Freedom, University of Toronto law professor Anna Su uncovers the deep roots of America’s interest in religious freedom as foreign policy. Su examines a series of case studies spanning more than a century in which religious liberty played an important role in American foreign policy. In Su’s account, religious liberty was a principle that American policymakers sought to promote—and one with considerable instrumental value too. Su offers a historical account that convincingly argues that religious liberty was relevant both to idealists who cared about liberal principles and good government, and to realists who cared about power and efficient governance. 

When America became a world power is a matter of some debate. Some historians would date it from American industrialization after 1865; others think World War I marked the key turning point. Many scholars date America’s emergence as a world power from the Spanish-American War in 1898. For the United States, the most important long-term consequence of this war was the acquisition of the Philippines. Su starts her story here and demonstrates that religious liberty became an important issue for American foreign policy very early in this country’s engagement with the world. It was to the Philippines that United States made its first attempt to “export” religious freedom.

The development of American policy in the Philippines nicely illustrates the way that American idealism and realism became intertwined around the issue of religious liberty. Religious zeal helped motivate and justify the acquisition of the Philippines in the first place: for the predominantly-Protestant United States (including President McKinley), the majority-Catholic Philippines appeared to be a great mission field. On principle, addressing church-state relations was also a priority for policymakers like Secretary of War Elihu Root and colonial governor (and future U.S. president) William Howard Taft. In their eyes, Su explains, the path to good government started with undoing the “unholy mix of church and state” entrenched by three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines.

But sincere as these political principles may have been, there were also immediate political reasons for Americans to address church-state relations in the Philippines. The Filipino rebellion against Spain was motivated in part by grievances with the Spanish-affiliated church hierarchy. When the American occupiers themselves faced a similar insurgency, Root and others thought that addressing complaints about the church hierarchy might aid in pacifying the country. This strategy played out dramatically in a controversy over church land ownership (known as the “friar lands question”). The church had claimed many of the best lands in the country, creating widespread resentment in the Philippines. American administrators would gain some much-needed goodwill if they could facilitate a more equitable redistribution of land. But they were constrained, not only by the terms of the treaty the United States had made with Spain, but also by public relations concerns back home: American Catholics had long worried that the occupation was essentially anti-Catholic, and the wrong move with the friar lands would be interpreted as confirming their worst fears. For a solution, President Theodore Roosevelt sent Taft to the Vatican for unprecedented negotiations. The talks were inconclusive, but paid long-term dividends in gaining papal favor and assistance. As Su explains, Pope Leo XIII ultimately created a new, autonomous Philippine church hierarchy and “effectively endorsed . . . the establishment of American colonial rule” (25). Even when forced to negotiate directly with the Catholic Church, the American commitment to separation between church and state provided the necessary ideological space within which the colonial administration could maneuver between diverse religious constituencies at home and abroad.

Religious freedom was similarly useful for the American administrators dealing with the Muslim Moro population in the Philippines. Americans originally tried to maintain amicable relations with the Muslim population by allowing the Moros considerable autonomy. But some of the practices allowed by the religious laws in the Moro province—most notably slavery—were objectionable to Americans, and indeed threatened to undercut the “civilizing mission” that ostensibly justified the American presence in the Philippines. Military governor Leonard Wood took an aggressive approach to liberalizing the civil law in the Moro region, while also insisting that he was respecting the religious liberty of Muslims to practice their faith. “Slowly but surely,” Su writes, Wood pushed apart the once-fused religious and civil authorities. The sultan was allowed to retain religious but not civil authority, while the Moro government was “turned into a secularized bureaucracy” (32). Again, adherence to religious liberty provided Americans with a useful tool for negotiation, by which they could claim to respect the Moros’ religion while still pushing them toward an American model of liberalization.

In the Philippines, a policy that emphasized religious liberty and the separation of church and state made sense. It was true to a longstanding American tradition of religious liberty, a principled ideal that Americans could feel good about exporting. It was also a valuable tool of governance, the implementation of which could strengthen American rule. This is the basic pairing of idealism and realism that continues in each of the subsequent historical episodes covered in Exporting Freedom, though in different circumstances and with a different balance between the two each time. The case studies illustrate the variety of contexts in which religion mattered for American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson tried to get religious liberty protections included in the Versailles settlement after World War I and Franklin D. Roosevelt motivated Americans to pay attention to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe by invoking “freedom of worship” in his speeches leading up to World War II. American occupation forces wrote religious freedom into the Japanese constitution after the war, and a combination of congressional actors and State Department negotiators made religious freedom an issue in American relations with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In her final chapter, Su takes the story almost up to the present, reviewing the American effort to ensure that religious freedom was recognized in Iraq’s constitution.

After reading Su’s engaging narratives, I think readers will be convinced that religious freedom has been important to American foreign policy and policymakers. But it is a challenge to generalize much beyond that. Certainly, it did not matter in the same way in each case. The centrality of the issue to policymakers varied widely. Sometimes it was of central concern to policymakers. In post-World War II Japan, figuring out how to decouple “church” and state was a high priority—in a nation that had divinized an emperor and linked nationalist ideology with Shinto religion.

At other times, the importance of religious freedom was more peripheral. Franklin Roosevelt found it rhetorically useful to invoke religious freedom in order to get Americans to pay attention to events in Europe. “[L]ook ahead and see the kind of lives our children would have to lead,” Roosevelt warned in his 1940 State of the Union Address, “if a large part of the . . . world were compelled to worship a god imposed by a military rule, or were forbidden to worship God at all . . .” (67). Concern about religious liberty did not play a major role in wartime policy, though it would reemerge as an issue of interest in postwar planning (as one among many human rights issues).

If there is any pattern, it is that religious liberty receives the most attention from policymakers when it has the greatest instrumental value from a realist perspective. In the Philippines and in Japan, the status of the Catholic Church and of “State Shinto” (respectively) had immediate relevance for Americans seeking to govern a country. Fascinating as these incidents are, perhaps the more intriguing questions are raised by cases in which religious liberty serves a less immediate instrumental purpose—such as Woodrow Wilson’s effort to include strong language about religious liberty in the Versailles settlement, or the grassroots efforts that shaped the Congress’s passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. In these cases, what motivated the interest in religion? Is religious freedom law and policy more or less effective when it is crafted in the broad and general terms of, for instance, IRFA, or when it is designed to deal with a very immediate and concrete problem, such as the governance of the Moros in the Philippines? Su does not directly address these questions, but these are just a few of the intriguing issues raised by her juxtaposition of these historical episodes.

Su also doesn’t try to answer questions about how policies played out on the ground—for instance, how important was Roosevelt’s invocation of “freedom of worship” for promoting American engagement in World War II? In the 1975 Helsinki Accords, how much did the reference to religion inserted by American negotiators really matter for Soviet dissidents and human rights monitors? Throughout the book, Su carefully limits her inquiry to focus on the actions of policymakers in the American government. Such a limit was necessary to keep the book a manageable length. But it leaves a big question lingering in the minds of readers—how exactly did the policy of “exporting freedom” (specifically religious freedom) actually work on the ground? How, in other words, has it affected the lives of individuals in the Philippines and the Soviet Union and Iraq? Hopefully, more historians of law and religion will tackle this question in future years.

One of the strengths of Exporting Freedom is Su’s balance between critical and sympathetic analysis. For Su, the development of religious liberty as American foreign policy is a story of “imperialism” in the most general sense—the result of “seeing the world from a position of power and acting accordingly” (5). Often, historians invoke imperialism as a means of critique: to say that an ideology or policy or law partakes of imperialism is to expose power relationships and raise questions about fairness and justice (or lack thereof). Su is a critical historian and throughout the book she keeps issues of American power and privilege in sight. America’s global promotion of religious freedom was not a story of simple idealism, but was indeed one of power. And there are episodes in which readers will be troubled by heavy-handed imposition of religious liberty policies by Americans on other groups or countries.

But Su does not allow this healthy critical awareness to lead her into cynicism about religious freedom as a principle. She never reduces religious liberty into a simple cover for power politics or a purely instrumental tool of governance (though at times it was both). As a good historian, Su recognizes that people have multiple motivations. She recognizes that, even amidst a cast of characters worried about power and influence, there were (and are) real believers in the value of religious freedom who sincerely sought (and seek) to promote it, sometimes through American foreign policy, as a crucial component of a good society. Su’s account of religious freedom and American foreign policy is sympathetic without being naïve, and critical without being cynical.

In a world where America remains a superpower, and in which persecution of minority religions is all too common, the question of how to promote religious liberty worldwide won’t be going away anytime soon. Scholars and policymakers grappling with this issue would do well to consider some of the American experiences over the last century. To this end, the history recounted in Exporting Freedom could not be more timely.

Posted on 1 February 2016

LAEL WEINBERGER is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Law School and University of Chicago Department of History. Follow him on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.