When we look at the existing historiography of American contributions to human rights abroad, there tends to be a rather triumphalist streak to it. In some ways, there is a lot of truth to those claims. That the international human rights regime today bears a large American imprint stands in an uneasy irony with a long domestic history of aversion towards international commitments and entanglements. The saga of the Bricker amendment is the foremost example that comes to mind.

But perhaps it is not ironic at all. Even the late Louis Henkin who celebrates international human rights as projections of American constitutional rights around the world acknowledged that the U.S. tends to embrace human rights wholeheartedly if they are intended for export. In a previous post, I recounted the story of Woodrow Wilson and his efforts to promote religious freedom internationally through the League of Nations covenant. But my story/dissertation does not start with the League Covenant. It starts in 1898, when the U.S. emerged on the world stage as a recognized global power. By and large, the story resembles, in broad outline, Saba Mahmood’s articulation of the politics of religious freedom as one that is intimately tied to the history of European domination of the non-Western world. My story is only concerned with the United States, for now at least, partly because of autobiographical reasons. But in seeking to show this connection between freedom and power, of which the U.S. example seems almost perfect because of its exceptionalist tradition, I also want to look at this history and use it to move beyond debates created by this history. Even if the roots are poisoned, possibilities of redemption remain nevertheless. At least this is my hope.

What I found interesting during the course of my research is a peculiar observation. Similar to the domestic story of American religious freedom which is bigger and broader than the corpus of Religion Clause jurisprudence (a glaring contemporary example is that there is no case, at least on the Supreme Court level which tracks the rise of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 U.S.; the anti-Sharia state constitutional amendments which have been proposed since then are the best indicators, it seems but aside from the one in Oklahoma, they have never been litigated in courts), the external story of American religious freedom insofar as domestic ideas of religious freedom were projected in laws abroad does not also map neatly into any of the existing trends found in Supreme Court cases involving religious liberty, save perhaps for Reynolds. But while language found in existing cases shape, and therefore, also constrain, the way in which the domestic story unfolds, how it is discussed and debated, no such thing occurs in the foreign affairs realm. This question is at the heart of a side project I am currently working on, and which I’ll elaborate on more in a future post, but the one thing I wanted to point out is the disconnect between what happens inside and outside and more importantly, what that disconnect entails.

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