U.N. misses the point in U.S. religion study

Sunday, May 16, 1999

If you want to “see ourselves as others see us,” read the new report from the United Nations on the state of religious liberty in the United States.

Americans tend to bristle at any outside evaluation of the U.S. — especially by the U.N. But since our nation advocates human rights abroad, we should be open to international scrutiny of how well we're doing at home.

What does the U.N. study conclude? With a few exceptions, the report declares freedom of religion in America to be “satisfactory.”

This finding is based on an examination of our legal system and a brief tour of the U.S. (one of a series of missions examining religious freedom in various nations throughout the world) by a “special rapporteur” representing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Without getting defensive, I do wonder about our “satisfactory” grade. By any measure, the United States is the most religiously free nation on earth. Even our problems are minor compared to the religious conflicts, divisions, and tensions found in nations around the world.

If America is only “satisfactory,” I can't imagine who is “good” or “excellent.”

Part of the challenge in accurately gauging the degree of religious freedom in this country is knowing what to look for. The U.N. representative came ready to assess the degree of “tolerance and non-discrimination” related to religion or belief.

In most nations, of course, the government or the majority faith “tolerates” (at best) the presence of other faiths. But in our arrangement, the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment go beyond mere toleration and guarantee full freedom of conscience for all.

The U.N. report accurately summarizes our legal system and court rulings but appears to miss our fundamental commitment to religious liberty as an inalienable right of every person. It is this core principle that distinguishes the United States from almost every other nation on earth.

What about the exceptions? In what areas has U.S. protection for freedom of religion been less than satisfactory? The report singles out the treatment of Muslims and Native Americans for special criticism.

Concerning Islam in America, the report acknowledges that Muslims are free to practice their faith openly and freely in this country. But the Special Rapporteur detects an “islamophobia” that reflects “both racial and religious intolerance.” The report places most of the blame for this problem on the media's “distorted and indeed hate-filled message treating Muslims as extremists and terrorists.”

It's certainly true that depictions of Muslims in the press — and in Hollywood — have often reinforced negative stereotypes. But in the last few years there has been a notable improvement in the press treatment of religion in general and of Muslims in particular.

In any case, the cure recommended by the U.N. report may be worse than the disease: “There have to be limits on the fundamental freedom of the press when it generates actual intolerance, the antithesis of freedom.”

It's unclear just what “limits” the Special Rapporteur has in mind. But I would argue that the answer to bad press is good press, not restrictions on press freedom.

The longest section in the report concerns Native Americans. Few students of American history and society would deny that full religious freedom has been denied to traditional Native American religions in the United States. Courts and legislatures have frequently failed to take Native American religious claims seriously, particularly when sacred sites are involved.

In recent years, federal legislation — the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, for example — has offered some measure of protection. But, as this report points out, legislation and executive orders protecting Native American religions are generally weak and lacking in enforcement provisions.

The Special Rapporteur states that the religious freedom of Native Americans is “a fundamental matter and requires still greater protection.” I couldn't agree more. Especially when sacred sites and burial grounds are at issue, much more must be done to extend First Amendment protections to Indian tribes.

Of course, religious freedom in America isn't fully realized; there's always more work to do. The task of protecting religious liberty for all citizens is an ongoing challenge that will only grow as we become even more religiously diverse in the 21st century.

The United Nations report is an interesting mix of modest criticism and faint praise, perhaps reflecting that it isn't fashionable or politic for foreign observers to be too laudatory about the world's only superpower.

But where religious freedom is concerned, are we merely “satisfactory”?

Hardly. Even with our faults, we remain the most successful experiment in living with religious differences the world has ever seen. In this area, at least, we are truly that “city upon a hill.”