The Significance of Religious Freedom in the USA

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The national security of America revolved around Islamic terrorism post 9/11 incident and the policy of promotion of Democracy was pursued vociferously more than ever as an ultimate solution to curb Islamic extremism. Very soon it was realized that in Afghanistan after the removal of Taliban led government the implanted democratic system was flawed when its citizen was tried for apostasy , mainly for converting into Christianity from Islam. The incident came as a humanitarian issue to the US officials but it was more than the humanitarian problem. The US had brokered Democracy in Afghanistan and its constitution guaranteed board religious freedom like ‘right to rites’ which allowed the adherents of other religions to practice and observe their faiths. The judicial system in Afghanistan failed to comply with the existing laws.

The topic of religion not gaining much attention in foreign policy frameworks made some officials in the State Department, the White House and in Congress to be worried (Kaplan et al. 20015) and viewed that the US foreign policy in advocating political reform would not help in transforming the culture of Middle East. The democratic procedures and economic growth alone would not be enough to do away with the tyrannies that helped in fostering religious extremism. For this cause the officials built initiatives for engaging Islam through US foreign policy agencies but did not succeeded in focusing on religious aspect. Washington provided with federal aid for funding of programs in Muslim countries in order to inculcate moderate version of Islam through soft power .

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Despite the efforts on curbing Islamic extremism it created anti-Americanism in the Middle East and created perceptions that US was waging war against the Arab world or with Islam itself. Unlike the Soviet communism during the Cold War in which cultural centers and libararies were run by the United States Information Agency (USIA) in foreign capitals to curb communism and potray it negatively. But after the Cold War American libraries abroad were shuttered, and several exchange programs and foreign broadcasting dropped hugely. By the time al Qaeda's pilots flew the hijacked planes into Lower Manhattan, the U.S. government had handed management of America's image abroad to Hollywood producers. By 1999 USIA was thought not so much of importance and seen as a relic of Cold war got collapsed in the State Department. The newly functioning psychological operation units try to sway minds of the people in support for Americanism but they severely lacked the knowledge in combating one of the biggest challenges posed by radical Islam. US had no strategy in fighting against the radicalism.

There have been instances where religious dimension of a particular country in conflicts have not been noticed by the U.S. for example some religious nationalists view American involvement in non-western societies as a part of global conspiracy against religion. During the 1991 Gulf War the Islamic political groups in Egypt which had condemned Iraqi attacks on Kuwait reversed their condemnation when U.S. sent its troops to help Kuwatis instead they supported Iraq because they feared such involvement by the U.S. would be an impediment in the establishing of pan-Islamism that would unify the Muslim people. Secular entities have been seen to be something that is not acceptable and a direct threat that is connected to Islamic principles.

Despite the White House trying to sell the ‘war of ideas’ narrative it was very tough, while some officials from USIA viewed that the government should deal with intangible values like religion, trust and emotion it was still very difficult to execute such plans. But the problem with religious question while addressing the problem of root cause of fundamentalism seemed controversial, as it would drag US into a battle involving religious scriptures, mosques and religious hardliners. That would go against the 200 years of church-state relations followed by the US. The officials faced difficulty in dealing with the problem of Islamic extremism even more than the Cold war scenario because the latter was a struggle against a godless political ideology while the former had theological elements. Ideally to meddle with the religion of another country came into conflict with freedom of religion but the ideological challenge to US came in the form of religion – militant Islam. Apprehensive of meddling with Islam and the fear of messing with the religious freedom US foreign policy took an indirect approach by funneling money to create political space for the moderate muslims to organize and translate their work but the officials were not ready to deal directly with religion. US saw providing aid would solve the problem of Islamic extremism. U.S. Agency for International Development mostly channeled the aid and just within three years of 9/11 about more than $11billion was destined for the Muslim countries.

The westward expansion was justified in the name of religious ideas and values and most importantly providence which chose America for Christian civilizing mission. The religious ideas of providence and duty mattered to the foreign policy makers and they deployed them to make Americans support the any political or military decisions and most importantly to get agreement on a progressive colonial mandate. Foreign policy and military decisions were long informed by Providence and hence it offered the imperialist a known and popular argument. Christian missionaries were given the task of spreading Chrisitianity in the hope of modernizing civilization.

Scholars like Reinhold Niebuhr along with the group of Christian realists and Christian liberals according to Heather Warren (1997) became the “theologians of a new world order” after World War II that helped in creating a support for the US hegemonic leadership in US foreign policy during the early years of cold war. Niebhur introduced the ideas of St. Augustine in the American study of international relations. He was also the only theologian in classical realism who had a major contribution in the study of realism in the twentieth century and it came to be known as Christian realism. This idea of Christian realism involved realist worldview that set limitations on immoral aspects of realism that tends to justify the ends for the means. This ideology helped in propagating interventionism during the World War and was helpful in bringing U.S. out of isolationism. The idealism of Christian tradition in the U.S. had held the moral core of non-interventionism for two decades but with the rise of totalitarianism the Christian ethics allowed to stop a power considered to be greater evil than the war. It provided Americans with a theology and moral justification for military intervention.

Throughout the history of US there has been a theme of political religion, but remained a minor theme until the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Biblical imagery has been continuously used in wars to gain victory. But one of the important war that first expressed US’s increasing religious vision in foreign policy was the Spanish American War of 1898. This war resulted in the occupation of Philippines which was also the first occupation abroad. The very conviction that destiny, duty or fate mandated America to follow interventions abroad became part of the US foreign policy narrative. Part of American intervensionst policy can be seen as a mandate by the divine to lead the people of the world and be that nation which had the trusteeship for world progress and guardians of world peace. The American foreign policy not only advocated for prevailing of peace but had commercial interest too in pursuing intervention. It becomes clear when Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana in Jan, 1900 described the age of American imperialism: “….just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon one opportunity in the orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world…. Whose present phase is our personal profit, but whose far off end is the redemption of the world and the Christianization of mankind.”(Robbins 1990)

The above paragraph illustrates that US has not only been guided by the almighty to spread peace but also had self interest in accomplishing an end ordained by the god. The idea for spreading Democracy in the world too was associated with the religious message. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1941 in his State of the Union Address announced crusade for the four freedoms in his arsenal of democracy speech: (Roosevelt 2018)

  • “The first is freedom of speech and expression- everywhere in the world.”
  • “The second is freedom of every person to worship god in his own way… everywhere in the world.”
  • “The third is freedom from want… everywhere in the world.”
  • “The fourth is freedom from fear…anywhere in the world”

The religious purpose reflected in the above speech reveals messianic nature by which US wanted to promote the idea of democracy. The American Democracy at its very initial phase was seen from the religious point and in particular aligned with the notion of Christianity in its earthly aspect which reveals its religious dimension. Even in public there was a huge presence of religiosity since its formation and by 1860 the number of church goers had increased four times (Preston, 2012) the voters for presidential election and had two times more clergy than the military personnel. The income of churches came almost at par with that of the federal government. The Americans belonging to different denominations differed over religion however they overall agreed on the importance of religion and its importance in politics, culture and society.

United States is the only major developed country in which religion is as important as it was three centuries ago and it has profoundly helped in shaping the culture, politics, economics and national identity. The influence of religion in the US foreign policy forms a part of age long tradition. From the very beginning with the European settlements in North America, the leaders have been moved by religious conviction in approaching the world at large. From John Winthrop’s sermon of “City on a Hill” abroad to the divinely vested rights through the Declaration of Independence assertion to the world as a identity of America to the extension of its frontiers through the “Manifest Destiny”, US had defined itself with a religious mould to the rest of the world. The public intellectuals who were part of the protestant establishment like Reinhold Niebuhr, John Bennett, Henry P. Van Dusen, Francis P. Miller, George Harkness, and Samuel McCrea Cavert, John Foster Dulles helped in shaping the American political culture which was needed to accept the responsibilities of a major leading power after the World War II. These personalities were key in developing the idea for Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods system, and the united nations.

American Presidents notably like Eisenhower and Truman and other political and religious leaders have shown the importance of having religious belief in the national heritage by developing a deep connection between faith in God and freedoms, and human rights. They have shown the centrality in which God had ordained America to carry out such noble acts and called out those forces that discards practice of religious beliefs for instance communism which stood for atheism and hostility towards religion. The US leaders summoned the American people in crusade like fight against Soviet Union and could garner domestic support necessary to fight the Cold War. Certain events in the American history was important in involving religion in politics for instance the Civil war which intensified faith at a popular level and affected the course of American religion. The political rhetoric in the US had always been replete with religious imagery but during the Civil war the religious dynamics became deeper and harder. The Civil war faith helped in a way to form the ideological core of US foreign policy by giving focus on the idea of ideological redemption, although religion did not form its only character but it formed its very important source. By amalgamating the culture of missionaries, progressive benevolence, and the dictates of national interest the idea of universal redemption helped American leaders to pursue more interventionist and globalist foreign policy.

The idea of humanitarian intervention from 1890s onwards started to be included in the US foreign policy and as a savior of the world. After the Civil War the nationalistic Americans shed their parochial worldview to replace it with global consciousness and the faith based ideology from the Civil War helped in providing the foreign policy makers with necessary platform. The Christian missionaries were crucial in creating interventionist foreign policy and were the most internationalist group in America. The missionary were gaining popular in America especially after the Civil War and was financially growing, by 1900s the fifth of direct investment in China belonged to the missionaries (Preston, 2012). No other group in the US backed the visions of humanitarianism and American mission more fully than the missionaries.

The liberal protestants in the US during and after the Civil War wanted to preserve their faith by accommodating scientific empiricism instead of total rejection. The American Protestants was evolving into its modern form and its missionaries were at the helm. Major missions worked for doing good rather than only preaching gospel by embracing modernism. Progressivism was encouraged through the use of religious themes and rhetoric in the foreign policy of two progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Missionaries were internationalist and were much ahead than their fellow Americans on foreign affairs. They viewed world to be interconnected- a view which was not perceived by many other at that period in time. The missionaries discarded the isolationism and unilateralism and the parochial limitations posed by it. The ideological and territorial expansion led by the Americans halted by 1890s as the frontiers had closed, the expansionist character of America led it to gaze beyond the oceans which it was surrounded by. The missionaries had already viewed oceans as highways that connected US with the rest of the world and sought to spread values in religious, political, social or economic form.

Religion was an essential part in the formation of American internationalism. Other religious groups like the Catholics and Jews were the only other Americans who recognized and supported value based internationalism. These Catholic and Jews were immigrants from Europe who were accepting themselves simultaneously as mainstream Americans and a part of larger international community. The missionaries was able to place US in the area of densely connected web of responsibilities and international rights. Protestant missionaries had globalist, expansionist mindset which was inherited from the faith of Christianity itself just like the US it was expansive in character and always expanded westward with the aim of bringing enlightenment and progress. Missionaries in the US had a combination of characters like internationalism and nationalism, cosmopolitanism and parochialism which helped in spreading Americanism wherever it went. Most importantly Americanism and Christianity got conflated and saw these two forces as a part of the same scheme sometimes to uplift the world and other times as American imperialism.

By the end of the 19th century America’s imperial turn came when the first foreign war with the Philippines was fought, the idea that the duty to spread the benefits of Christian civilization was present in American thought and was intensified in the American foreign policy in particular. The foreign policymakers were progressive but had interventionist and imperialistic aims. The most notable strategist of that period Alfred Thayer Mahan also believed that the role of Christianity and in particular Protestantism was an important aspect for moral grounding required to attain national greatness. Mahan viewed Christianity not just representing any political creed but it was the basis of any form of politics. It was the source of civilization and everything it produced. Without Christianity liberty, justice and progress would not prevail.

Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt believed in religious ideology to create a foreign policy which could spread the message of social gospel (Preston 2012). Roosevelt was seen to be a realist, someone who calculated the national interest objectively and known to distinguish between central and peripheral interest without having much consideration for morals and values. Yet his worldview was very much rooted in the same Social Gospel as his domestic policies. He was an internationalist who viewed that US had no other choice than to get engaged with the rest of the world and the American foreign policy should be rooted in righteousness especially those policies which would bring progress to the rest of the world.

The intervention in Philippines allowed US to remake the country into a progressive democracy, while US did not wanted to give independence in the near term Filipinos enjoyed religious freedom even as they lacked political independence. Religious pluralism began to replace the enforced Roman Catholic monopoly, with the Philippine Independent Church forming a breakaway, populist variant of Catholicism and Protestant churches being established. Beginning with religion, the United States was already remaking the Philippines in its own image. The insurgency in Philippines failed to get critical support and allowed Filipino Catholics to collaborate with the US occupation.

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The Significance of Religious Freedom in the USA. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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