Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Good Cops, Bad Cops and Religious Freedom

Dennis R. Hoover


June 22, 2007

November of last year was a big month for Vietnam. Not only did the General Council of the World Trade Organization vote to admit Vietnam, but Vietnam was also removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) for serious violations of religious freedom. Under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, countries designated as CPCs are subject to possible sanctions.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Vietnam is worthy of having this threat of sanctions removed. In its annual report released last month, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom argued that although Vietnam has recently taken positive steps, it is too soon to determine if the changes are sincere. Lifting the CPC designation was premature, the Commission wrote, recommending “that Vietnam be redesignated as a CPC in 2007.”

The Commission may ultimately be proved correct that Vietnam only made token changes to secure WTO membership. Still, to call for reimposition of the CPC designation only six months after it was lifted is pulling the trigger on sanctions too quickly.

The conflict between the State Department and the Commission over CPC designation is an outgrowth of a deeper philosophical difference that has been present from the very beginning of the movement that led to passage of IRFA. Indeed, the Commission was created at the behest of those who wanted the U.S. government to take a hard line—and who knew the State Department would be predisposed to a soft line. Yet, in the context of religious freedom there are several problems with the U.S. relying too much on the hard line.

First, the penchant for unilateral assessment and sanctions often reflects an exaggerated confidence in American power to effect lasting change in other societies through punitive measures and moral denunciation in public. Furthermore, when the U.S. assumes for itself the roles of fact-finder, judge, and corrections officer, it may appease American self-righteousness but it ignores or under-utilizes tools like multilateral assessments and quiet diplomacy that can appeal to indigenous standards and enlightened self-interest.

Second, if the only measure of “doing something” about religious freedom is naming, shaming, and sanctioning, it becomes too easy to overlook other key questions about what the U.S. government is or is not doing. Has the foreign policy bureaucracy been adequately restructured to put religious freedom firmly on the agenda? Is there sufficient funding to cover religious freedom monitoring and to hire religion specialists? Have religious communities been properly included in the promotion of democracy, civil society, and counter-terrorism programs?

Third, an outsized emphasis on preachy punishment projects an image of arrogance and ignores America’s own highly checkered history with respect to religious freedom. It took us centuries to come to our present understanding of religious freedom and pluralism, and many important questions about the church-state balance are still highly contested. America’s own experience demonstrates that change is often slow and sometimes painful.

Finally, religious freedom is sustainable when a government respects its citizens’ right to religious freedom and when people of faith exercise that right responsibly. The right to religious freedom does need advocates, for it is under siege in many hard places. But rights come with responsibilities, and thus we should also invest in equipping clergy and congregations for responsible citizenship.

Again, there is a place for a punishment-oriented approach; after all, for a good-cop/bad-cop strategy to work, there has to be a bad cop. However, what’s needed in U.S. efforts to improve religious freedom internationally—in Vietnam and elsewhere—is a more consistent and strategic balance between criticism and encouragement.

—Dennis R. Hoover, Editor
    The Review of Faith and International Affairs

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”