Perhaps we live in an age of polarized politics. Perhaps differences between Presidents George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, are drawn in sharper colors in politics.
Where they share a common concern is in the oppression of Christians and believers in other faiths around the world.
We can confidently, if sadly, predict the same issues will concern Obama’s successor in 2017. For as Obama recently told the National Prayer Breakfast, the preservation and enhancement of human rights abroad is a matter of national interest.
The records of both Bush and Obama can be faulted in the arena of human rights. It is almost inevitable, even if a president or a secretary of state does not wish it, that great power relations will require sometimes soft-pedaling the “soft diplomacy” of human rights.
Still, under both presidents, Christian communities in the Muslim world have been persecuted and, in some countries, such as Iraq, almost eradicated. That posed a serious problem for Bush in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as he sought to build coalitions against terrorism; it’s a problem for Obama today across not only the Middle East but the Orient. China’s imperialist oppression of Tibet has been a problem for the United States since the 1950s, and there are many more examples around the world, including a Christian missionary now imprisoned in North Korea.
Obama noted the issues in China in his talk to the nondenominational gathering of political leaders in Washington.
“I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims,” Obama said.
As with many other presidents before him, peace talks between Israel and Palestine continue to be a major priority, and that includes something all too lacking in many Arab countries, freedom of religion for Jews and Christians.
The issues raised in Obama’s talk are perhaps not the primary driver of American foreign policy, but they certainly are part of the United States’ interests across the world. In James Madison’s famous phrase, the founding documents of the United States protects freedom of religion “and the free exercise thereof.” That wording was intended to declare that faith is not a matter of toleration or a grant of rights from the government that might one day be withdrawn.
Rather, it is a human right, a self-evident truth that cannot be infringed by government.
The president’s remarks were a reminder that this liberalizing task remains ahead for the U.S. government in its relations with countries great and small.