Donald Trump skipped the UN meeting on climate change (which, to be fair, he wasn’t invited to attend, anyway [which, to be even more fair, would probably not have been a particularly useful conversation anyway given the Trump Administration’s disbelief in climate change]) in order to lead a different meeting focusing on religious freedom. As you can imagine, opinions about this move vary depending on where you sit politically. The conservative Wall Street Journal lauded the President, declaring that “he champions the issue [of religious freedom] at the UN more vigorously than any of his predecessors.” CNN’s coverage of the event was more circumspect, giving credit to the administration for adding prominence to this aspect of the human rights agenda while also reporting criticism of inconsistencies between promoting religious freedom abroad while damaging it at home.
Both perspectives are, essentially, true. Especially in the case of persecuted Christians, the Trump Administration’s religious freedom agenda has been vigorous and even effective. At the same time, this agenda has also been used in service of a conservative domestic agenda and a foreign policy that props up some of America’s most questionable allies abroad. To paraphrase Kang and Kodos, Trump and Pence are offering religious freedom for some, miniature American flags for others.
Religious freedom as a cornerstone of American identity (it gets the first two clauses of the First Amendment, after all) is one of the country’s strongest myths. Not myth in the sense of false, but in the sense of a story that is lionized to assert something about the country while glossing over details that defy that narrative. Fleeing religious persecution was one of a variety of reasons that early English settlers came to the original colonies. And many of these colonial governments, particularly the ones established by groups like the Puritans, were very passionate about their own religion but not at all tolerant of religious diversity. The same could be said for the Trump government.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence have brought new prominence to the cause of championing religious freedom. They aren’t the first to make such a move. The State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom and the position of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom were created at the end of the Clinton administration. I met one of the officials told hold this ambassadorship, Rabbi David Saperstein (the first non-Christian to hold the position), when he gave a talk at the College of the Holy Cross during his tenure under the Obama administration. He was a passionate man, serious about the mission of defending peoples of all faiths from abuse or punishment by their own governments. He was also sober about the challenges of standing up to sovereign states with different traditions concerning religious tolerance. During Saperstein’s tenure, religious freedom was one plank of a multi-faceted human rights agenda that has generally waxed and waned across administrations and over time. The Trump Administration, in contrast, has declared religious freedom its number one human rights priority.
Critics say that the new focus on religious freedom is a cynical ploy to appear to promote human rights in a way that is palatable to Trump’s right-wing, often xenophobic, white Christian base. The appointment of former Governor of Kansas Sam Brownback as the current Ambassador for Religious Freedom was opposed by those who took issue with the Kansas politician’s stances against abortion, LGBTQ rights and Islam (though he did oppose the initial “Muslim Ban”). Brownback’s nomination almost died in the Senate before VP Mike Pence voted to break a 49-49 tie (were two Senators busy that day?) and confirm the appointment.
Domestically, Pence and others on the Religious Right have used the religious freedom argument strategically to push back against liberal progress coming out of Congress and the courts, particularly in areas related to LGBTQ discrimination (“religious freedom,” in this context, including the freedom to not bake cakes for gay weddings and so forth). Supporters of the Administration can in turn argue that the international focus on religious freedom has rightfully addressed much more dire circumstances in countries where changing religions or belonging to an unsanctioned faith can lead to imprisonment or even death.
Critics further argue that the current White House’s defense of religious freedom abroad has been notably selective. The major individual victories have been aimed at securing the release of Christians, particularly in Muslim countries, such as defending Asia Bibi against blasphemy charges in Pakistan or gaining freedom for Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been detained in Turkey. The Trump Administration has defended non-Christians, but often with an apparent political agenda against rival nations, such as criticizing China’s horrific treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.
Meanwhile, the Trump government has turned a blind eye to religious persecution conducted by allies such as Saudi Arabia, which continues to execute people for belonging to the Shia instead of Sunni branch of Islam. The two sides of Trump’s religious freedom agenda can be seen in the administration’s approach to Egypt: Trump was scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (who is apparently Trump’s “favorite dictator,” a phrase that an American President should probably never say out loud, even if they’ve all thought it – I’m talking about you, every Cold War President we had) about persecution of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. At the same time, however, Trump and allies have supported al-Sisi’s government in banning the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists for political reasons (as leader of the Egyptian army, al-Sisi came to power in a coup against the previous president, Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected a year earlier as the Muslim Brotherhood candidate).
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Trump Administration’s championing of religious freedom is that it is blatantly hypocritical coming from an administration that sought to ban Muslims from entering the US (a motivation that was explicitly expressed before it was denied), and that deals in anti-Muslim and even anti-Semitic tropes. How can a government that is seen as inspiring Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, even violence against religious minorities, be in a position to criticize other nations for the way they treat their religious minorities? The question of whether Donald Trump is xenophobic or anti-Semitics per se (as opposed to being xenophobic and willing to pander to bigoted white nationalists for support) is a thorny one through which to wade. The administration’s policies, however, paint a picture of a religious freedom agenda that is inconsistent at best (with some major strong points and equally major omissions) and cravenly political, if not blatantly biased, at worst.
For people like Pastor Brunson and his loved ones, they are nothing but grateful that the US put its weight behind securing his release and even chide the previous Obama administration for not doing more to secure the American’s release. (Also, to Trump’s credit, he did not cede to Turkey’s demands to exchange Brunson for controversial Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a friend of NBA player Enes Kanter but political enemy of the current President of Turkey. And, as a side note, Trump has made a point of attempting to bring American’s home from foreign detention, intervening for everyone from Pastor Brunson to A$AP Rocky).
In the end, Trump’s religious freedom agenda has genuinely helped a number of individuals while reinforcing more systematic discrimination against others –defending religious rights for the right people (generally the Right people), if you will.