Earlier this month I argued that the moral center and chief objective of American diplomacy should be the promotion of religious freedom. When a country protects religious liberty it must also, whether it intended to or not, recognize a host of other freedoms, such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech. Once these liberties are in place, it becomes more difficult for a country’s government to maintain a single, totalizing ideology.
President Reagan seemed to intuitively understand how increasing religious freedom can shape a nation’s ideology and relationship to the rest of the world. In his new book new book Reagan: The Life, historian H.W. Brands reveals a private conservation between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1988 Moscow summit in which the president encouraged the Soviet leader to embrace religious liberty:
Not long after the handshake at the start of the Moscow summit, Reagan raised what he called a sensitive topic. It was so sensitive, he said, that if word he had mentioned it leaked to the press, he would deny it. It had to do with religious freedom.
Saying he was speaking as a friend, he asked Gorbachev, “What if you ruled that religious freedom was part of the people’s rights, that people of any religion — whether Islam with its mosque, the Jewish faith, Protestants or the Ukrainian church — could go to the church of their choice?”
Religious freedom, besides being valuable on its merits, would make agreements with the United States much easier. If Gorbachev would guarantee religious tolerance, Reagan said, attitudes in America toward the Soviet Union would change dramatically. “You will be a hero, and much of the feeling against your country will disappear like water in hot sun.”
Reagan reiterated that he himself would never try to take credit for pushing Gorbachev to make the change. “If anyone in the room would say I had given such advice, I would say that person was lying.”
Read the rest to hear how the exchange ended. Gorbachev’s reaction is not surprising, and he likely didn’t take many steps toward implementing Reagan’s advice. But the exchange provides a model for how modern presidents should use their soft power to encourage other world leaders to recognize our God-given “first freedom.”