The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced earlier this week its new chair, Princeton Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George, a conservative intellectual who even Democrats laud as a good pick.
"I really think he's a remarkable person," Katrina Lantos Swett, former USCIRF chair and president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, told The Christian Post in an interview Thursday. "It's really hard to imagine someone who is more respectful and more earnest and sincere in engaging people with whom he may disagree."
In what may be a rare show of bipartisanship in Washington, Swett, who ran unsuccessfully in Democratic primaries for both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives in New Hampshire and was nominated to USCIRF by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), praised the conservative chair nominated by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).
"With his election as chair we have a true intellectual heavyweight as well as a person of great compassion and eloquence taking the helm," she said.
"We believe really strongly that religious freedom is a nonpartisan issue," Swett explained, noting that USCIRF is "an utterly bipartisan entity."
Unfortunately, she added, despite USCIRF's efforts on both sides of America's political divide, "the state of religious freedom globally is not good at all." She noted that both Pakistan and Iran have "a toxic environment from a religious freedom perspective."
"The evidence is almost overwhelming that … societies that do a robust and effective job of protecting religious freedom are … also tolerant, successful, peaceful, economically prosperous – societies in which women have a high status and a decent standard of living," the former chair said. "And sadly, the converse is also true."
The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Swett said the story of Raoul Wallenberg inspired her to fight for religious freedom. Wallenberg "had nothing in common" with Holocaust victims – "they were Hungarian and he was Swedish, they were Jewish and he was Lutheran, he was rich and privileged." But he left neutral Sweden to rescue people from the death camps.
She noted that her father's first act in Congress "was to introduce legislation to make Raoul Wallenberg a U.S. citizen," not just to honor Wallenberg and possibly save him from a Soviet gulag, but to honor the United States. While Swett is a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, she said she still considers herself Jewish, and founded the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights in memory of her father.
Swett described herself as a "recovering politician," and said that, despite her passion for politics, she had no plans to run for office again.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, Swett's fellow vice-chair, author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, also stressed the importance of the struggle for religious freedom to CP on Thursday.
"Religious freedom is more at risk than it has ever been," he said, pointing to the disappointed hope of the Arab Spring. While he supported the regime change in Egypt as "a course correction of the original revolution," he emphasized the threats to Coptic Christians and condemned the recent behavior of the military as not "consistent with acts of freedom."
"The greatest challenge for Muslims," Jasser explained, is "are we going to surrender the control of our faith to Islamists?" He argued that Islam is not unified, and that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) use "the grievance industry and victimization" to claim the support of all Muslims.
He pointed to the Egyptian revolution as "an educational moment…that Muslims don't want to be ruled by the brotherhood." Jasser argued that Americans should "take the side of those Muslims who believe in real religious liberty," or the "separation of Mosque and State."
He also argued that religious freedom is struggling in Europe. USCIRF discussed "restrictions through the hypersecularism in Europe," one of which kept Jews from performing circumcisions on male children. Overall, the vice-chair said he aimed to prevent "a ghettoization of ideologies," a stifling of religious practice and discussion, across the globe.
Jasser argued that the United States, despite a long history of religious freedom, has not effectively advocated for it in other countries. He cited the Ethics and Public Policy Center's George Weigel, who argued Wednesday that no president or secretary of state has aimed to integrate the advancement of religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy.
If America and the West do not advocate for religious freedom, Jasser argued, "you're left with a battle between secular nationalistic fascists verses the theocrats" in a sort of "Darwinian evolution."