Has President Obama squandered the opportunity to do more than President Bush to advance religious freedom in America?

I don’t know….I was on the South Lawn of the White House when Pope Benedict gave an address following President Bush’s, both invoking American ideals of liberty tied to the natural law and the Golden Rule. While Bendict quoted George Washington, Bush quoted St. Augustine.

But WaPo’s religion blog has some concern about Obama foregoing the opportunity to take this further…

…placing U.S. international religious freedom (IRF) policy on the back burner, subordinating it to other less compelling administration priorities, or clearing the deck for initiatives that might be complicated by a robust defense of religious liberty abroad (such as outreach to Muslim majority countries or promoting international gay rights).

If it is true that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are backtracking on IRF, it would be somewhat ironic. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, passed unanimously by Congress, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It was implemented in the early stages by Secretary Madeleine Albright, who has since written a book calling for greater attention to religion in American foreign policy.

Politics are nothing if not ironic.

For instance…

At this writing, the President is said to be about to nominate as ambassador a Baptist pastor who is well connected in the administration. But she also appears to lack any experience either in international religious freedom or diplomacy.

I re-read that twice to fully appreciate the irony. Or the folly.

But wait…there’s more.

Frankly, it didn’t seem that things could get much worse for the prospects of a revived IRF diplomacy. Then, last week, the Obama administration issued its National Security Strategy.

Ours is a world suffused with religious ideas and actors — some supportive of human dignity and ordered liberty, others driving bigotry and terrorism. There is growing awareness that religious freedom can buttress the former tendencies and discourage the latter.

In fact, pursuing religious freedom is a national security strategy unto itself. Both history and contemporary scholarship demonstrate that democracy cannot remain stable, or yield its benefits to all citizens, without religious freedom. The absence of religious liberty in a highly religious society leads to violence, extremism and, in some cases, religion-based terrorism, including the kind that has been exported to American shores.

This is some of the best analysis I’ve seen lately on WaPo’s religion blog. Follow the story:

In March, the bipartisan House IRF caucus told the President that promoting religious freedom “will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity and security throughout the world.”

The same month a bipartisan group of scholars and human rights experts organized by Freedom House was even more explicit. They urged the President to “articulate concrete connections and synergies … between religious freedom policy and other key foreign policy areas, including national security…

In May the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report joined the chorus: “religious freedom should be increasingly more important as one of the core considerations in foreign policy and national security.”…

What did the President’s men do with all these ideas and advice? What does America’s new U.S. National Security Strategy say about the U.S. policy of advancing religious freedom?
Nothing. Zero. Nada.

As if that’s not bad enough…

…the new strategy simply ignores growing evidence that, in most countries of the world, none of these objectives is achievable without a robust regime of religious liberty.

But it gets worse. The National Security Strategy contains a five-page section entitled “Values.” It begins as follows, “The United States believes certain values are universal and will work to promote them worldwide.” Those values include democracy, human rights, and human dignity.

It seems unimaginable that any group of American officials – even the most secular minded realists – could pen five pages on American values, and how they might contribute to our security in a highly religious world, without significant attention to religious liberty. Our own history demonstrates that neither democracy, human rights, nor human dignity can be sustained without religious liberty.

And in that visit to the U.S. in 2008, Pope Benedict said as much in his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

But the U.S. adminstration has only retreated since then. Things are much worse now.

The Obama administration has achieved the unimaginable. It turns out that the list of the most important American values includes things like ensuring transparency, refraining from torture, protecting privacy, and “promoting the right to access information.”

But not religious freedom.

The only hint of religious liberty in this section comes in a single reference to “an individual’s freedom … to worship as they please.” This is thin (and ungrammatical) tokenism. Not only is the phrase a brief, almost throw-away aside in an extended analysis of ostensibly universal American values, but the very concept of “individual freedom of worship” represents an impoverished understanding of religious liberty.

They hold Obama accountable here. By his own words.

One prominent American intellectual has put the issue this way:

“[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

That intellectual was Barack Obama in his 2008 Call To Renewal speech. A year later, as President, he told a Muslim audience in Cairo that “freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together” and named religious freedom a key issue to be addressed by Muslim majority countries. Judged by his words, no President has had a more vigorous understanding of the meaning and reach of religious liberty in the lives of human beings and societies.

Rarely have word and deed been so estranged.

It turns out that a presidential speech, no matter how eloquent, is nothing but hot air unless it translates into policy.

And it has not.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....