How Religion Made a Global Comeback in 2017

Nationalism, often expressed in religious terms, is a key organizing principle in President Trump’s foreign policy.

Faith leaders place their hands on the shoulders of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Faith leaders place their hands on the shoulders of U.S. President Donald Trump. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

One of the great paradoxes of Donald Trump is that, for a president who is among the least overtly pious in recent memory, he often presents the world through a religious lens. It's in his towering rhetoric about the looming “beachhead of intolerance” in the U.S., terrorists who “do not worship God, they worship death,” and America as “a nation of true believers.” It was evident in Trump’s first international trip as president, a spin through Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Rome framed explicitly as a world tour of Abrahamic religions. Religion has been at the center of Vice President Pence’s portfolio, with visits to the evangelist Franklin Graham’s summit on international religious freedom and the annual meeting of Christians United for Israel. And religious groups were instrumental in one of the year’s biggest foreign-policy moves: Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the American embassy there.

Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests that nationalism is the dominant organizing principle in his understanding of global affairs—and it’s often washed in religious identity. This is a significant break from the Obama administration, which tended to view other factors as more significant drivers of foreign policy. But it’s still not clear what kind of strategy and tangible policies will result from Trump’s worldview, and even the religious groups he intends to benefit may end up worse off as a result.

Behind the scenes, the mechanisms of religion and diplomacy have been muddy. The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, established under Secretary of State John Kerry to work with international religious groups, has effectively been shut down. The president has spoken passionately about persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but it remains to be seen what kind of expanded aid or systematic visa help these groups will get. And the administration has bolstered its relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom continues to label a “country of particular concern” for “[prosecuting] and [imprisoning] individuals for dissent, apostasy, and blasphemy.”

“If there’s one thing that has characterized the foreign policy of this administration, it has been internal tensions and contradictions and U-turns and surprises,” said Elizabeth Prodromou, a visiting associate professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

The strongest evidence of Trump’s focus on religion is his language. “There are certainly … shades of political discourse around this administration that have caused some people to remember Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 article and subsequent book on ‘The Clash of Civilizations,’” said Peter Mandaville, a professor at George Mason University who served on Hillary Clinton’s policy-planning staff when she was secretary of state. Over and over, the president comes back to religion to explain big events and America’s role in the world. These speeches tend to have dark, dramatic overtones: Terrorism is “a battle between good and evil,” the country’s enemies “drown people in steel cages,” Islam “hates us.” His administration sees religion as “a more significant contributing factor to violent extremism than, say, structural causes such as politics, economics, corruption, or localized conflict,” said Mandaville, “which tended to be the emphasis of the Obama administration.”

The Trump administration has also given significant airtime to global religion issues. The president frequently gives interviews to Christian media outlets, for whom the plight of Christians in the Middle East is a central point of concern. Religion has occasionally created tense diplomatic moments: When Trump met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this spring, he pressed for the release of a North Carolina pastor named Andrew Brunson, who has been imprisoned there for a year. And Vice President Pence announced earlier this year that “protecting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration” on one of his regular stops at Christian-sponsored conferences.

“There has been a treatment of religious freedom in this administration as an indivisible, universal, and interdependent human right,” said Kristina Arriaga, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and former executive director of Becket, a D.C. law firm that advocates for religious freedom. “That was not present in the Obama administration. So I think it’s refreshing for the international community, and for those of us who advocate for [this issue], to see that religious freedom is being restored to its proper place.”

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.

This is the fundamental tension in Trump’s foreign policy, religion-focused or otherwise: Strong rhetoric hasn’t necessarily been matched with the resources, staffing or structure to support major initiatives. Even on the topic of Christians in the Middle East, which evangelicals and Republican legislators care about passionately, the policy strategy is not yet clear. “Rhetorically, he’s throwing them sweet morsels in some of his speeches, but if you’re a persecuted Christian family in Nineveh, you can’t eat that rhetoric,” said Casey. “It’s not going to build you a home, and it’s not going to protect you from bad neighbors you think you’re surrounded by. … In terms of actual delivery on the promise, it’s more confusing now than ever.”

In some cases, Trump’s rhetoric may actively work against America’s diplomatic objectives. His civilizational framework, which describes the world as a clear battle between good and evil, can backfire in places where moderate groups are struggling to make a case against extremist ideology: It “empowers and gives traction to religious communities and leaders … that reject the notion of pluralism,” said Prodromou, and “weakens any individuals or groups who are committed to inclusion.” This may turn out to be true of specific policies, like Trump’s travel ban, which was widely seen as targeting Muslim immigrants and refugees.

It’s a fitting record for Trump: lots of words, less action, and even less clarity about the strategy at work. “There’s definitely a perception that religion is playing a far greater role … in the foreign policy of this administration than in previous ones, since the end of the Cold War,” Prodromou said. But “it’s too soon to understand the difference between perception and reality.”