Q. You’re the youngest commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) by a generation. What are you bringing to the table as the youngest appointee?
A. First, let me begin with an important disclaimer: Since I am speaking in my private capacity and not speaking for the commission, this interview represents my own views and does not necessarily reflect the views of the commission.
Being the youngest member (by a long shot) on the commission will surely present its challenges. But I hope that I will bring a fresh perspective to some of our thinking. For one thing, I’ve grown up in a very different world from them, one defined more by 9/11 and the war on terror than the Cold War and the Kennedy assassination. I suppose that living after the successes of the civil rights movement gives me a different perspective as well. Indeed, in some ways our world seems more dominated by religious conflict than racial or ethnic conflict though that is not true in every case. Moreover, if one of the main tools of USCIRF is publicity, I hope that I will be able to help us connect to a younger generation. It’s not just a matter of being more at ease with social media and the like; it’s a different voice as well. And I hope that the presence of a younger person will pique the interest of members of my generation regarding the work of the commission.
What will your work on the USCIRF consist of, and what are some past instances where the commission had an impact?
USCIRF does lots of things, from issuing regular press releases about specific issues to issuing a widely-circulated annual report that covers religious freedom around the world. Our main task is to elevate the priority of religious freedom in American foreign policy. This entails making recommendations to the president, the State Department, and Congress and, in some respects, holding them accountable.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for critical rights like religious freedom to get lost in the shuffle amidst all the other objectives of our foreign policy. Sometimes we can advance our goals by dealing more directly with foreign governments and encouraging them to respect religious freedom. In a recent case, another commissioner and I, along with one of our staff members, met in Washington with the Saudi Minister of Justice. Among other things, we pressed him about two brothers who had been imprisoned—whereabouts unknown—for over two years without charges. While the Saudi government said otherwise, we believed this was a case of religious persecution. Just a few weeks later, we heard they had been released. Although this was an unusual victory, it speaks to the kind of diplomacy that we can exercise as representatives of the American government.
For a bigger-picture example, I would refer you to the section in our annual report on Vietnam. Though there has been some unfortunate backsliding due to our government’s laxity in ensuring accountability, USCIRF successfully helped to steer bilateral negotiations between the US and Vietnam to include commitments from the Vietnamese on improving religious freedom there.
Where have you focused your study of religious tolerance to this point in your Political Science career?
Both as a political theorist and as a politics junkie in general, I am very interested in topics at the intersection of politics, law, and religion. I also study political theology, which is related. Since my very early study of constitutional law, I have been interested in the First Amendment and Supreme Court jurisprudence on religious freedom. As my interests expanded and matured, I became interested in religious freedom more generally and especially in the political theory of religious freedom. I hope to teach a course at Villanova, where I work, on that topic before long. I have ideas for separate courses on this topic in political theory and in constitutional law, but I think that a course that combines elements of both could be very fruitful as well.
Dr. Robert George (Chair of the USCIRF) was your advisor on your Ph.D. dissertation. What did that work address?
I was very fortunate to write my dissertation in philosophy of law on the nature of legal obligation under my adviser and mentor, Professor Robby George. The main point of the dissertation was to show how the leading contemporary natural-law and positivist approaches to the concept of legal obligation were inadequate, with special criticism reserved for the latter, and to offer a corrective. I suggested a return to the abandoned concept of law as command while also insisting that the authority of law be viewed in terms of the justice of the legal system as a whole (defined as its orientation to the common good) rather than in terms of the justice of individual laws.
In short, I asked the question of whether there is an obligation to obey the law just because it is the law, and I answered yes—or at least probably. (I say “probably” because a more modest version of my claim would be not that there is certainly an obligation to obey the law but that, if there is one, this is how the concept must be understood.)
What are some strengths and weaknesses of the U.S., when it comes to religious tolerance?
First of all, let me be absolutely clear that the mandate of USCIRF is strictly international religious freedom. We do not work on religious freedom in the US in our capacity as commissioners. Nevertheless, as with this entire interview, I am free to share my own personal views so long as it is clear that they are just my own personal views. In short, we are tremendously blessed to live under the Constitution and the religious freedom it protects. The United States has one of the best, and probably the best, religious-freedom regimes in the world. To be sure, this is not just a function of our laws but also of our culture, and the two are mutually reinforcing, whether for better or for worse.
I have had my doubts about the Supreme Court’s interpretation of religious freedom in the post-war period for a while, but I am increasingly troubled by developments in recent years. I believe that the Supreme Court reached the right conclusion in the Hobby Lobby case, but this is just one small part of a wider assault on religious freedom that we have seen in many cases recently. If our laws and culture do not continue to provide for robust religious freedom, then one of our country’s greatest assets will have been turned into a liability.
Notice, by the way, that I use “religious freedom” whereas you asked about “religious tolerance.” From the earliest days of our republic, that distinction has been made. In a famous reply to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington insisted that tolerance is not the way that free and equal people relate to each other. If religious freedom is a right, then its exercise is not to be “tolerated” by others as though it has been granted by them or can be taken away. I can explain more, but better to quote him: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The U.S. believes in a separation between church and state. But many other countries do not. Why should those countries support religious freedom?
It’s true that many countries do not recognize separation of church and state in the American sense, but religious freedom is a fundamental human right to which all are entitled. Indeed, it’s not even necessary to adopt an American-style approach to church-state issues to fully respect religious freedom. As you know, several European countries have established churches (England perhaps being the most famous example, at least in America) while also fully respecting religious freedom. But, as I said, religious freedom is for everyone. To fail to respect religious freedom is to fail to respect people’s basic rights. If a regime is not interesting in respecting human rights, then perhaps there is not much we can say.
USCIRF does, however, maintain a list of countries, essentially in three tiers, that are particularly bad offenders with respect to religious freedom. The worst countries can be designated as a CPC, or “country of particular concern.” This designation is meant to be accompanied by US sanctions, which can get the attention of a regime even if it does not care about human rights in any meaningful sense because such actions appeal to the regime’s self-interest. The president does have the authority to issue a waiver in order to avoid imposing sanctions on a CPC, so countries often do not face the consequences of that designation, which is unfortunate.
More broadly, therefore, it is also our mission to appeal in a more positive way to these regimes by making the case that respect for religious freedom is correlated with stability and prosperity, a case which is supported by empirical research. Seeing this, oppressive regimes will, we hope, understand that it is in their interest to respect religious freedom—and not just to avoid sanctions by the American government.
You have reached a coveted level of academia, but what lessons did teaching high school in NY impart on you?
There is so much that I learned from teaching high school that I almost don’t know where to begin. Every day in the classroom is a new learning experience for me. One of the most vivid things I learned is that no matter how clearly you say something in class or how clearly you word a question on a test, someone will misunderstand it. This challenges me to always speak and write as clearly as possible. More importantly, it reminds me how important it is to elicit (or solicit) feedback from the students on a regular basis to gauge whether they really understand the material, and this means more than just repeating my own words or the words of the text back to me. That is just one small example about how much there is to learn from the students, directly or indirectly, about the art of teaching itself.
Every day is a new opportunity to work on being more patient, more charitable, more creative, and more thoughtful. And of course there is much to learn about the substance as well. This past semester, I taught one undergraduate course and one graduate course called Authority and Obligation, loosely based off of my dissertation. It was a topic that had been kicking around in my head for three years or so, so naturally I knew the material well. Nevertheless, I was excited for the opportunity to go through it step by step with the students and hear their perspective on the texts and on my own ideas. I knew that I would be challenged to think about this “old” material in new ways, and I was right. I’ve heard it said that you never really know whether you understand something until you have to teach it, and I think that is right. This is an example from my college teaching that is fresh in my mind, but it applies similarly to my time teaching history in a high school.
Finally, I’ve been blessed even in my short career to have wonderful students who have taught me much about things unrelated to our work in the classroom. Some of my former students are now my friends, and one is a particularly close friend whom I also refer to as my “tech guru.” So more than any particular things I learned teaching high school, I am most grateful for the people and the personal connections.
Dr. Daniel I. Mark
Professor Daniel I. Mark was appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on May 9, 2014 by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), who said, “Daniel is a young, inspiring teacher and a meticulous academic. He is an emerging thought-leader who has spoken extensively about religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad.” Dr. Mark is the youngest appointee to the commission by almost a generation. He is currently an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, where he teaches political theory, philosophy of law, American government, and politics and religion. He is also research scholar of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey and an assistant editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy. Dr. Mark holds a BA, MA, and PhD from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Before graduate school, he spent four years as a high school teacher.