State Department Office Sees Last-Minute Surge of New Evangelical Appointees

Graduates of a Christian college swell the ranks of State’s global criminal justice office, shifting the focus from war crimes to religious persecution.

By Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. State Department building in Washington.
The U.S. State Department is seen in Washington on Nov. 29, 2010. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

In the final months of the Trump administration, the State Department office that handles genocide and mass atrocity prevention has hired a slew of candidates, some with sparse qualifications and some of whom attended the same university as the head of the office, officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter said. 

The hiring pattern in the Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ) drew the attention of lawmakers, including members and staff on the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee, who raised concerns over the qualifications of some candidates and questioned the hiring spree as the Trump administration winds down. One congressional aide familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the State Department hasn’t provided adequate answers to its inquiries. 

“State has been stonewalling on basic answers as to just how many people have been hired and on what authority for weeks,” the aide said. 

The hiring blitz began under Morse Tan, who was appointed ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice in December 2019. During the past year, Tan has nearly doubled the size of the small GCJ office, hiring at least nine staffers, some of them graduates of Wheaton College, the Illinois-based evangelical Christian university where Tan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The GCJ plays a substantial role in crafting U.S. policies on preventing and responding to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Notably, it plays a crucial role in determining how and when the United States concludes that campaigns of ethnic cleansing or genocide have taken place—an important policy signal that has drawn international attention and response to persecution against minority populations in Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

The broader hiring spree has had the effect of stacking an office that had traditionally focused on pursuing accountability for perpetrators of mass atrocities into a platform to defend religious minorities, with a particular focus on defense of Christians abroad.

Some State Department officials who privately raised concerns about the hiring spree said the promotion of such candidates is emblematic of a wider campaign by the Trump administration to reward loyalists and representatives of a critical political constituency—Christian conservatives—across the federal government, even in the final months of the administration. Some said it amounts to a form of eleventh-hour affirmative action program for candidates from evangelical universities, think tanks, and advocacy groups.

The sweeping hires will leave the Biden administration with a depleted stable of experts on mass atrocities, including war crimes and genocide, and international justice, hampering its efforts to rebuild a department that has traditionally sought to hold the world’s worst mass murderers accountable for their crimes. However, it appears likely that incoming President Joe Biden’s State Department will be able to replace them with its own picks, as most have not served long enough to obtain permanent contracts.

While some of the recent hires have extensive experience in diplomacy or religious freedom, several officials described other appointees as unqualified for their positions. 

“Tan displayed a marked preference, I would say a discriminatory preference, based on religion—namely, evangelical Christians—and nepotism,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He has shown a preference for people he knows, or his deputy knows, through religious connections and through connections to Wheaton College.”

“Some of these new hires are just not qualified or competent,” the official said. “They are not subject matter experts in global criminal justice issues or equities. They often come from a very zealous religious background and to the extent they have policy area expertise that is adjacent to it.”

After the hiring spree, the entire front office of GCJ is now composed of Wheaton graduates, officials said. 

This includes Tan; office director Al Gombis, who replaced Madeeha Ashraf, one of the department’s few Muslim American women of color; and Tan’s principal deputy, Rob Ramey. Tan has hired other Wheaton graduates, including Steve Gertz, an expert on Christianity in the Middle East, who also earned a Ph.D. in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University; and Randall Brandt, who served in the George W. Bush administration as a senior advisor to the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

While not all the new hires studied at Wheaton, most have participated in Christian activism. That includes William Wagner, the president of Salt & Light Global and an advisor to the Christian Legal Society, which is dedicated to “serving Jesus Christ through the practice and study of law, the defense of religious freedom and life, and the provision of legal aid to the needy”; Sharon Payt, the former head of 21Wilberforce, an advocacy organization that promotes “freedom of religion, belief, and conscience”; and Chadwick Gore, who describes himself as “devout Christian Navy vet” in his Twitter bio, which highlights a painting of Jesus Christ at the foot of Calvary alongside two sword-bearing angels.

The State Department declined to respond to a list of specific questions seeking confirmation on the number of new hires or whether Tan had shown favoritism to job candidates with a conservative Christian worldview. 

But it offered a general defense of Tan’s hiring practices. “The Office of Global Criminal Justice has hired staff based on their professional qualification,” a State Department spokesperson said in a written statement. “Throughout Ambassador Tan’s tenure, the Office has not violated any law or policy related to prohibited personnel practices, and the office has steadfastly pursued its legitimate mission.”

Religious freedom, particularly the protection of persecuted Christian groups, has been a top foreign-policy priority for the Trump administration and particularly Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s office drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers and former senior U.S. foreign aid officials after it meddled in foreign aid funding processes to divert money to Christian groups in Iraq, as ProPublica reported. 

But the shift in focus matters when it comes to atrocities. The Trump administration in 2018 determined that Myanmar was perpetrating a campaign of ethnic cleansing against its minority Rohingya Muslim population but stopped short of labeling the vicious campaign of violence against the vulnerable minority group a “genocide” after internal debates

Human rights groups and advocacy organizations have criticized the Trump administration for avoiding the label on Myanmar and have also pressured the administration to label China’s sweeping crackdown on its Uighur population a genocide. Trump administration officials, including those at GCJ, are in talks to do so before the president leaves office on Jan. 20, but no announcement has been made. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer