Religious-freedom advocates may have another reason to be pleased under Trump: As the focus on global religion has increased in Washington, so has their influence. In particular, the president’s evangelical advisers successfully pushed for a number of Trump’s significant foreign-policy moves, including the Jerusalem embassy move and a redirection of aid for Middle East Christians through USAID rather than the United Nations. Domestic politics may motivate these decisions just as much as foreign-policy strategy. “He’s trying to make good on policy promises he made during the campaign to evangelical Christians,” said Shaun Casey, the director of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and former head of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department.
Under Obama, conservative religious-freedom advocates bristled at what they saw as a reluctance to prioritize religious persecution around the world. Critics were outraged that the administration left the position of U.S. ambassador for global religious freedom unstaffed for long stretches, and they slammed Secretary of State John Kerry for dragging his feet on declaring that ISIS had led a genocide against Christians and other religious minorities. “We wasted an enormous amount of time, and a lot of people suffered for it,” said Arriaga, speaking on behalf of herself rather than USCIRF. “These are conflict situations, and the world is looking to the United States for leadership.”
And yet, the Obama administration did take steps to elevate the role of religion in its diplomacy. Before Kerry created the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, the State Department didn’t have a body dedicated to analyzing events and actors through the lens of religion; there was no systematized network of contacts with religious groups and NGOs.
“There was a default tendency to discount—if not ignore—culture and religion entirely because of the dominance of realpolitik as the default mindset of foreign-policy practitioners,” said Mandaville, who served in the office from 2015 to 2016. The office was partly intended as a corrective to a policymaking culture that saw religion solely as a problem to be dealt with in the context of terrorism. “We were, if anything, trying to make the point that [getting] transnational global sheikhs to tweet certain things is not going to solve the problem of violent extremism,” he said. “Thinking you can turn to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and they can put out awesome fatwas that will somehow shut down ISIS, is just a fundamental misreading … of the contemporary nature of religious authority.”
Now, much of that work has been dismantled—and in certain ways, reversed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that the office will be folded into another State Department office that monitors international religious freedom, which may effectively bring an end to Kerry’s distinctive mandate. “Look at the talent drain,” said Casey. “[Trump] has lost some people who are tremendously gifted in experience and knowledge about foreign policy writ large, but also in understanding religion in different parts of the world.” When it comes to policymaking, Trump seems to prefer a loose group of informal advisers to career bureaucrats; diplomats have described extremely low morale in anticipation of budget cuts and layoffs. Casey was skeptical that religious interest groups, including Trump’s Christian advisers, can replace a formal policy infrastructure. “It’s hard to see how this coterie of particular evangelical leaders yield any real foreign-policy progress,” he said.