Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Commission on Religious Freedom Indispensable? Oh Come Now...

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 13, 2011

My theory is that if we can’t reduce our Federal deficit by cutting the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, then there is probably nothing at all that we can cut. I know the US Bishops have urged Catholics to lobby to secure new funding for the Commission and I know that Commission Chairman Leonard Leo has warned that the loss of his job will have “catastrophic” consequences.

I am even aware that Phil Lawler—in an excellent On the News commentary (see Needed: a sense of urgency about religious freedom in US foreign policy)—has noted in passing that the apparent lack of public concern about the demise of the Commission is yet another indicator that people are not too concerned about religious liberty when it comes to foreign policy. But my illustrious colleague did not suggest that the Commission was essential to this concern, or that the consequences of letting it die would be catastrophic, so I’m pretty sure I can venture the opinion that the Commission lacks a compelling case for my tax dollars, without starting World War III at

I agree, of course, that US foreign policy (insofar as it too is not stripped back dramatically in years to come, which we may safely presume would be a relief to a great many people around the world) ought to include among its serious concerns the question of the religious liberty of those living in countries over which we exercise influence. I would be loath, were I in the dubious business of shoring up foreign regimes, to shore up any regime that persecutes its religious minorities, a practice on the same level as intentionally starving its own citizens. And if I were an influential world leader or a powerful economic force, I would certainly want to use both moral and economic influence to uphold the rights of persons to seek God in any manner consistent with the natural law and the common good.

After all, genuine religion cannot be forced. Our response to God’s call must, by its very nature, be a response of intellect and will, a response of knowledge and genuine commitment. Now there may be disadvantages of various kinds to embracing a minority position in a social order dominated by some other religion; but force and/or persecution should not be one of those disadvantages—whether at the hands of the government or of those whom a moral government is bound in natural justice to restrain.

Because this concern for religious liberty is important, it makes sense to ask a related question in exactly the right way: If we are funding government to do everything under the sun, what does it say about us if we are unwilling to fund this one thing, this one commission which is concerned about religious liberty? That, I think, is a fair question, and it may well have a revealing answer. But it is only fair and revealing if we accept the premise that we are or ought to be continuing to fund government to do everything under the sun.

If anyone is actually arguing that our political leaders cannot understand the difference between regimes which protect religious liberty and those which do not, without establishing and funding a perpetual commission as an integral part of the government, then I would suggest that such a person has lost all sense of the purpose of government and the need we have for it. I’m pretty sure, for example, that many regular users of can give a clear account of the state of religious freedom in many places around the world, even without making a special study of the matter. Last time I checked, this widely available information was not dependent on the existence of a government commission.

So my first point is that funding a commission to continually monitor religious freedom around the world is not something any government really needs to do. And my second point is that the United States government is not an entity I would even remotely trust to gather this information accurately or to use it in a positive way, especially in an era in which it is so busy attempting to undermine the religious liberty of Christians right here at home. This is the same government which is progressively denying Christians the opportunity to shape public policy or to even pursue their professions or take care of their own health without forcing them into moral contradictions. When a utopian vision demands that the State orchestrate Just About Everything, all may well be lost, but religion is the first casualty, because religion claims a perspective and an authority which transcends the State.

One wonders, once again, why so many of the American bishops so reflexively see such a State (or any government at all) as the natural way to accomplish every task, including monitoring religious liberty around the world. Do they not have a growing list of their own conflicts with this same State? At some point, the old political habits even of bishops will have to give way to reality. It would not be a bad start to let lay persons figure out whether the Commission on International Religious Freedom is really necessary. The first thing a layman might ask is, “What difference has this Commission really made?” The second is, “What difference is this Commission likely to make in the immediate future?” The third is, “If there is something of great value here, does it need to be done by government?”

A final thought is this: I’ve noticed in the past (and I mean the entire past of human history, for I assure you I go back a very long way) that whenever governments establish international commissions to assess the state of the world, they make fine and firm pronouncements against the sins of other countries without ever recognizing their own. This seems especially true in the case of violations of human rights. I make no doubt that such commissions give us all a great sense of superiority, but it is a sense of superiority we tend to purchase at a very high price.

So between not seeing the need and distrusting the outcome, let me say it again: If we cannot cut the Commission on International Religious Freedom, what can we cut? Speaking for myself, I don’t need a government agency to tell me religious liberty is both important and frequently violated. I bet there are a number of other commissions that could be cut, too. Like most people, as long as Uncle Sam will continue to help me tie my shoes, I’m good.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 13, 2011 11:35 PM ET USA

    Jeff, I almost always agree with you. But not on this. The US was founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed by God with certain unalienable rights the purpose of which is to fulfill "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God." This puts internal pressure on the US to have foreign policy dealings that include respect for that understanding of humanity. It is overly idealistic to assume that because the information is publicly available it will be used without any advocates.