Elephants in the Room

Can Trump’s Religious Freedom Ambassador Actually Succeed?

Five recommendations for Sam Brownback.

<> on October 21, 2009 in Washington, DC.
<> on October 21, 2009 in Washington, DC.

If confirmed by the Senate to serve as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will face a daunting trifecta of challenges: Recent data from Pew Research Center reveals that religious persecution is on the rise, America’s image is in decline, and global majorities view President Donald Trump as “arrogant,” “dangerous,” and “intolerant.”

When it comes to religious tolerance, a skeptical world doesn’t believe America practices what it preaches.

Unsurprisingly, at the release of the State Department’s annual report on religion freedom last week, journalists peppered a senior State Department official with questions about how high-minded rhetoric on the importance of religious freedom abroad squares with Trump’s promise to prioritize Christian refugees, his efforts to enact a so-called “Muslim ban,” silence in response to increased attacks against American Muslims, conflicting views on Russia, and enhanced security cooperation with religiously repressive Saudi Arabia.

And yet, despite the president’s many blunders on religion-related issues, there are signs of a more conventional and constructive focus on religious freedom at the State Department. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared at the religious freedom report rollout and gave solid remarks, offering solidarity with a wide range of persecuted groups — notably including Turkish Alevis, Chinese Uighurs, Pakistani Ahmadiyya, Saudi Shia, and other minority Muslim communities. The administration has retained Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in the Middle East and South/Central Asia. And most significantly, the administration has nominated a highly qualified, highly respected religious freedom ambassador.

During his many years in Congress, in the House and then Senate, Brownback was a well-known champion of religious freedom and myriad humanitarian causes. His nomination has been praised by a wide spectrum of religious leaders and religious freedom advocates — including some who have been intensely critical of Trump.

The Trump administration is also to be commended for the relative speed of the Brownback nomination. Whereas President George W. Bush took eight months to nominate his religious freedom envoy and Barack Obama took 17, Trump’s selection took just six months.

But many things Trump has said and done in the early months of his young presidency will complicate Brownback’s already difficult job. If the religious freedom report press conference was any indication, he is likely to be dogged by questions about the administration’s credibility on religious freedom issues.

Here, I put forward five concrete recommendations for addressing specific challenges Brownback will face as Trump’s religious freedom ambassador.

1. Emphasize early and often that religious freedom is a universal principle, not identity politics. Everyone from atheists to Zoroastrians is entitled to the same protection to peacefully practice and promote their beliefs.

Thankfully, Brownback has a strong track record of upholding the universality of religious liberty, as does the State Department office he will lead. Brownback should forcefully resist any pressure to prioritize Christians or to give short shrift to other groups.

2. Especially reassure and defend vulnerable Muslims. Muslims are the primary victims of terrorism, they suffer severe repression in places like China and Myanmar, and they face far greater social hostility than socially conservative Christians in Europe and North America.

From candidate Trump’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to his insistence on using the unhelpful phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to his refusal to host the traditional White House iftar, this administration has severely strained America’s relationship with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

Brownback can help to repair some of the damage by meeting regularly with Muslim groups, speaking at their conferences, visiting their holy sites, calling out governments that mistreat their Muslim populations, condemning acts of terror targeting Muslims, and being forthright about America’s own struggle with Islamophobia.

3. Communicate the value of religious liberty in language that appeals across the ideological and theological spectrum. At home and abroad, the very term “religious freedom” is increasingly viewed as a partisan, sectarian rallying cry — as a front for a Christian nationalist agenda.

Brownback need not drop the phrase “religious freedom” entirely — it will be in his official title after all — but he can help to broaden the lingo of the movement he will serve. In Europe and in multilateral settings, the standard phrase is “freedom of religion or belief,” which more explicitly expands the concept and the cause to include people with nonreligious beliefs. Other terms like “belief rights,” “soul liberty,” and “freedom of conscience” get at more or less the same thing in less politicized ways.

Framing the issue around social inclusion, minority rights, and protection of sacred sites can also help to open productive conversations on the importance of respecting religious pluralism.

4. Champion democracy and the full range of human rights. Rarely does a government make isolated progress on one discreet human right, such as religious freedom. All rights are interconnected, mutually reinforcing elements of good governance. The rising tide of liberal democracy lifts the boats of all human rights.

Thus, the apparent lack of emphasis on democracy and human rights in “America First” foreign policy is worrisome for U.S. religious freedom diplomacy. Brownback will be more effective in advancing religious freedom if he is surrounded by a strong and collegial team of senior and mid-level officials advocating human rights and democracy. He can use his position to press the administration to fill and empower other vital human rights positions, most critically the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

5. Defend and collaborate with the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Just as religious freedom is only one of many human rights, it’s also just one of many issues at the intersection of faith and foreign affairs. That’s why in 2013, after several years of internal and external lobbying, the State Department created an office devoted to it.

Now, under the Trump administration, there are concerns that the office could be bureaucratically sidelined. If it is, the State Department would lose an important mechanism for analyzing and advising on global religiopolitical dynamics and for equipping the U.S. diplomatic corps to more effectively engage faith-based communities on a broad range of shared goals, from promoting peace to combating corruption.

Religious freedom is just one small part of American foreign policy, but given Brownback’s political prominence and religious freedom’s significance to Trump’s constituency, Brownback will likely become a major force in Trump’s diplomacy. His task will be to make American religious freedom advocacy credible again.

Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images

Judd Birdsall is the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies and a research associate at Clare College, Cambridge. He previously served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and policy planning staff from 2007 to 2011.