5 Questions for Anna Su on her new book "Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power"

Lauren Turek

Anna Su is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Toronto. She is an expert on international human rights law, U.S. constitutional law, and law and religion, and has written several articles on religious freedom and American foreign policy making during the early twentieth century. The following is a recent conversation we had about her important new book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power, in which she "charts the rise of religious freedom as an ideal firmly enshrined in international law and shows how America’s promotion of the cause of individuals worldwide to freely practice their faith advanced its ascent as a global power."

Q1. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power draws attention not only to the long history of American efforts to promote religious freedom abroad through foreign policy, but also to the important role that these U.S. efforts played in shaping current international law aimed at protecting religious freedom worldwide. Can you tell us about the central argument you make in this book? What core message do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

A1: The main argument of the book is that religious freedom promotion was part and parcel of the rise of the United States as a global power. It also shows that many of our international laws on religious freedom have American origins. It is a critical book in many ways because for one, it pushes back on the claims of neutrality and universality of international human rights norms, of which religious freedom is one.  But it also complicates the usual story that religious liberty promotion was simply a disingenuous ideological mask for the pursuit of material power. As I show in the book, there’s always a bit of both interest and principle at work, and the reason is that religious freedom is genuinely important for many Americans and remains to be a distinctive part of American national identity. I also hasten to add that religious liberty is obviously very much contested throughout domestic American history, but those debates did not travel when religious freedom is promoted abroad.

No doubt there are many antinomies, problems and contingencies involved in the promotion and protection religious freedom as a human right today, several of which are structural thanks to the way secularism has structured and conditioned the way we engage in modern politics (see for example the recent work of Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age). The takeaway however is not to throw out the whole religious freedom project altogether. I don’t think we can afford to do that in the current historical moment. To say that there has been a decline in global religious freedom is a massive understatement. And governments have and should have a role in addressing that problem, along with others.  So yes, the book is a cautionary tale but it is not meant to be a tale of despair. We should be more critical about our own assumptions and vigilant about our own conduct, but that’s not an excuse for inaction.

Q2. You note in the introduction that the central question that drove the book was: "Why did the United States seek to promote free exercise of religion and separation of church and state during its colonial project in the Philippine Islands at the turn of twentieth century, an attempt it repeated, uncannily enough more than a century later in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq?" (8).  Indeed, those two historical incidents provide the bookends of your six historical case studies: the Philippine-American War and its aftermath; the negotiation of the Covenant of the League of Nations after World War I; the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, American planning for the post-war period, and the foundation of the UN Charter; the U.S. occupation of Japan and drafting of the Japanese constitution; the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, Helsinki Final Accords, and U.S. human rights policies in the 1970s; and the inclusion of religious freedom provisions in the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law in Iraq. 

Why did you choose these case studies and what thread links them together? Are there other historical moments that fit into your broader narrative that you would have like to have included or are these specific incidents particularly illustrative?

A2. One of the recurring, and rather amusing, first reactions I get whenever I give a short description of the book is the question: “And nobody has written about this yet??” The implication is that there is nothing surprising about these case studies or the general findings of the book. And it’s largely true. In a way I didn’t choose these case studies, they chose themselves. I began with the U.S. colonial occupation of the Philippines because that’s what I knew best, coming from the Philippines myself. But then Iraq was a natural bookend because it was so recent. In fact, it seemed so recent that a historian friend of mine joked that I was doing journalism, not history. Once I knew religion and religious freedom was quite important in the U.S. colonial project in the Philippines, and that it similarly had an outsized role in the invasion of Iraq, it was not a stretch to suppose that there’s a lot in between that would connect these two events.

Originally, the plan was to write about how and why the American idea of separation of church and state got exported around the world. Had I stuck to that path, one of the case studies would have been the American role and influence in the drafting of the Dignitatis Humanae, one of the many important documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and which marked a major shift in Roman Catholic doctrine with respect to its position on freedom of conscience and religion. Not only did it recognize that a human person has a right to religious freedom, it also did away with previous understandings that Catholicism had to be established by the state in order to protect and promote religious truth. Eventually, I had to set that aside because I am constrained by my focus on law and lawmaking. (And it eventually ended up getting written as a separate short paper)

In the end, the current structure worked better because it supports the main argument of the book that religious freedom promotion went hand-in-hand with the ascent of the United States as a world power, or at least until 2003 or thereabouts. Although there is still some debate in scholarly circles as to when the US really emerged as a world power, I think nobody would contest that 1898 was a significant turning point in US foreign relations. And with each major global conflagration in the twentieth century, the US worked its way up to global ascendancy, eventually replacing Great Britain at the top. Compared to Andrew Preston’s amazing book Sword of the Spirit, the book focuses on religious freedom, not religion writ large in US engagement abroad. And this is the thread on which the entire book hangs. Law here is an application of US power, whether it be religious freedom in a constitution, or religious freedom promoted abroad because of a U.S. statute. Basically you have certain prevalent understandings of religious liberty which are then translated and transposed into law intended for another peoples in another society or for a huge part of the world. What are the problems with that kind of scenario, what kinds of conversations do they open up or close down? These were some of the background questions underlying the project.

Q3. Given your guiding question and the case studies you selected, I am curious: do you think there is a historical relationship between religious freedom policies and democratization? If not, what explains the linkage between these two ideas in the minds of American policymakers throughout the twentieth century?

A3. Absolutely. It is striking how we now associate democracy with irreligiosity as if they are natural bedfellows but that was certainly not the case before. For the longest time, democracy and religion were inextricably tied together, and religious freedom was a natural outcome of that partnership. Alexis de Tocqueville of course was famous for his classic analysis of religion as a powerful and indispensable force in American democratic life. “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot,” he wrote. Fast forward a century later, and that connection could not be any clearer in the 1939 State of the Union address of President Franklin Roosevelt where he makes the linkage among religion, democracy and international good faith as pillars of modern civilization, the world in the cusp of a second world war as the background. Freedom of religion was one of the Four Freedoms, and internationalized by way of the declaration by the United Nations comprising of twenty-six governments fighting the Axis during the war.

But to say that religion is important is not the same as there is one religion that is being promoted. Many Americans are Christians but it is not Christianity that is being promoted abroad as part of democratization but religious liberty. Granted, there are certain Christian-oriented assumptions behind these understandings of religious liberty as the book itself illustrates, but there is a discernible difference between promoting religious freedom and promoting one religion. If you look at U.S.-occupied Japan for example, the American goal was to break the Shinto monopoly and allow other religions to flourish which would be a safeguard against the emergence of any religious-nationalist forces similar to what made war possible in the first place.

Today, religious freedom is still considered part of the liberal-democratic package that is more or less the standard in most constitutional settings throughout the world, but it has lost its religious underpinnings. That is not to say it is good or bad, but it is simply a reflection of the broader changes with respect to the place of religion in public life especially in the United States.

Q4. This is a book that holds obvious appeal for historians, political scientists, and scholars of law and religion, as well as for practitioners of various stripes, including policymakers, analysts, and those working in international law. Which audiences were you thinking of when writing Exporting Freedom? How did your intended audience (or audiences) shape your approach and the material you elected to discuss?

A4. When I arrived in the United States for graduate school, among the most debated questions were whether the Bill of Rights extended to the foreign nationals held captive in the Guantanamo Bay prison, and whether Islam was compatible with democracy in the context of Iraq. It was also a time when the separatist movement of Muslims in the Philippine south was in its heyday. During the course of research for an unrelated graduate school paper, I found out that Filipino Muslims made repeated requests to the United States to grant them their own independence and to not include their territory in the soon-to-be independent Philippines in 1945, but these requests were not heeded.

Because I am a lawyer by training and education, I gravitated towards the legal aspects of these topics. And while there were many books about the US occupation of the Philippines none were really focused on religion, so I wanted to write something that will combine all these topics together. So I focused on the drafting processes of national constitutions produced during periods of US military occupation, and including other similarly foundational documents with regard to the international order.

I wanted the book to be an academic intervention on many fronts – law and history to be sure, but I also wanted it to be relevant to policymakers. At the most general level, I sort of hoped that Americans can make historically informed decisions because, whether for good or ill, there are consequences for those who are outside its borders but nonetheless find themselves within the orbit of American power without much alternative. Religion is one important issue, but there are certainly many others.

As with everything else in life, there are tradeoffs to this kind of approach. The temporal scope of the project might be broad but the scope of the research question was narrow enough: religious freedom instantiated as law. My emphasis on official understandings of religion and religious liberty and how those were reflected in religious freedom in these various laws made it manageable for research purposes. Among other things, I looked at the papers of the officials involved; the Congressional Record is an amazing treasure trove (though it might take some time getting used to before one can get excited about it); and the State Department FRUS is an indispensable resource. However, this top-down approach also meant that the stories of how these laws affected people on the ground or how other non-governmental actors such as various Christian groups figured in the story would have to await another book.

Q5. Finally, what are you working on for your next project? I am sure our readers will be excited to hear about what you're working on now!

A5. At the moment, I am shifting my focus to another area in the history of international human rights. There is a legal doctrine called universal civil jurisdiction which permits victims of the most serious violations of international law to bring tort claims for damages in any national court or tribunal, regardless of the location of the conduct or the nationality of the victim or wrongdoer. I am interested in exploring the foundations of that doctrine and to set its various uses in historical context. Although thousands of pages in (mostly) legal journals have been devoted to the topic, it has not attracted (yet) any historical treatment. This is very much an early stage of the project so I cannot offer more beyond this overview. One thing I am sure however is that I will find my way back again to matters of law and religion soon enough.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book!

Thank you so much for sharing these great details on Exporting Freedom, Anna! I look forward to seeing further discussion unfold in the comments section.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for this interview--great insights into a wonderful book, another stand-out contribution to the field of religion and diplomacy!

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