thereligiondipatches.com: The State Department’s new initiative for anoffice of religious engagement is welcome. Over in the UK, I’ve been arguing for years that there needs to be better engagement between politics, religion, and religion research, and I founded the Westminster Faith Debates with former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to advance this very aim. We bring researchers, religious spokespeople and policy makers into dialogue. A state department which talks of “religious engagement” warms my heart.
So why, as I read the manifesto, do I also feel some stirrings of unease? The first thing to set alarm bells ringing is the stated aim of “institutionalizing an official U.S. commitment to globalize religious freedom.” Alarms are set off once again when I read of the stated intention to “advance American’s vision and values.”
I have no objection to religious freedom. Religion should be a matter of conscience not coercion; liberty is a watchword. What worries me are attempts to advance it which assume there’s only one possible model of religious freedom—the U.S. model—and that it necessarily pivots round a U.S.-style separation of church and state. This is one of the assumptions built into Pew’s global audit of religious freedom, the 2010 results of which produced some chortles over on this side of the pond.