Robert P. George on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom
Date: July 27th, 2014

Listen to the very end of this fascinating discussion for a special treat.  Prof. George, a superb banjo picker, performs “Wedding Dress” with his band Blue Heart.  And don’t forget to link connect with us on our Facebook Fan Page and/or on Twitter.

Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in the Department 0f Politics at Princeton University, discusses his thoughts on international religious liberty.  As the former chair (and current vice-chair) of the US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) and a political philosopher, he is uniquely situated to reflect upon religious liberty as a concern for foreign policy and how it relates to the grand tradition of natural law.

We begin the interview with some personal reflections on how a first generation college student from Morgantown, West Virginia is able to earn several advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford, and why Prof. George pursued political theory as a career path.  Robby explains how his parent’s concern over abortion set him upon a political path where he worked with the Democratic Party in the mid-1970s, eventually choosing a political trajectory in the 1980s.  He also explains how a political philosopher found his way into public service beginning in the early 1990s.

Our attention then turns to the workings of the USCIRF.  Dr. George details the historical origins of the commission, dating back to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act that did three things:  1) create an office in the US State Department to monitor and report upon violations of religious liberty around the world; 2) create an “ambassador at large”; and 3) appoint an independent and bipartisan commission (USCIRF) to monitor issues abroad and make recommendations to guide foreign policy.  It is here that Robby notes that a handful of nations — including Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea — are given the status of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) and explains what that designation means.  We also discuss how commissioners are appointed, whether there is political pressure to look askance at certain nations with strategic importance, and how easy it is to work with the State Department bureaucracy.

[NOTE: Due to audio distortion, we re-recorded a short segment of the interview roughly between the 21 and 24:30 minute mark.  A small 30 second segment with audio distortion still exists at the 25 minute mark.]

Prof. George lists a number of the most common threats to religious freedom around the globe, including extremist Islam, apostasy & blasphemy laws, anti-Semitism, and aggressive secularist regimes.  He notes that there are problems not only with laws that restrict rights of belief and practice, but also the neglect to enforce laws on the books when religious persecution does occur by independent thugs and mobs.  Another problem that has been on the rise includes the presence of non-state actors that are violating religious freedom, as well as non-functioning states.  Robby points out that roughly 75% of the world’s population lives under regimes that violate religious rights in a significant manner, and that the most persecuted group is Christians.  Nonetheless, he explains that since religious liberty is a universal human right the commission also works to defend the rights of non-Christian groups.

We then explore the nexus between Prof. George’s academic interests — namely his study of natural law — and his policy role.  To what extent are these two professional worlds distinct, or does his academic views have implications for his work with USCIRF.  Robby explains that natural law is a universal form of ethical knowledge and principles of conduct that can be grasped via human reason (apart from revelation) and is common across all human civilizations.  Dr. George emphasizes how important natural law is when discussing issues such as human rights across faith traditions as it provides us with a common language.  It is all the more important with new ethical challenges begin to face humankind — e.g., cloning.  Tony presses Robby as to whether the use of natural law can be viewed by other cultures as an imposition of a Western philosophy and he responds that there is not a rationally defensible foundation for cultural relativism.

Tony adds another critique into the mix by asking whether violations of religious liberty in the United States have any impact on how USCIRF performs its mission.  Robby responds that while the USCIRF is not officially tasked with examining religious freedom in the US, he personally — apart from his work on the commission — is concerned about a number of issues here at home.  Dr. George says that the best way to promote religious liberty abroad is to honor, respect, and protect it at home and set a good example for the rest of the world.  He makes the interesting observation that violations of religious freedom often come about when people view religion merely as “a hobby,” and not something as central to a human’s existence. Robby finishes with his thoughts on whether the USCIRF has been making a difference around the world with respect to rights of conscience.  Prof. George notes how the freeing of Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union was prompted by US foreign policy.  He remains cautiously optimistic yet realistic.

And last, but not least, to provide a lighter note on what is otherwise a rather heavy topic, we ask Robby if he could showcase one of his other talents, which is his skill on the banjo.  He gratefully agrees, and with the help of his band, Blue Heart, he regales us with the English folk tune “Wedding Dress.”  This is a delightful treat from a true renaissance scholar.  Recorded: July 16, 2014.



Prof. Robert George’s bio at Princeton University and at CIRF.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

USCIRF Annual Report on Religious Liberty around the Globe (2014).

Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, by Robert P. George.

In Defense of Natural Law, by Robert P. George.

Natural Law and Public Reason, by Robert P. George and Christopher Wolfe.

The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, by Robert P. George.

Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, edited by Robert P. George.

The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen.

What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman, A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis (mentioned in podcast).


Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Liberty.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty.

Will Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy.

Religious Liberty & Political Flourishing: A Panel Discussion.

Religious Liberty & Economic Prosperity: A Panel Discussion.

Roger Finke on Religious Persecution.

Russ Roberts & Anthony Gill on Religion and Religious Liberty.

Ani Sarkissian on Religious Liberty in the Post-Soviet World.

Jonathan Fox on Religion & State around the World.

Anthony Gill on the Political Origins of Religious Liberty.

Micah Watson on C.S. Lewis.

Ryan Habig on Music Ministry (the only other episode, to date, with a musical interlude).

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