Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Politicizing Religious Freedom

by Elliott Abrams
July 31, 2014


In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act– legislation designed to get increased attention to violations of religious freedom around the globe. Central among its provisions was creating a bi-partisan, non-political U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The Commission has existed since 1999, and I’ve been privileged to serve on it twice. It always has a 5-4 majority of appointees from the sitting president’s party, but it has always functioned without partisan rancor. After all, almost all Americans agree that protecting religious freedom is not only a constitutional right in this country, but must be a protected human right in all countries and for all people.

The Commission needs to be reauthorized by Congress this year, and Senator Durbin of Illinois has introduced legislation to do that–and also to gut the bipartisanship of the Commission. Since its inception, the lack of partisanship within the Commission’s staff and among its members has been wonderful. Durbin’s legislation instead invents two new jobs: Majority Staff Director and Minority Staff Director, representing the Democratic and Republican parties. He wants to turn the Commission into a replica of Congress itself, with dueling staffs seeking credit and blame for actions, blasting and defending whatever administration is in power, and making cooperative relations among Commission members that much harder. He wants to turn the party politics question from what it has always been– something way in the background, and not a matter that affected Commission work– into an ever-present factor.

Politicizing religious freedom this way is a disastrous move. It’s certain to diminish the effectiveness of the Commission and its work, undermining its ability to influence Congressional and Executive Branch action on religious freedom. That’s not the only flaw in Durbin’s draft bill, but it’s the worst. And it’s the best example of how wrong this approach would be. Keep the partisanship for health care or voter registration or taxes, and leave religious freedom alone. ┬áThere should be no “majority” or “minority” or Democratic or Republican views of religious freedom. The sooner this draft bill is buried, the better.



Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by James

    Sad commentary, but seems POTUS & Congressional supporters have abandoned not only Constitutional principles, but the Enlightenment philosophy upon which Western Culture is based.

  • Posted by Jon Steelman

    Here is an intelligent and first-rate politician and public servant (with the order of that devotion in question), widely experienced in government service; a Roman Catholic, who reversed his anti-abortion position about 1989 after previously promoting a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. This comment is not in derogation of Sen. Durbin; he’s certainly not the worst of the lot on the other side of the aisle. This merely goes to the order of devotion mentioned above – politician? or protector of the Bill of Rights? not often the same animal.

    Is such a machine politician an appropriate architect of legislation to permanently alter the direction and effectiveness of the Commission? Gutting the bipartisan aspect of the Commission would not only be a casualty of the legislation, but likely an intended result.

    And to avoid ambiguity, perhaps the mission of the commission is best exploited in a non-partisan rather that the less clear concept of a bipartisan environment. Durbin’s creation of the staff directors with party alignment one could argue is merely his spin on the concept of bipartisanship, to change with the party in power. This is not after all, the Senate Watergate Committee.

    On the other hand in today’s strained political season(s), perhaps we can’t expect non-partisanship to prevail.

    Thus, rather than Durbin’s idea, It would probably be best to let the law expire and take it up in two years when prospects are better, when the current progressive malaise recedes as the May-Fly back into its cocoon.

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