PRINCETON, N.J. — Robert George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and a leading Catholic public intellectual, was elected as the new chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The commission’s outgoing chair, Katrina Lantos Swett, announced George’s appointment July 23.

“Our bipartisan commission is united in its admiration for professor George’s skills as an advocate and leader of the international religious-freedom movement. The commission is eager to continue its work under his able leadership,” said Lantos Swett.

The news underscores George’s striking influence on Washington policy debates, spanning global human-rights issues as well as marriage and pro-life advocacy.

But his appointment also came amid growing frustration with Washington’s failure to effectively address religious-freedom issues around the globe.

“We are very concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The community has been victimized, and many have left as refugees, flooding out of Iraq and Syria,” George told the Register during a July 24 interview.

“We are worried about oppression of Jews in Yemen and Iran, and there are places where the rights of Muslims are violated.”

George added that the commission would continue to scrutinize emerging religious-freedom issues in Europe.

“We are worried about how secularist governments are treating religious believers,” he said, noting controversial laws dealing with the Muslim headscarf and the practice of Jewish circumcision. “We are not just looking at the Arab world or Africa and Asia.”


Natural-Law Expert

Many Catholics know Robert George for his work as a persistent defender of natural-law arguments that provide the philosophical underpinnings of Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage and human life.

But experts on human-rights issues note his equally strong record in this sphere of public policy.

Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, cited George’s impressive grasp of all the relevant issues.

“He has been the featured speaker at the Religious Freedom Project on many occasions. He conducted a fascinating conversation with [U.S. Islamic scholar] Shaikh Hamza Yusuf on the Islamic roots of religious freedom and discussed international religious freedom with Rick Warren,” said Farr.

“In all cases, professor George delivered a powerful message: There are sound, cogent and compelling reasons why everyone should support religious freedom, whether they are religious or not.”

“Robby is a superb choice. He is well versed in the major threats to religious freedom around the world today,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom, who has also served on the commission and worked with George to address anti-Christian persecution in South Sudan.

George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. He has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology.

His latest book is Conscience and Its Enemies. Another recent work he co-authored is What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense. A frequent contributor to First Things, he is a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and regularly contributes to its website, Public Discourse.

“Since its establishment by Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has stood for religious freedom in its most robust sense. It has recognized that the right to religious freedom is far more than a mere right to worship,” wrote George in a July 24 column on the Public Discourse site that marked his appointment.

“It is a right that pertains not only to what the believer does in the synagogue, church or mosque or in the home at mealtimes or before bed; it is the right to express one’s faith in the public as well as private sphere and to act on one’s religiously informed convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship.” 

George and and his predecessor, Katrina Lantos Swett, explored these themes in a July 25  column in The Wall Street Journal: "Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion."

The Commission

Established through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an “independent, bipartisan federal government entity.” It monitors the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provides policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress.

Every year, the commission outlines its recommendation in an annual report, which provides updates on “countries of particular concern (CPC)” that could be subject to U.S. sanctions designed to discourage systemic violations of religious freedom. The recommendations, which are provided to the State Department, are not automatically imposed, and sometimes the commission recommends a waiver as a policy option.

The commission’s 2013 report recommended CPC status for countries that have been repeat offenders — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam were also put on the list — not always for the first time.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, vice chair of the commission and president of the Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told the Register that he welcomed George’s leadership, as the commission continues to address violations to religious freedom, particularly in Muslim nations undergoing political changes.

 "I specifically look forward to continuing to bring my experiences, with the challenges facing so many countries around the world navigating the conflicts between political Islam (Islamism) and liberty,” said Jasser.


‘Making a Difference’

During his interview with the Register, George said that the commission would continue to work with the State Department to “hold accountable those countries recommended for the CPC list, to trigger sanctions, unless the administration wishes to grant a waiver, as permitted under the statute.”

Said George, “We know from experience that sanctions can make a real difference to ease the burdens on people of faith whose rights are violated.”

He recalled that, in past years, when Vietnam had been placed on the CPC list, “circumstances there improved. They wanted to get out from underneath the burden of the sanctions.”

After the sanctions were lifted, religious-freedom violations in Vietnam worsened, he said.

“That is a good example of how the sanctions make a difference.”

Yet while the commission works to fulfill its mission and step up pressure on nations like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and Egypt — many of them key U.S. allies — critics say that Washington, particularly the State Department, has not done enough to make religious freedom a top priority.

During June 13 testimony before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Georgetown’s Thomas Farr stated that it was “difficult to name a single country in the world over the past 15 years where American religious-freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way.”

Said Farr: “In most of the countries where the United States has in recent years poured blood, treasure and diplomatic resources (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia), levels of religious freedom are declining, and religious persecution is rising.”

A surge of reports on religious-freedom violations in Egypt, following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the election of Mohamed Morsi, who has since been removed from office in a military coup, provide the most recent instance of a U.S. foreign-policy establishment seemingly unable to influence policies in a nation that has received billions in American aid.

“Religious freedom is right. Religious freedom works. But promoting it remains marginal to U.S. foreign policy,” concluded George Weigel in a column for First Things that noted Farr’s congressional testimony. "Not good; not smart either.”

Joan Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.