What's At Stake for International Religious Freedom in the US Contraception Debate?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan's benediction at the Republican Convention, and his upcoming appearance at the Democratic Convention reflect the importance of religious debates over contraception in this election. How this battle in the ongoing American culture war is resolved matters for more than the immediate issue, though; it has the potential to undermine efforts to protect religious groups from government repression around the world.

This debate arose from the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) provisions that ensure access to contraceptive services. In January 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that most religious institutions would not be exempt from this mandate. Supporters of this move see it as ensuring women's reproductive rights, while its opponents argue it is an infringement on the religious freedom of groups morally opposed to contraception.

This is a tricky issue. Access to contraception is an integral part of reproductive rights. Yet, the Catholic Church deeply opposes the use of contraception, and requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraception does make them act against their religious beliefs.

If this issue is resolved, it will require either one side backing down or a(nother) pretty intricate compromise. Many commentators have discussed this, but what most have not focused on is what this domestic debate means for international religious freedom efforts.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRF) officially made the promotion of religious freedom a US policy. The act set up an office in State that produces annual IRF reports and a non-governmental advisory board, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. While critics say neither Bush nor Obama made religious freedom a priority, Secretary Clinton's July 2012 speech on religious freedom has brought attention to the issue.

Whatever you think about domestic religious freedom debates, it is hard to argue with religious freedom's international importance. As a series of reports by the Pew Forum demonstrates, repression of religious groups by the state and society occurs in as diverse contexts as Middle Eastern authoritarian states, regimes that repress all potential opposition--like China, Eritrea, and Vietnam--and Western European anti-Muslim sentiment. And, over 30% the world's population lives in countries with increasing restrictions on religion.

So what do religious freedom debates over the ACA mean for efforts to fight religious repression around the world?

Culture war debates are partisan zero-sum issues; there are clear divisions over the issue, one side wins, the other backs down. Many other issues--like human rights--are ones whose normative value most accept, but differ on how to advance them. The latter transform into the former when one side in a partisan battle comes to own the issue, tying it to either conservative or liberal principles. A prominent recent example is the connection of democracy promotion to neoconservatism. In the current political context, religious freedom may become synonymous with right-leaning culture war issues. This transforms a universal issue into a partisan one.

If religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, it will be increasingly difficult to fight religious repression around the world. Many are skeptical of religious freedom promotion, seeing it as cover for Christian proselytism, an infringement of the separation of church and state, or cultural imperialism. These critiques will grow more influential if religious freedom becomes a Republican policy plank. And bipartisan support to maintain religious freedom's visibility past changes of administration will go the way of, well, all other types of bipartisan support. Everyone concerned about religious freedom--liberal, moderate, conservative--has an incentive to keep it from falling prey to US partisan politics.

Both sides have a role to play in ensuring US culture wars do not transform religious freedom into a partisan issue. Liberals should accept that conservative positions on contraception reflect sincere religious beliefs and avoid demonizing conservative Christians; they should also not view liberal proponents of religious freedom as conservatives in sheep's clothing. And the Right should not frame every effort to ensure reproductive rights as a wide-ranging attack on religious freedom; the "war on religion" terminology implicitly questions the religious views of progressive Christians and the dedication of liberals to religious freedom.

Ultimately, it comes down to civility. We can disagree with how to advance religious freedom at home and abroad, but still support religious freedom. If both sides hold back from condemning the other, reasonable culture war debates will not erode broader support for religious freedom. I realize, however, the chances of this happening are slim. I'm bracing for some on the Left to see this piece as a justification for denying access to contraception, and some on the Right viewing it as a veiled rejection of the validity of conservative Christians' beliefs. But I can still have faith.