Trump, Pence seek to elevate religious freedom as global priority
Published 10:02 AM EDT Sep 23, 2019
WASHINGTON – There’s a big exception to President Donald Trump’s tendency towards a go-it-alone strategy on foreign policy: religious freedom issues.
At the United Nations Monday, Trump will make a plea for broader global support to fight persecution based on people’s religious beliefs and to protect houses of worship from attack.
His call to action, which the White House describes as the president’s key event at the international gathering, comes after the United States has convened two conventions of foreign leaders to discuss religious freedom issues in the past two years.
Trump, in fact, may be the most visible and active on this issue of any president since Ronald Reagan, said William Inboden, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who worked on international religious freedom issues for the George W. Bush administration.
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What’s most notable, Inboden said, is how Trump’s approach has gone against some of his other foreign policy impulses.
“The Trump administration has, by and large, been pretty unilateralist,” he said. “But they’re taking a very multilateral approach on international religious freedom.”
The administration is praised by some for elevating the issue at time when, according to annual reports from the Pew Research Center, government restrictions on religion have increased markedly around the world.
“It is really important to have multilateral cooperation right now because there are so many serious crises of religious freedom violations,” said Emilie Kao, director for the Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.
But critics accuse the administration of putting a priority on some religious groups over others and turning a blind eye to abuses by some of the worst offenders, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
Critics also say the prime audience for Trump’s remarks Monday is not the leaders of other countries, but Trump’s political base.
“This is a play for the evangelical crowd in the United States,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “This is a play for the conservative movement here at home, which will surely be energized and galvanized by this even as it probably won’t register all that much with most Americans.”
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Trump has made religious freedom a signature issue of both his domestic and foreign policy.
Some of his domestic actions – such as proposal announced in August to give federal contractors more freedom to hire and fire workers – have been criticized by groups like the ACLU as “taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion.” Conservative groups like the Becket Fund have said the rule simply clarifies that religious groups can hire people who follow the group’s observances and practices.
Internationally, the administration’s emphasis on the issue is propelled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, international religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback and by Vice President Mike Pence who will be introducing Trump at Monday’s event. All three are conservative Christians for whom religious freedom is a personal passion.
When Pompeo hosted what the White House called the first ever religious freedom ministerial in 2018, many countries didn’t know what to expect, he acknowledged.
“I think some suspected there were ulterior motives that just don’t exist,” Pompeo told Christianity Today in advance of an even bigger gathering in July.
Since those events, partner governments have hosted regional conferences on the issue. The United Kingdom, Germany, Mongolia and Taiwan have created special religious freedom ambassadors, according to the administration. Poland led an effort to get the United Nations to establish a day for the international body to honor victims of religious persecution.
Inboden said some nations likely welcomed the chance to cooperate with the United States on an issue since “they’re not finding many others.”
“Other countries,” he said, “might be a little more cynical about this and wondering how genuine is the administration’s commitment and, also, how much can they really work with the administration without risk of reputational taint.”
But Inboden gives the administration credit for mobilizing other nations and bringing more global attention to the issue, even though he faults the president for not being tough enough on the issue with allies like Saudi Arabia or adversaries like North Korea, Russia and China.
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement in the Obama administration, is more critical. Bruen said other leaders may show up to the religious freedom events to try to garner favor on what is a top priority issue for this administration.
“But it is not being reflected in where those countries are spending their resources or their time,” he said.
He called Monday’s event, coming only months after the religious freedom ministerial Pompeo conducted in July, a questionable use of the national security apparatus “at a time when we’re grappling with really significant and serious issues and when there hasn’t been any demonstrable progress toward the stated goal of this.”
“This is yet another example of Trump putting the show before the substance,” Bruen said.
Trump’s event is taking place on the same day as a key United Nations summit on climate change, an issue on which Trump has rejected a multilateralist approach.
Asked Friday about criticism that the administration intentionally scheduled the religious freedom event to conflict with the climate summit, a senior administration official noted to reporters that the secretary general of the United Nations is attending Trump’s event.