By the end of Kerry’s tenure, the two major religion offices—led by Saperstein and Shaun Casey, a seminary professor—had more than 50 staffers between them, Saperstein said. The International Religious Freedom office saw its budget double, he said, and he took part in regular meetings among senior staff and “the specials,” as he put it—envoys and ambassadors with a topical area of focus.
The 2016 legislation was not so much about overhauling the position, Saperstein said, as solidifying it. “What the people on the Hill … wanted was to somehow institutionalize it, so that it wouldn’t be lost in future administrations who might not have the same commitment or see the same need for this,” Saperstein said. “It wasn’t a functional change at all.” Farr, the Georgetown professor, sees the ambassador’s newly elevated role as an important symbol, as well. “While the new status will not convey a magic wand,” he wrote in an email, “it will signal to foreign governments, the global victims of persecution, and the American diplomatic corps that, for the first time, an American administration is treating the head of [international religious-freedom] policy as a senior diplomatic official.”
What stands to change most under the Trump administration is the State Department’s orientation toward one religion in particular: Islam. “One of the greatest threats today to religious freedom around the world for all groups is Islamic extremism,” said Shea. “It should be at the heart of our policy, and [we should be] looking at the national-security implications of this.” Pence echoed this in his Thursday speech.
Saperstein sees this single-minded focus on Islam and religious persecution as a major shift. “Preferencing religious persecution over ethnic persecution or racial persecution is a change in our policy that I don’t think represents our values or our interests,” he told me. He also sees potential danger in the rhetoric around Islamic extremism. “To the extent that you write off an entire religion like Islam and everyone connected with it,” he said, “it undercuts the ability to achieve the very goals that such rhetoric is hoping to achieve.” Lantos Swett also worried that a focus on global religious freedom might “run into a certain tension” with advocacy for LGBT rights around the world.
It’s not clear what will happen at State, especially when it comes to the faith-outreach office Kerry created. As with any plum diplomatic position—especially one that’s recently been elevated by Congress—there has been some jostling in Washington over who will get the ambassador role. Early rumors suggested Ken Starr, the former U.S. solicitor general who carried out the Monica Lewinsky investigation under President Bill Clinton, might be in the running. But several people who work on these issues told me they were concerned about how his confirmation process might go, due to his highly politicized and controversial career. The latest rumor, shared with me by roughly half a dozen policymakers, is that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will get the post. The White House did not respond to a request for confirmation.
Whoever gets the job, he or she will help determine whether the administration can actually carry out its big promises on religious freedom. And the timing is urgent: Shea said she’s heard from religious leaders in the Middle East who are running out of food and medicine for fleeing populations. “Right now, the infrastructure is not there to turn [Trump’s] principles into action,” she said. “By the time that gets settled … these Christian communities and Yazidis will disappear.”