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What’s behind America’s promotion of religious liberty abroad

Gov. Sam Brownback reacted Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 24, 2018, to the news that his nomination to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom advanced Wednesday on a tied procedural vote broken by Vice President Mike Pence. Brownback had just finished presiding over the State Finance Council, which voted to approve a $362 million rebuild of Lansing Correctional Facility. (AP Photo, Topeka Capital-Journal, Thad Allton)

(The Conversation) — On Jan. 24, the Senate confirmed Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas – a Methodist, who converted to Catholicism and today attends an evangelical church – for the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. On Jan. 30, President Donald Trump touted in his State of the Union address the “historic actions to protect religious liberty” as a major achievement of his administration.


RELATED: Senate narrowly approves Brownback for religious freedom job


Brownback’s victory was a razor thin 50-49. Conservative leaders, who know Brownback as an ally in the fight against abortion and homosexuality, were quick to lavish praise with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore calling him “an outstanding choice.” Democrats, on the other hand, criticized Brownback for rolling back LGBTQ protections in Kansas.

As a historian of religion and foreign policy in the United States, I know that this is not the first time Americans have disagreed about the meaning of religious freedom. The United States has, in fact, been promoting religious liberty abroad since its founding, but there has always been disagreement on what exactly it is.

Religion and American empire

In 1775, in the early days of the American Revolution, George Washington prepared the Continental Army to invade the Canadian colonies in order to convince the inhabitants to join the rebellion against the British. As Colonel Benedict Arnold prepared to lead the charge, Washington warned him to respect the religious liberty of Catholics in Quebec and avoid unnecessary conflict. He wrote:

“While we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others.”

Portrait of George Washington.
Rembrandt Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

Washington’s advice was followed in Canada but not in the newly founded United States, where Catholics found themselves facing discrimination.

Although Congress passed the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, religious liberty applied only to “respectable” Protestant denominations, like Baptists and Methodists, who grew rapidly in the first decades of the 19th century. As historian David Sehat explains Protestant denominations created a “moral establishment” that acted like official churches did in Europe. As in Europe, this moral establishment persecuted minority faiths, like Catholics, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A way of projecting American power

America’s record of promoting religious liberty abroad was also spotty. Religious liberty largely meant the rights of missionaries to go out and convert “heathens” to Protestant Christianity.

For example, government agents and missionaries in the 19th century trampled on the religious rights of conquered Native American nations by taking away their children and placing them into faraway residential schools that forbade them from practicing their native faiths. The United States banned certain native religious ceremonies, like the Ghost Dance, because of fears that the ritual stirred up rebellion.

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain and took possession of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, Spanish colonies that were both predominantly Catholic. As historian Tisa Wenger has pointed out, promoting religious freedom in the colonies was a way for the United States to expand its empire.
The idea that the United States would spread religious freedom through its policies made Americans feel like liberators even when they acted like conquerors.

According to historian Anna Su, the United States attempted to remake these colonies in its image by separating church and state and divesting Catholic religious orders of their property. President William McKinley reasoned that the Filipinos could not be trusted to make that separation themselves.

Ironically, the American claim that promoting religious freedom in the world was its sacred mission was one of the reasons the country became an empire.

Two versions of religious freedom

Many Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans demanded the right to worship freely and to organize their lives as they saw fit. Their appeals, however, fell on deaf ears until the early 20th century, when liberal Protestants and Jews began championing a vision of religious liberty aimed at protecting minority rights, not just the rights of the Christian majority.

These progressives wanted to disassociate religious liberty from empire and promote it through international law. Lutheran academic O. Frederick Nolde led a liberal Protestant effort to enshrine religious liberty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

For Nolde, religious freedom was important among other human rights, including social and economic rights. He argued that people had the right to live free from discrimination and that religious freedom was one of the ways of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Nolde was hired by Federal Council of Churches, one of the most powerful religious lobbies in the United States.

Nolde and his associates were in the vanguard. It was only over time that the liberal Protestant and Jewish communities came to be more accepting of same-sex relationships and more supportive of church-state separation and other causes to protect minorities.

Evangelical view

Meanwhile, evangelicals and conservative Catholics embraced a different version of religious freedom, one that had the promotion of Christianity at its heart.

Evangelist Billy Graham.
AP Photo/Pierre Gleizes

Evangelist Billy Graham, for example, worried in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was promoting atheism across the world, so he highlighted the country’s oppression of religious people and called on the United States to do more to free them. At home Graham opposed many of the court decisions that removed Bible reading and prayer from public schools.

Ironically, many conservatives seemed to believe that religious liberty was largely for people abroad, not at home. They opposed court decisions that they saw as infringing on the rights of Christian communities to pass on their values to their children. Evangelicals were also skeptical about Catholics having a more prominent role in American society, especially following the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Religious freedom abroad?

More recently, the legislation that created the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom – Brownback’s new job – was in essence, the result of evangelical concern over the persecution of Christians in China and the Middle East in the 1990s.

It was under pressure from evangelical groups, such as the Christian Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, that Congress, in 1998, passed the International Religious Freedom Act to do more to protect Christians abroad.

The bill gained support among more liberal Protestant, Catholic and Jewish communities as well, along with secular human rights groups. But disagreements about religious liberty remained. While evangelicals were fretting over the fate of Christian communities, progressive groups wanted to see religious freedom as part of a broader human rights agenda.

To the progressives, religious freedom was part of a larger canvas of human rights issues. It was no surprise that President Barack Obama, for example, appointed Suzan Johnson Cook, a religious leader with a passion for human rights and subsequently David Nathan Saperstein, Brownback’s predecessor. Saperstein was a rabbi who had advocated on a range of social justice issues.

These appointments were in keeping with progressive beliefs. As political theorist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd explains, religious freedom could not be isolated from many social, economic and political forces that lead to conflict. Elevating religious concerns above other human rights issues could, in fact, lead to more harm than good.

The ConversationThe question now is whether Brownback will treat religious freedom as a human rights issue or use the position to promote the interests of Christian abroad?

(Gene Zubovich is a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St Louis. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)

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23 Comments

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  • Not mentioned in this article is how, after the US bought Alaska in 1867, the US government sponsored Protestant missionaries to proselytize the Eastern Orthodox Native Alaskans. Children were taken away from their parents, and were sent to missionary-run schools, where they were made to draw pictures of Orthodox Churches and then burn them, etc., in an effort to turn them into good little Protestants. All on the taxpayers dime.

  • Why were the indigenous peoples of Alaska proselytized to any religion – Eastern Orthodox among them ?
    Is your brand of slavery better than that of the Protestants ?
    They were doing fine without your meddling and destroying their ancient culture.

  • “At home Graham opposed many of the court decisions that removed Bible reading and prayer from public schools.”

    I don’t claim to be an expert on US history but, as I understand it, this is simply the uncritical repetition of a faux-persecution myth. Bible reading and prayer are legal in US public schools – but may not be done in such a way as to imply government approval for one version of religious belief over another (or none). Scholars are free to read their Bibles and pray in their own time. Amirite?

  • Eastern Orthodox because Alaska was Russian territory before it became part of the US. Czars were generally aggressive about converting indigenous people and Central Asian Muslims to the state church.

  • You seem to know little about the topic.

    The local shamans predicted the coming of the Orthodox monks, and told their people to heed and follow them. Orthodox Chrstianity was seen by them as the fulfillment of their native religion and culture. The monks were noteworthy in their efforts to protect the native Alaskans from exploitation by Russian traders. St. Herman of Alaska, the hermit of Spruce Island, was especially dear to them, and still is.

    St. Innocent of Alaska learned six native dialects and produced an alphabet for them, thus helping preserve their own languages. It was through the efforts of the Orthodox priests that much of the culture and languages of the Native Alaskans was preserved. (google “The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures – Library of Congress”) Liturgical texts were also translated into the native Aleut and Tlinget, unlike the Catholic practice which insisted on Latin. As soon as it was practical, Native Alaskans were welcomed into the Orthodox Priesthood. They still make up the majority of the clergy there.

    Over the years, the Native Alaskans have clung tenaciously to their Orthodox Christian faith. The first Orthodox martyr in North America was St Peter the Aleut, who was brutally tortured by Catholic Jesuits in California and died (1815), rather than give up his Orthodox faith.

    Your animosity (“slavery…meddling…destroying”) towards Orthodoxy was not, and is not, shared by the Native Alaskans themselves. Please take your outrage elsewhere.

  • Basically yes, but prior to the 1960s it was done by teachers as officially sanctioned prayer and Bible reading. Yes, students are free to read the Bible and pray on their own time.

  • ” The local shamans predicted the coming of the Orthodox monks, and told
    their people to heed and follow them. Orthodox Chrstianity was seen by
    them as the fulfillment of their native religion and culture. ”

    What is your source for this statement ?

    The indigenous people of Alaska trace their roots back some 10-16,000 yrs ago.
    They had a very well developed social, cultural and civil order among the various tribes. They not only practiced reciprocal, but competitive altruism also – millennia before the Golden Rule – let alone Christianity.

    Common people find religion necessary.
    Clergy find it profitable.
    Rulers find it useful.

    With that in mind, Tsarina Katrina sent a contingent of Orthodox clergy to Alaska in the mid 18th century.

  • The passage you quoted is significant:

    ” The local shamans predicted the coming of the Orthodox monks, and told
    their people to heed and follow them. Orthodox Chrstianity was seen by
    them as the fulfillment of their native religion and culture. ”

    This is nothing but Eusebius’s Preparatio Evangelica. Namely: non-Christian religions exist, but are merely preparations for Christianity. (If you like, a non-Christian religion is like a bicycle with training wheels, Christianity like a proper bicycle.) In this sense, Christianity is the fulfillment of all non-Christian religions.

    As to the local shamans’ predicting the coming of Orthodox monks, the most likely scenario is this. The Tsars and Tsarinas had so much military hardware that the natives knew they could not win. That generation of natives who admitted they could not win, allowed the Orthodox monks to brainwash the natives. The word “brainwash” is significant. What I mean by “brainwash” is that the Orthodox monks got the native intelligentsia to create and spread the meme that Christianity is the fulfillment of the native religion. In a few generations the native Alaskans internalized this meme, and began to see themselves as Orthodox.

    Let me refer to something that Father Herman Schick wrote. In one sentence, the Father said that the Orthodox monks helped to preserve the native culture and language. But in the next sentence the Father only wrote that works of Christianity got translated into the native languages.

    What of the original native intellectual discourse? Did those get written down in the new scripts? Were the natives able to teach transmit the native intellectual discourse to their successive generations? Most likely, not. At any rate, the Father’s post did not refer to that topic.

    I hope you can see why us natives (not just in Alaska but elsewhere) are suspicious when Christian monks create scripts for native languages.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Missing in this article are the rights of secular unbelievers. This is covered in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
    http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

  • From this brief history, it would seem that, though the ‘Founding Fathers’ made statements about separation of church and state being the defacto religious position of the United States, it was in actual fact a country of Christian privilege. Is this then the genius of the belief that the US is a Christian Nation?

  • Brownback is the typical religious kook-idiot that tRUMP has surrounded himself with and he will only promote christianity.

  • I requested a source for the opening statement in your comment concerning :
    “….shamans predicted the coming of the Orthodox monks….”

    By your silence to my request, the balance of your comment is to be valued as equally spurious.

  • I am impressed by your knowledge of the Preparatio Evangelica. I had never come across it.

    The
    Abrahamic Religions were founded on fear, fantasy and fraud, and
    managed to ensnare the gullible masses to a point where no authority,
    except the self-appointed clerics, could control them.

    “Only our Prophet and Sacred Texts can save you.”

    Fear is the mother of all religion.

    Contrary to the scenario Schick paints, Christianity was spread worldwide by the sword.

    Dum Diversas (excerpt) Wikipedia
    “We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents,
    with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search
    out, capture, and subjugate (….) any other
    unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their
    kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […]
    and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.[3] ”

    More broadly, paraphrasing Mark Twain :

    “The navies of the world could sail in spacious comfort in the oceans of blood spilled in the name of Christ.”

    Then there are the Crusades….

    Pleasure exchanging thoughts with you….

  • Sorry, I missed your request. Here ya go:

    “The shamans, it was reported among the Aleuts, had announced previously that a new faith tradition would come from the West, and when the missionaries appeared they found the villagers gathered on the shore to meet them.

    The missionaries did not attack belief in the yua [Yu’pik Eskimo for the life force within each living thing, which has to be respected, and revered.] either. They identified it with the logos present in the created universe, and connected the traditional belief with Christ, who is the logos, the source and sustainer of life. Thousands accepted baptism in the first year of mission.”

    From the article “he Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christian Mission: An Alaskan Perspective” by Michael Oleksa. It appears in the book: “Religion and Missionaries Around The Pacific, 1500-1900, Ashgate Publishing, 2006.

  • Please see my recent post above for verification of my claim about St. Herman and the shamans.

    “Where the natives able to teach and transmit the native intellectual discourse to their successive generations? Most likely, not.”

    Why not? They continued to orally pass on much native lore, just as they did before. The missionaries recorded it and wrote it down, transmitting it to the West.

    If you think the Tsars imported massive military hardware to Alaska, you are quite mistaken. The territory of Russian Alaska was a bit of a ramshackle, flying-by-the-seat-of one’s pants operation, never of a priority to merit importing massive military hardware.

    I would encourage you to find out more about the Orthodox Alaskan Mission. It is very interesting.

  • With your above comment I rest my case that you are unfamiliar with Russian Orthodox missionary activities in the region.

    Across the steppes and Siberia, it was unarmed monastics who brought Orthodoxy to that vast expanse, first solitary hermits, then monastic communities. Only later did traders, trappers, the government, and the military catch up with them.

    It is a serious mistake to assume that all missionary endeavors followed exactly the same template as in the West.

  • You are obviously ignorant as to the legacy you and your accomplice Christian missionaries left for the indigenous peoples of Alaska :

    ” Alaska Natives experience some of the highest rates of accidental
    deaths, suicides, alcoholism, homicides, fetal alcohol syndrome and
    domestic violence in the United States. Alaska Natives, mostly young
    men, are incarcerated in the state’s jails at a rate exceeding 250 per
    cent of their numbers in the general population.”
    http://minorityrights.org/minorities/inuit-and-alaska-natives/

    YOU, SCHICK – are a willing descendant of those who invaded and destroyed an ancient advanced civilization – that had lasted for over 10,000 yrs.

    And you managed to cause untold suffering, upheaval – and destroyed it in a comparative wink of an eye.

    That you choose to precede your name with the honorific ” Father ” is nauseating.

  • Your source for your ridiculous, laughable and thoroughly spurious claim :

    “The Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christian Mission: An Alaskan Perspective” by Michael Oleksa

    Michael Oleksa is an Orthodox priest.

    No greater liars and distorters of reality and history have ever existed – than the clergy and religious apologists.

    I’ll have no more of you.

  • Au contraire, I am well aware of the deplorable effects of alcohol on native populations. The Church there struggles with it every single day.

    You seem vacuously ignorant of the fact that the vicious destruction of the lives of the Orthodox Native Alaskans was actually promoted by the PROTESTANT missionaries who, at US taxpayers expense, did their best to ridicule and destroy the faith, lives, and culture which they found the Natives living harmoniously in their villages. Children were torn out of their families, and sent away to US government supported Protestant schools, where their native village culture was mocked, all in an attempt to turn them into good little Anglo-American Protestants. That was not how the Orthodox missionaries acted. Did you even bother to look up the material I referred to? Obviously not.

    The rates of alcoholism, suicide, etc., are well know to our clergy there (the majority of whom are Native Alaskans). One of the major causes of this is the extreme poverty, often subsistence level, of the coastal villages which survive mostly by fishing and hunting. Even in this they loose out in the competition with the richer Anglo-Americans.

    The “upheaval” and “untold suffering” of the Native Alaskans has been caused principally by the policies of the US government in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, not by the Orthodox Church. There was a harmonious symbiosis until the American government’s attempt to Americanize/Protestantize destroyed that, causing great harm to the people.

    Kindly note that in all this I have been referring to the Aleut, Tlingit, and Yu’pik tribes which are Orthodox. Other tribes, not reached by the Orthodox Church, have been similarly negatively impacted by American government policies and culture. You need to place the true onus where it belongs: the Anglo-izing/Americanizing policies of the US, which have harmed all Native Alaskans, Orthodox and nonOrthodox alike.

    What is truly nauseating is your smug superiority and self-righteous condemnations in matters you know little about.

    As for the title “Father”, I I did not “choose to precede” my name with it. It is the title given to me by my fellow Orthodox Christians, including Native Alaskan Aleut, Tlingit, and Yu’pik peoples. I am sure they care little what you think of it, and they will not stop addressing me thus simply because you have nausea problems. Try an antiemetic.

  • He is a recognized expert on Native Alaskan matters, unlike you. You ad hominem attack on him is a ploy used by those who (like yourself) are incapable of addressing his arguments in any credible way. It reveals you for what you are, a poseur with no real knowledge of the subject.

    Have a good day.

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