Seventh-day Adventist Annual Religious Liberty Dinner
Keynote address delivered by U.S. Senator John McCain, May 4, 2006
hank you for your welcome and for your kind invitation to give this year’s liberty dinner address. It is an honor to speak before a group that has worked so hard to promote human rights and religious freedom. I’d like to thank Dr. John Graz, secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association; Don Schneider, North American president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; Lincoln Steed, editor of Liberty magazine; and James Standish, executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association.
It’s no surprise that the many Seventh-day Adventists here tonight seek the freedom to practice their faith--after all, Adventists have often faced serious discrimination around the world. What is remarkable, what is truly impressive, about your work, is that you seek freedom not just for people of your faith but also for those of all other religions. Your work on behalf of religious freedom and human rights is vital, it is transforming, and it is inspiring. And for it, the world owes you a deep debt of gratitude.
The world owes you thanks not simply because of your active promotion of liberty but also because you remind us that the freedom of conscience represents the core of any democracy. A government fails if it imposes on its people a predetermined way of approaching the world, a forced path to meaning in life. Freedom from such shackles prompted America’s first immigrants to abandon their European shores; it animated the passions of our forefathers and found expression in the Constitution’s First Amendment. “Every man,” said our first president, “conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
George Washington spoke of the newly formed Union, but his words are no less true today, when the world is by necessity within the scope of our ambition. The promotion of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom has been a much debated focus of our diplomacy in recent years, with some arguing that America should return to a more “realistic” foreign policy that deals with societies as they are--and avoids using our influence to shape their internal behavior. As you will see in the course of my remarks tonight, I reject this view. Surely pragmatism has a role in foreign affairs, but I believe that the object of American power should not be limited to our own protection and economic self-interest. We must seek a better world, one respectful of the rights we believe to be the universal province of all people. To do less would not simply threaten the very interests we seek to protect; it would also mean abdicating American leadership at this unique moment in history.
There are many who disagree with this proposition. These individuals doubt that a system of government that works in prosperous countries with Western traditions can ever function in places that lack our traditions and advantages. They are reluctant to intervene in the domestic political arrangements of other countries, by force or by diplomacy. They argue that it is simply American arrogance to suggest that a system which works for us can work everywhere.
But advocates of a human rights-focused foreign policy have never suggested that a country without previous experience with democracy should govern itself in ways identical to our experience, with a bicameral legislature, nationally elected chief executive with a four-year term, full separation of church and state, and a two party system. All we claim is that people, no matter where they live, no matter their history or religious beliefs or the size of their GDP, all people share a basic desire to be free; to make by their own choices and industry better lives for themselves and their children. And furthermore, that it is in the security interests of the United States and is inseparable from the moral foundation of our national character that we should do all that is practical to help them wrest their rights from regimes that do not govern with their people’s consent.
Concern for the rights of all human beings must be a significant and enduring element of American foreign policy, informing our relations with all countries. While human rights will never constitute the sum total of our foreign policy, which by necessity concerns itself with myriad other issues, from counterterrorism to weapons proliferation to trade policy, we fail ourselves as Americans if we do not consider how our actions--or our failure to act--impact those who are as yet unblessed with our freedoms.
No one can claim ignorance of the basic rights all humans should possess. They include the right to life and liberty; protection against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; basic political rights; the right to choose one’s religion or to change it; and the freedom to manifest one’s belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. The world summarized these and other rights in 1948 when, after the most destructive war in human history, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This remarkable document begins simply but powerfully asserting that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The first word of the document’s title is important--these human rights are not an invention of America or of the western world, nor do they reflect standards which particular cultures or religions can reject. They are universal. But it’s worth spending a moment to reflect on where these rights come from.
I believe that the genesis of these rights lies in the origins of the human spirit. As long as reflective people have lived, they have identified those universal liberties that separate us from the animals. Look at the earliest Greek philosophy and you will see emerging the concept that all human beings are created equal. The great Judaic and Christian teachers held that certain rights are endowed unto all people by the Creator. And to simplify John Locke a bit, governments are formed explicitly to protect the natural rights of its citizens, and thus rule only with their consent. “The State of Nature,” he said, “has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone . . . that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty and Possessions.”
Our founding fathers were wise to shape our political system on Locke’s ideas. The rights to which he refers exist above the state and beyond history; they can not be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be wrenched.
Jimmy Carter once said that “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, human rights invented America.” Our founding fathers, having felt the weight of colonial oppression, forged a new kind of government, one that existed not to protect a regime or a class or a religion, but to protect the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The promotion of those rights is the most authentic expression of our national character. To accept the abridgment of those rights for other societies should be no less false to the American heart than to accept their abridgment in our own society. Injustice and tyranny abroad should be as intolerable to Americans as they are intolerable here.
Promoting human rights abroad can serve our national interests in profound ways. In the 1970s, the military government in South Korea twice planned to execute dissident Kim Dae Jung. In both cases the United States intervened, saving his life. Years later, he became the president of South Korea, and his warm feelings toward our country endured. In 1986, when the United States condemned Ferdinand Marcos’ sham reelection, we earned the abiding gratitude of the Philippine people, who promptly threw out the dictator. Our continuing good relations with the Philippines have enabled us to collaborate on numerous fronts, including counterterrorism and counter-narcotics. Throughout the Cold War, America condemned human rights abuses and promoted religious freedom throughout Eastern Europe, and today troops from many of these same Eastern European nations stand beside ours in Iraq. In 2004, in refusing to accept bogus elections in Ukraine, we earned friends among the organizers of the Orange Revolution, and now its leader is better known by his title, the president of Ukraine. And today we stand with Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman of undaunted moral courage, and with the people of Burma as they oppose a brutal dictatorship. They will prevail someday, and America must be part of their success. And when they do succeed, America will have a new partner, linked by common values.
History shows that standing with democrats pays dividends far greater than collaborating with dictators for short-term gain. How many times must we learn this lesson? Time and again we have embraced dictators who pledge their love of America while oppressing their citizens at home. Batista in Cuba, the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua, the House of Saud today--in each case the repressed people of these countries identified America with their corrupt rulers. And, in the end, each case had dire implications for our security and economic interests.
It does not take a revolution to see that promoting human rights serves our interests in other ways. Where there are abuses, despair often grows, sometimes morphing into extremism and terror. In countries where the rule of law is arbitrary, corruption and other vices breed--such as the trafficking of narcotics, weapons, and even human beings. Human destruction, oppression, and religious persecution prompt refugee flows and instability across borders and foster disease and criminality.
But perhaps the foremost way in which promoting human rights serves America’s national interests lies in this unique moment in world history. The United States is the only superpower on the globe today, but history teaches us how other countries traditionally react to the rise of a single great power. In the past this phenomenon has prompted other states to combine, acting to balance against perceived threats and to limit the preeminent state’s influence. Since the demise of the Soviet Union we have seen few concrete examples that the world is attempting to diminish American power, but we would be wise to be wary. In so doing, we should also sense a great opportunity.
For America truly is not like past superpowers, countries the sought territorial gain or imperial dominion. We wish to free, not to enslave; to trade, not to steal; to enlighten and learn, not to dominate and convert. But however certain we may be about our own motives, the impressions of people abroad are the ones that count. Should they sense a truly imperial impulse, they will speed their efforts to limit America’s reach. But should they detect a truly humanitarian motive behind American action, they are much more likely to welcome a powerful United States, rather than oppose it. Our moral standing is directly tied to our ability to maintain America’s preeminent leadership in the world.
Don’t underestimate the influence of this effect. America’s traditional identification with democracy and human rights constitutes a critical element of our soft power. While our military can preempt and prevent threats, and our economic power can be used to promote or punish, our soft power is the power of attraction. It was not only the traditional metrics of national might that helped the West win the Cold War, it was also the deeply attractive nature of our way of life--a way of life that included freedom, democracy, religious liberty, and economic prosperity. Only with the credibility that accompanies the union of words and action will the world’s people believe what we believe: that America wishes good for all, not for some; that we seek security, peace, and justice, not land and oil. And above all, they must see that we strive to respect human rights at home.
This last point is critical, because our credibility suffers a grievous blow from human rights abuses by Americans. The disgrace at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq set back our national cause and our international ambitions, and similar cases undermine our foreign policy. Because we hold others to a standard, we must be even more scrupulous in our own affairs. This does not mean that America has always been perfect. Nor does it mean that we are perfect today. But we must strive for perfection, whether it means interrogating enemy detainees in accordance with our values or treating immigrants as individuals possessing of certain basic human rights. Only by acting in accordance with our values can we further the interests we seek abroad.
This is not to say that our interests and our values are always identical. Sometimes our interests and our values point us in different directions, and balancing these can be the most difficult task policymakers face. How hard should we push President Putin, for example, on his rollback of democracy? All of us seek a fully democratic Russia, but we also hope for a Russia that cooperates with us to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Should we press the Chinese to loosen their restrictions on the Catholic Church and other faiths, while simultaneously pressing Beijing on currency issues and its military buildup? Should we threaten military action to stop ongoing genocide in Darfur while trying to force the Sudanese government to fulfill its peace commitments with the autonomous south?
In making these tough choices, it has long been axiomatic that interests trump values. But we should not be so quick to discount our ideals. Is tolerating a lack of democracy in Egypt helping to settle the hostility and dangerous instability of the Middle East? Or does it breed terrorists by depriving people of any lawful means to change their lives? America is number one--but for what? What is the object of American power and wealth? Is it only to garner more power, to grow richer, and to eliminate threats of every kind? If this were a different time, or if America were a different country, that concept of our national mission might satisfy. Today it does not.
I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone. The same holds true for the conduct of nations, particularly in this unique era, when America stands astride the world with unmatched power. None of us knows for how long the United States will dominate international affairs, but we do know that history has handed us a unique opportunity. The U.S. could choose to pursue narrowly defined national interests--internal and external security, economic prosperity at the cost of others, perhaps even territorial domination. And yet we choose--we must choose--a very different path. We must use our power and influence not only for security and prosperity but to promote the concepts we hold dear, including democracy and the panoply of human rights. By doing so we help create a world of recognized norms and rules, and if we are successful, we will have established a set of expectations for domestic behavior that will endure long after the so-called “unipolar moment” has passed.
One of these norms must be the basic right to freedom of religion. Choosing one’s faith is the most personal of choices, a matter of individual conscience. That is why we cherish it as part of our Bill of Rights. That is why Franklin Roosevelt listed as one of his four freedoms the right of everyone to worship God in his own way, everywhere in the world. And that is why people fleeing religious persecution continue to find safety in our country. All people must be free to worship as they please, or not to worship at all. It is a simple truth: There is no freedom without the freedom of religion.
Until recently, as Freedom House has said, religious liberty has been “the orphan child” of the Human Rights Movement. It is not any longer, and humanity is the better for it. Congress and the administration have taken great strides to promote religious freedom abroad, but I don’t have to tell this audience that we have a long, hard way to go. Every time a Chinese Catholic is jailed, or an Afghan convert is arrested, or a Hindu is killed in Kashmir, or a Tibetan Buddhist oppressed, it is not simply a tragedy. It is a call for action, one worthy of this country founded on the principle that every person, possessing inalienable rights, deserves to be free.
And should we be tempted to look away, to ignore the trials of those lacking the rights we so safely enjoy, let us recall the words of John Donne, when he said no man is an island. With singular elegance, the great poet tells us that in thinking about the value of human lives in far away places, we just as well might think of our own: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”