Last month in Washington, advocates for religious freedom witnessed two high-level, government-sponsored events designed to highlight and clarify the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting religious freedom in the United States and around the world. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened a State Department ministerial that included hundreds of stakeholders, including religious and civil society leaders, foreign ministers, and international organization representatives. Less than a week later, the Justice Department hosted a Religious Liberty Summit, at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force that will streamline and enforce the DOJ’s handling of religious freedom cases, claims, and policies.
The ministerial featured a keynote address from Vice President Mike Pence, and top billing was also given to survivors of religious persecution and violence, whose personal stories across religious traditions testified to the urgency of the task at hand. The next week’s religious liberty event at the Department of Justice had a tone that was more deliberately messaged to conservative evangelicals’ concerns. In his speech, Attorney General Sessions touted President Trump’s support of people of faith: “He declared we would say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He referenced the baker at the center of a recent Supreme Court case who declined to serve a same-sex couple for their wedding, and he noted DOJ’s amicus brief on the baker’s behalf: “We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips.”
Perhaps predictably, religious conservatives eagerly welcomed this flurry of government activity, while progressives, including many progressive people of faith, greeted the events with skepticism. The politicization of religious freedom debates accelerated swiftly during the Obama years. Administration officials carried out the work diligently, but few Democratic politicians championed the cause. The current administration and numerous Republican politicians are speaking out in favor of the government’s religious freedom advocacy, but the bipartisan consensus that long undergirded domestic, and especially international, religious freedom policy seems to be coming apart.
A fundamental question involves how the government’s treatment of international religious freedom differs from past administrations. A particularly contentious debate surrounds the question of whether the Trump administration is only advancing the religious liberty of the Christian Right. Are they privileging their white evangelical base, while paying only lip service to other faiths and commitments? Any attempt to answer these questions requires an overview of how international religious freedom advocacy has evolved over the past 20 years.
In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, laying out a bipartisan mandate and structure for American advocacy of this cornerstone of human liberty. The law established the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). USCIRF is a bipartisan commission whose members are appointed by the president and the leaders in Congress. The nine commissioners serve staggered terms and elect their own chair. The ambassador for religious freedom serves as an ex-officio member of the commission, and USCIRF has a professional staff of about 15. A significant part of USCIRF’s advisory role to the government is the production of an annual report that monitors instances of religious persecution and discrimination around the world.
During the commission’s early years, political and humanitarian trends at home and abroad brought international religious freedom (IRF) concerns into public view. Religion regained salience as a consequential issue in American diplomacy and international relations as the United States confronted violent extremism at home and abroad.
Even so, there has been criticism from some scholars, who contend that promoting international religious freedom is much more complex, contested, and culturally dependent than how it is often presented in policy circles. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan of Indiana University are the foremost exponents of this view. They argue that if advocates do not fully understand the various reasons why religious persecution exists across cultures, their zealous promotion of a single ideal of religious freedom can actually exacerbate the very problems its promotion is supposed to solve. Those critiques, combined with more recent domestic clashes between religious freedom and the expansion of LGBT civil rights, have raised questions about the purpose, efficacy, and impartiality of the government advocating for religious freedom. More broadly, liberals and conservatives have different conceptions of what religious freedom means and what it demands in the spheres of policy, advocacy, and diplomacy. Social conservatives have invoked religious liberty as a safeguard against being compelled to accept LGBT rights. Liberals contend that the promotion of religious liberty is primarily a license to discriminate for conservatives.
The 1998 bipartisan consensus that gave us a blueprint for religious freedom promotion, in short, no longer exists. Religious freedom exists on two different political tracks, one domestic and one international. Today, Republicans claim to be champions of religious freedom, yet Democrats rightly charge that Trump and other GOP leaders’ attitudes toward Islam undermine that claim. Democrats, who are less enthusiastic about the entire concept of promoting religious freedom, struggle to accept social conservatives’ conscience claims on LGBT issues in the United States, and thus view the IRF project with some skepticism.
Beset by growing pains and occasional conflicts in the decade after it was established, USCIRF distinguished itself in Barack Obama’s second term. Appointees from both parties had considerable expertise in IRF issues. Though members as different as conservative Princeton professor Robert P. George and progressive Jesuit priest Thomas Reese surely had wide disagreements on domestic politics, the commissioners worked well together and, significantly, articulated a unified vision of what religious freedom is and why it is important. Commissioners traveled together to conflict zones and assured victims of persecution and religious minorities that the United States would advocate for them. GOP-appointed commissioners consistently praised Obama’s IRF Ambassador David Saperstein. Democratic commissioners cheered the leadership of Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, the fiercest IRF advocate in Congress until he left office in 2015.
Under President Trump, USCIRF got off to a rocky start. Several USCIRF vacancies went unfilled until a spate of appointments in May. For a time, USCIRF lacked enough commissioners to have a quorum. The office also didn’t have an ambassador for nearly a year. President Trump had nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator, as IRF ambassador, but Brownback was a controversial choice for Democrats because of his past comments on Islam and his socially conservative stance on LGBT issues. His confirmation stalled, and he was re-nominated in January. The Senate vote was 49-49, with Vice President Pence breaking the tie to assure Brownback’s confirmation.
Ambassador Brownback was actively engaged in IRF issues during his time as a congressman and a senator. But Trump’s rhetoric on Islam and policies as president create problematic associations for Brownback, who of course owes his diplomatic post to Trump. Brownback has not disavowed the administration’s travel ban, for instance, which targets Muslim-majority countries. As religious freedom ambassador, he also has not denied reports that he intervened with a British ambassador on behalf of a prominent anti-Muslim activist who was recently jailed for disrupting a trial in the U.K.
So how else is the Trump Administration’s treatment of international religious freedom different from past administrations? The most obvious difference is an escalation in politicization. Perhaps this was inevitable—USCIRF commissioners and IRF ambassadors have always been political appointees—but the Trump era has eroded IRF advocacy’s bipartisan character. The USCIRF vacancies are now filled, but the process was more political than ever, with appointments going to Republican-aligned operatives and a Democratic senator’s spouse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Tony Perkins, the head of the socially conservative Family Research Council. The White House also appointed Gary Bauer, a longtime religious right operative, and Johnnie Moore, who came of age as an associate of Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University, and now works as a consultant who connects politicians, media, and business executives to evangelical insiders.
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi re-appointed Tenzin Dorjee to another term as USCIRF commissioner. Dorjee, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, was subsequently elected as chair for the upcoming year. The unanimous vote was an important bipartisan gesture and made Dorjee the first Tibetan Buddhist to chair the commission. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appointed Gayle Manchin, wife of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who faces a close re-election this year and has received overtures from Republicans to join their party. It was not obvious that Gayle Manchin had any prior experience in IRF issues, but she recently co-authored an op-ed with USCIRF colleague Johnnie Moore condemning the “weaponization” of religion in Pakistani politics.
Thus, USCIRF is fully staffed and operational after more than a year. That the State Department was able to stage a major ministerial —its first ever focused on religious freedom—just three months after a new secretary was confirmed is a testament to how effectively the government’s IRF apparatus can work together toward a common goal. The event also coincided with the unveiling of a new document, the Potomac Declaration, a statement affirming freedom of religion or belief to be a top advocacy and diplomatic priority.
And yet, American experts and advocates’ acceptance of religious freedom efforts are still colored by fault lines in American politics. Progressive-leaning advocates tend to be very critical of Trump’s hostility toward Islam, and conservative-leaning advocates are generally timid in criticizing Trump because they appreciate his actions on religious freedom both domestically and internationally. But they wonder how progressives will join them in advocating for religious freedom around the world if they cannot even abide the conscience claims of, for instance, socially conservative wedding vendors here at home.
Jennifer Bryson, a political scientist who works for the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, told me it is problematic that “new critics” of religious freedom do not offer much of an alternative. “They criticize ‘religious freedom’ without offering a practical framework of how to live with our deepest differences.” I recall hearing Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as IRF ambassador in the last years of Obama’s presidency, say on multiple occasions that he wishes every country’s greatest religious freedom problem was whether a baker had to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. Viewed alongside incidences of religious persecution and violence, Americans’ debates seem less important than the fact that millions of people around the world today cannot practice their faith openly.
For now, the two-track religious freedom focus will continue in the United States. In law and domestic politics, religious liberty will be a political rallying cry for Republicans, even as Democrats view it skeptically. Democrats will, in turn, scrutinize conservatives’ claims and demand consistency. As for the government’s IRF advocacy, it seems likely that the project will continue with conditional bipartisan support. And yet, there’s no doubt that for the foreseeable future, politics and controversy will accompany the United States’ push for religious freedom.
Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political consultant in Baltimore.