The Trump Administration Convenes the ‘Super Bowl’ of Religious Freedom

The event has sent a strong message that the U.S. wants to spread democratic values—if only the president will cooperate.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

The Trump administration made an announcement Thursday that perfectly captured the direction—and foibles—of foreign policy in Washington. At the State Department’s first-ever “ministerial to advance religious freedom,” Vice President Pence revealed that the U.S. would impose “significant sanctions” on Turkey until Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been detained there for nearly two years, is released. President Trump followed up with a tweet, calling Brunson “a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being” and adding that “this innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

Yet, just last week, Trump was criticized by leaders across the political spectrum for, according to one account, “fist bumping” Turkish president Recep Erdogan—whose regime is responsible for imprisoning Brunson along with scores of journalists and civil-society leaders—and commenting that he “does things the right way.”

This ministerial, which is really just a fancy word for “big meeting,” could be interpreted as the unveiling of an element of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy strategy. For the last three days, delegations from around the world have gathered to hear victims of religious persecution share their stories. American officials have declared in no uncertain terms that they believe the United States should evangelize religious liberty around the world, and that democracy is built on a foundation of freedom in faith.

Out in the world, however, Trump has often undermined this message with mixed signals about his administration’s foreign-policy values. In his travels, the president has praised authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, while Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent Thursday criticizing the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and the detention of political prisoners in North Korea. Officials ranging from lowly diplomats to the head of the State Department seem to be pushing a new mode of foreign policy, with protection for religious rights at its center. Along the way, they seem to hope this will convince the world that America still wants to be a leader in promoting democracy.

The Trump administration has described religious freedom as the foundation of a democratically healthy world. Throughout the ministerial, officials asserted a direct, observable connection between a nation’s welfare and its attitude toward freedom of conscience. “We now have studies coming out that societies that protect this right have more economic growth, more diversity, and what some would refer to as a type of spiritual capital”—better schools, hospitals, and so on, said Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, at a press conference.

During his remarks, Pence argued that the U.S. has a responsibility to spread this democratic welfare around the world. The U.S. religious-freedom model is “worthy of imitation,” he said, quoting George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. “America has always, and will always, lead the world by our example.”

Officials also argued that promoting religious freedom supports American security. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., argued in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that religious liberty is “an overlooked weapon in our modern arsenal of democracy.” In her position, “I have seen over and over … how peace and security are threatened by the denial of religious freedom,” she said. Earlier in the day, Pompeo and Pence name-checked human-rights abuses in adversarial countries, including China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. Pence spoke passionately about rising anti-Semitism in Europe. And ISIS loomed large, with its “savagery unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages,” as Pence put it. The focus on ISIS is no coincidence—this, too, fits with the Trump administration’s stated strategy. As Brownback put it: “More religious freedom leads to less terrorism.” In the same breath as he vowed to ensure religious freedom around the world, Pence promised that America “will not rest or relent until ISIS is driven from the face of the earth.”

While the administration’s leadership may be sending a strong message of its values to the world, that message hasn’t necessarily penetrated the Oval Office. Over the last year and a half, President Trump has often seemed to veer away from the role of alliance-building and affirming democratic institutions. He has struck out against Western allies in North America and Europe and cozied up to authoritarian regimes—often the very ones that were criticized throughout the ministerial.

When Pompeo and Pence spoke, both leaders scrupulously listed abuses against a range of religious groups, including Muslim minorities. That message of inclusion was mirrored by those in attendance: At least one prominent American Muslim leader—Hamza Yusuf, the co-founder of Zaytuna College—was in the audience. At the end of the conference, the administration released a document called the “Potomac Declaration,” which asserts, among other things, that “citizenship … should not depend on religious identification or heritage.” But the president’s past rhetoric on Islam contrasts the careful rhetoric of the ministerial: When he was on the campaign trail, Trump observed that “I think Islam hates us.” One of the first moves Trump made in office was to propose an immigration ban on a handful of Muslim-majority countries, and he has made a number of other comments suggesting suspicion toward Muslims.

Some groups have cheered on Trump—and Pompeo, who convened this event—when they’ve criticized Islam in the past. But especially in recent years, many religious-freedom advocates in Washington have embraced a posture of “religious freedom for all.” Even some conservative groups that focus on Christian persecution have shifted their rhetoric. “This field is starting to understand that, of course, you advocate for those in your community, but the way to ensure your community’s long-term success is if everyone in society has religious freedom,” said Knox Thames, the State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia. “I’m encouraged to see this evolution.”

More than anything else, this ministerial was a nod to the power and influence of these religious-freedom advocacy groups in Trump’s Washington. Non-profits around the city have been abuzz about this event for weeks. These groups have been hosting side events all over town to get their organization’s particular name and cause into the State Department’s big, new conversation.

“It’s like the first-ever Super Bowl for religious freedom,” said Johnnie Moore, the de facto spokesman for Trump’s evangelical advisers and a newly appointed commissioner on USCIRF, the independent governmental body that monitors religious freedom around the world. Moore has spent a lot of time in the past several years traveling around the world as a sort of unofficial, freelance representative of Western values, meeting with leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi and the crown prince of Bahrain. In his view, the Trump administration’s focus on religious freedom is a big shift from the past.

“There was talk of religion in the State Department before, of course, but it seemed more cerebral and less of a priority,” Moore said. “I think a good comparison is to think about the energy around environmental issues in the previous administration. It seems like there is energy akin to that around religious freedom in this one.” While the documents released at the ministerial, including a “Potomac Plan of Action,” offer concrete steps countries should follow to protect religious minorities, the administration’s own commitment to this principle has been complicated in practice: Take, for example, the Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Detroit who were rounded up for deportation, despite the protests of advocates who said they would face persecution in Iraq.

Domestically, the issue of religious liberty has a lot of appeal, especially among Trump’s socially conservative, religious base. “There were three key things that I was very interested in concerning this administration,” said Jentezen Franklin, the pastor at Free Chapel church in Gainesville, Georgia. “Religious freedom would be one of those top three things.” Franklin was one of a number of Trump’s evangelical advisers, including Ralph Reed and Paula White, at the ministerial on Thursday. But he maintained that it’s an “absolutely false narrative” that this event is just a cynical appeal to conservative Christian voters. “The white pastors that are here would be in the minority,” he said. “If they’ll persecute one faith, they’ll persecute them all. … I don’t want to just tolerate other religions. I want to respect their right to religious freedom or no religion in their life.”

As representatives from various countries roamed the halls of the State Department on Thursday, everyone seemed optimistic. Pence and Pompeo announced a new program dedicated to rehabilitating the victims of persecution, along with new money for severely affected regions. The ministerial seemed to go so well that officials spontaneously decided within the last few days that they would host a second conference next year. U.S. officials seemed bullish on the possibility that their new, tougher posture on religious persecution can achieve results: On Brunson, Brownback said, “there [are] excellent prospects that he’s going to come home.”

There was no hint of the tension that seems to underlie all of American foreign policy these days: that in any given tweet, the president is liable to lash out against allies or enemies, possibly undermining the relationships that diplomats have been working to build. At least for a few days, safe in the State Department building, blocks away from the White House, the United States was restored to its self-conceived role as a shining city on a hill. “I bring greetings,” Pence said, “from a champion of religious freedom, at home and abroad.”