Visiting Professor for Tocqueville
What does your position here at Notre Dame entail?
This year I am a visiting professor in the political science department under the Tocqueville Program and some other programs. I’m not teaching any courses, but I am doing research and working on some book projects. One book project is in philosophy of law, and one is in politics and religion. The former is on the nature of legal obligation and whether there is an obligation to obey the law. To take one popular example, say you come to a traffic light in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no one around. In that case there’s no reason to stop other than the fact that the law says so. The usual underlying reasons such as safety don’t apply in that case. Is there an obligation to obey the law just because it is the law? The latter project is tied to a course I teach at Villanova called Politics and Religion. There, we consider the relationship, for people who are both believers and citizens, between their religious identity and their political, or civic, identity. When we come into the public square, do we come as citizens, as believers, as both? And, if both, then in what order?
Can you describe what your work as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom involves?
The commission advises the White House, State Department, and Congress on US foreign policy related the promotion of religious freedom around the world. By law, we only cover issues outside the United States. We are an independent, bipartisan commission that gives a prominent voice to religious freedom, a human right of paramount importance that is sometimes known in the American context as our “first freedom.”
Among many other activities, each spring we release an annual report that focuses on the worst cases of religious freedom violations around the world, with chapters on roughly thirty countries. In that report, we make many recommendations to our own government, including recommendations to the State Department to designate countries as “countries of particular concern” (and some non-state actors as “entities of particular concern”). In the most recent round of designations, the State Department designated ten out of the sixteen countries we recommended in our last report. Although we were disappointed that the State Department once again did not designate Pakistan a CPC, the State Department did put Pakistan on a newly created “Special Watch List.” One country we recommended as a CPC for the first time was Russia. The State Department did not agree with us, but if things continue in the same direction in Russia, that may change.
In addition to covering specific countries and regions, we also have some thematic projects we’ve been working on. For example, we produced a very well received report on the intersection of women’s rights and religious freedom. We also released a really fascinating report that catalogues and analyzes all the blasphemy laws around the world. It is a shocking report, not only because of the number of countries around the world with blasphemy laws—almost seventy—but also because of which countries have them: Canada, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil, in addition to the usual suspects. We also run an important project on religious prisoners of conscience. As mandated by Congress, we compile extensive lists of people who are in prison because of their religious beliefs. But each commissioner has also adopted a particular religious prisoner of conscience, and each of us advocates specially for that individual, in addition to the commission’s advocacy for all religious prisoners of conscience. It’s been a very powerful project, and, although we can’t take the credit, of course, some of our adopted prisoners have been freed. Having met with former prisoners (and in one case a current prisoner, Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey), we know that people’s spirits are lifted and their lives in prison sometimes improved when we speak out for them, holding up their pictures and saying their names in public.
Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between women’s rights and religious freedom?
Often times it seems that, for the most part, groups that work on women’s rights and groups that work on religious freedom don’t work together. One reason for this is that there is some suspicion between them; for example, people who work on women’s rights know that religion is sometimes used as a reason to oppress women, and women’s rights are sometimes suppressed in the name of religion. But we believe that there are so many opportunities for synergies between women’s rights and religious freedom: What if we worked together and thought of areas where these two rights intersect? There are many places where rights’ groups could join forces and work together. That doesn’t mean there won’t be things they disagree about, but there is so much to agree upon and accomplish together.
What brought you to focus on religious liberty? To become chairman of the U.S. Commission?
I got interested in questions of politics, law, and religion through my academic work, which tends to be more theoretical, and I have always been interested in questions of religious freedom in the US from the policy side as well. Religious freedom is a topic that’s deeply important to me as an American, as a Jew, and as a human being. From there, I was lucky enough to have had the honor of being appointed by successive US Speakers of the House to work on USCIRF and the support of my colleagues to be vice-chairman and then chairman.
Can you relate this to religious freedom issues in the U.S.?
Outside of my commission work, which does not cover any domestic issues, I remain deeply concerned about issues of religious freedom in the US. The international work I do, where religious freedom faces so many challenges, reminds me never to take for granted the great blessings we have here at home—and it be vigilant in defending our own rights. It’s critical that we protect religious freedom, and that, in turn, depends on thinking not just what’s good about religious freedom but what’s good about religion. Religious freedom is an important right in principle regardless of the prudential calculations, but it’s also good for our country because religion is good for our country. Unlike those who see the diversity of religious belief in America as a potential source of division, I see it as a potential source of strength and unity. How can we have a country where people who are so different and yet can cooperate together in a shared American project? For a lot of people, the answer starts with leaving our differences behind, but I think that our different religious traditions can enrich us and even bring us together. That is, as much as the diversity is itself enriching, there is so much that religious people and all people of good will share, and those shared ends can be the basis for real civic cooperation and unity.
What countries or regions do you think need the most attention right now due to the oppression of religious freedom and why?
There are so many bad situations around the world that it’s hard to pick just a few. Obviously North Korea is one of the worst places in the world for religious freedom and for human rights in general. The Rohingya Muslims in Burma have it really bad as well. As I said before, Russia has gotten dramatically worse lately, and I’ve been keeping an eye on the trend of growing authoritarianism that may be spreading in the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Many people know that China has lashed out at its Christian population in some areas, and the reported dealings with the Vatican have focused a lot of attention on that country. The important thing to remember is that in so many of these oppressive countries, no one really has religious freedom, including the majority that happens to follow the government-approved version of religion. Even if the majority in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Turkey likes what the government is doing, those people do not possess religious freedom.
Have you noticed certain trends among countries that oppress religious liberty? Can you describe those trends and how they vary from country to country?
There are many differences between the various forms of oppression that we see. Some governments violate religious freedom in the name of their theocracy. Others do it in the name of an atheistic communist ideology. One thing that comes up in a lot of places is the use of security concerns as a pretext for violations of religious freedom. In some countries, innocent Muslims are oppressed under claims of fighting violent extremism. This is not to deny the threat of terrorism around the world. That threat is very real. But it cannot be an excuse for governments to cast a very wide net and interfere with the religious life of anyone who seems a little bit “too Muslim.” In many of the same countries, small, evangelical Christian groups and the like are often oppressed as well. Though it would be a farce to say that these people in any way present a danger to security, some governments claim that the spread of groups not traditionally found in their country can upset the delicate social stability they maintain. I believe that this is a disingenuous argument as well—or at least false even if sincere—because the violations of religious freedom tend to generate more resentment and resistance within society. In my view, freedom, more than oppression, would help them adapt to pluralism and diversity.
How do you go about advocating for religious liberty to those oppressive forms of government? Do you have certain methods for doing so?
As I just mentioned, I like to argue that freedom is the solution, not the problem. This is the opening to making the case that religious freedom is actually in the best interest of the countries in question. Indeed, current research shows a strong correlation between religious freedom and several important social indicators, such as stability, prosperity, and so forth. And, of course, we do not shy away from the fact that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These governments have an obligation, moral and legal, to uphold religious freedom. To be sure, we also use diplomacy, carrots and sticks, to help move the ball. Because of the United States’ massive influence in the world, there are many ways that our government can incentivize improvements in religious freedom whether or not our interlocutor agrees with us on the principle. In some of the most severe cases, our government uses sanctions, but there are many positive ways to encourage change as well. It’s incredibly important—for our own interests, too—that America remain engaged on this issue, and for that reason, it’s critical that citizens educate themselves and make it a priority for themselves and their elected representatives. So I thank you for the opportunity to raise awareness about USCIRF and the work we do.
Daniel Mark is an assistant professor of Political Science at Villanova University. He is a visiting Tocqueville Fellow at the University of Notre Dame.