By Michelle Bauman
Dr. Thomas Farr believes that the Obama administration’s verbal commitment to protecting religious freedom around the globe is not being backed up with sufficient action.
“The administration has invested far more energy and resources in the international advancement of LGBT rights than it has the advancement of religious freedom,” said Farr, who served as the original director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
Farr told CNA on Jan. 27 that the current administration is not doing enough to support “one of the most important foreign policy initiatives undertaken by the United States.”
The topic of religious freedom was recently addressed in the video series “Conversations with America,” which features top State Department officials holding online discussions with leaders of non-governmental organizations and citizens from around the country.
Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, participated in a Jan. 23 session on the role of religion in foreign policy with Dr. Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement.
In her role as ambassador, Johnson Cook advises both the president and secretary of state on issues related to the promotion of international religious liberty, using both diplomacy and public outreach.
During the dialogue, the ambassador said that freedom of religion is “the right for people to believe or not to believe.”
“We are fortunate here in the United States to have it,” she said, adding that “we’ve been practicing it as a nation as long as we’ve been in existence.”
Johnson Cook said that “no country is being ignored” and that important work is being done in “building relationships” with officials in China and other countries where concerns of religious freedom have been raised.
“It is a priority of this administration,” she stated.
However, in Farr’s view, the Obama administration has fallen short of its promise to promote religious liberty.
He says that while steps are being taken “in the right direction,” they are “not nearly enough.”
Farr pointed out that President Obama allowed the ambassador position to remain vacant for more than two years before appointing Johnson Cook. And once she started her job, he said, she was buried “deep in the bureaucracy without authority or resources.”
Farr argued that Ambassador Johnson Cook would be more effective in her position if she were elevated to the same level as other officials who work directly under the secretary of state. In addition, he said, she must be given “the resources to succeed.”
Other efforts must also be made, he added, such as the implementation of mandatory religious freedom training for diplomats.
Farr explained that lack of religious freedom is “a major cause of democratic instability,” as well as “a powerful stimulus to religion-related terrorism.”
These factors make promoting religious freedom “solidly in the interests of the American people,” he said.
During the Jan. 23 dialogue, the importance of global religious liberty was also emphasized by Seiple. He called religious freedom the foundational “first freedom,” and argued that “religious freedom is not about tolerance.”
“Tolerance isn’t good enough,” he said. “We have to have mutual respect.”
Seiple also observed the importance of domestic religious freedom.
“It’s got to start at home,” he said. “If it doesn’t start here, don’t you dare go abroad.”
Religious freedom within the United States has recently been called into question.
In the past week, Catholics have joined with leaders of religious organizations across the country to decry the finalized “preventative services” mandate announced Jan. 20 by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The organizations argue that the mandate violates their freedom of religion by forcing them to purchase health insurance plans that cover sterilization, contraception and abortion-casing drugs against the teachings of their religion.