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First freedom agendas

Will a Biden team build on Trump’s overseas religious freedom policies?


President Donald Trump listens to ambassador- at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback (standing right center) as he meets with survivors of religious persecution in the Oval Office of the White House in July 2019. Alex Brandon/AP

First freedom agendas
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With weeks to go before the U.S. ­presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Rome to attend a symposium on religious freedom. The secretary planned to meet with top Vatican officials, and he requested an audience with Pope Francis.

As the September event drew near, Pompeo published in the religious journal First Things an article arguing the Vatican risked losing its “moral witness and authority” over its pending renewal of a provisional agreement with China’s Communist Party leadership.

The Communist Party has cracked down on religious believers, including by closing more than 100 Catholic places of worship, and Pompeo wanted the Catholic Church to take a stand. “The Holy See has a unique capacity and duty to focus the world’s attention on human rights violations, especially those perpetrated by totalitarian regimes like Beijing’s,” he wrote.

Pompeo’s full-court diplomatic press continued in Rome. In his keynote speech at the symposium attended by Vatican figures and British and American officials, Pompeo highlighted China’s threats to Catholic and Protestant Christians, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and others. He challenged Catholic leaders to be “a Church permanently in defense of basic human rights, a Church permanently in opposition to tyrannical regimes.”

High-level confrontation between a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and Rome’s Catholic hierarchy isn’t business as usual in traditional U.S. diplomacy. The events in Rome underscore how the Trump administration went outside the diplomatic box, prioritizing religious freedom abroad. President Donald Trump himself in 2020 issued an executive order calling religious freedom “America’s first freedom” and making it a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy.

Vatican officials seemed caught off guard by Pompeo’s aggressive diplomacy. Nevertheless, Pope Francis declined to meet with Pompeo. Three weeks later the Vatican announced it would again renew its agreement with China for two years.

The Trump team’s unorthodox approach has cut both ways, say insiders. It represents a religious-liberty emphasis needed in secularized diplomatic circles, yet in the hands of a polarizing president, it sometimes backfired.

Now, as the Trump administration heads into its final weeks in office, longtime religious freedom advocates say they want to build on that emphasis while moving past the partisanship. They believe the record assembled under Trump is noteworthy. The question is, will President-elect Joe Biden continue that emphasis, or run from it?

It’s not an easy question. Already Biden has indicated one of his first actions in office will be to rescind the Mexico City policy, a rule Trump reinstated after the Obama years prohibiting U.S. foreign aid to groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals. The move will alienate many Christians and shift protections away from religious believers who oppose abortion in underdeveloped countries.

Biden also over the years has accumulated weighty critics for his bad foreign-policy instincts. He once argued for carving Iraq into sectarian states, and he opposed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in his 2014 memoir that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

On the other hand, the 78-year-old Biden brings more experience to the foreign-policy arena than nearly any president elected since perhaps George H.W. Bush. He joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Cold War, became its ranking minority member in 1997 and chairman from 2001 to 2003—years marked by 9/11 attacks, two wars begun by the United States, and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

Biden is the second Catholic elected president in American history, one whom friends and associates describe as a practicing adherent who carries a rosary in his pocket and attends Mass every Sunday. An Easter campaign video in 2020 depicted the former vice president praying with church leaders, and it quoted philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “Faith sees best in the dark.”

Democrats in their 2020 platform explicitly addressed the importance of advocating for religious freedom around the world, while Republicans did not. When Sen. Bernie Sanders holdovers tried to insert language condemning Israel, Biden stepped in personally to edit it out.

INTENT ON WRITING his own presidential chapter, Biden will have to contend with a formidable momentum on international religious freedom the Trump administration created.

The president relied on Vice President Mike Pence as a liaison with religious freedom advocates and a spokesman for their causes. Diplomacy driven by the State Department under Pompeo came with Pence’s endorsement. Following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, when the State Department bureaucracy failed to move forward with rebuilding plans for decimated Christian and Yazidi areas, Pence personally dispatched a team to Iraq and pressured USAID to distribute funds via faith-based groups.

The Trump team’s unorthodox approach has cut both ways, say insiders. It represents a religious-liberty emphasis needed in secularized diplomatic circles, yet in the hands of a polarizing president,it sometimes backfired.

The vice president and secretary of state have looked also to Sam Brownback, the former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas whom Trump named his ambassador-at-large running the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. IRF hatched the idea of hosting large-scale annual ministerial events aimed at advancing religious freedom globally.

The first, convened in 2018, was the highest-level gathering to date on the issue. Eighty nations sent official representatives. The three-day event at State Department headquarters in Washington brought together top government officials, the world’s top religious leaders, human rights advocates, and faith-based international aid groups. At an opening ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jewish survivors of Nazi camps joined recent victims of religious-driven oppression—among them, escaped Chinese house church leaders; Rohingya Muslims from Burma; and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who escaped ISIS captivity in 2014 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

“Nothing of that scope and scale had been attempted before, or even imagined,” said Knox Thames, then the State Department special adviser for religious minorities. Thames served two years at State under Obama before working for Brownback under Trump, where he steered the idea of hosting a ministerial. The event grew in 2019, with more than 100 nations attending. In 2020 the Polish government hosted the event in Warsaw (mostly virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions). Brazil will host the 2021 ministerial, suggesting the events will have a life beyond the Trump administration.

Out of the annual gatherings has grown an International Religious Freedom Alliance of senior government representatives, along with numerous roundtables in the United States and abroad to address similar issues.

During the Trump years, a Washington-based roundtable grew from 15 attendees to 75, then mushroomed to 150 after Brownback began showing up to the meetings.

“These are good things that can be carried forward,” said Thames. “The Trump administration led on them, and they approached them holistically, with religious freedom for everyone. We spoke about Christians when they were persecuted, Muslims when they were persecuted, Baha’is when they were persecuted.”

Thames, who resigned in September to become a visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said insiders didn’t know what kind of response to expect in launching the ministerial gatherings. But they elevated international religious freedom to an “unprecedented height,” he said, adding, “It’s safe to say the Trump team did more than any other administration has.”

Those successes allowed the United States to play a critical role helping once-pariah nations like Uzbekistan and Sudan improve their record on equal treatment for religious minorities. But there were setbacks, too.

Overseas on strategic policy areas, like China and Turkey, the Trump administration would leave the religious freedom quotient out of high-level discussions. Trump could be inconsistent, his bullying style undermining a campaign to improve treatment for minority religious groups. He mocked asylum-seekers, comparing them to UFC fighters with face tattoos at a 2019 event in Las Vegas. And he called the U.S. asylum program a “scam.”

Administration officials didn’t consult advisers like Brownback on refugee and asylum policy, Thames said. Slashing refugee admissions and targeting Muslims with travel bans made it difficult to promote religious freedom: Foreign leaders saw the United States talking about religious liberty and at the same time turning away those feeling persecution.

“There was a disconnect between this green light we’d been given to push hard and run fast on promoting religious freedom internationally, versus these very restrictive and problematic policies on refugees,” said Thames. “When I would travel, I’d be asked about it, everywhere. It was disappointing.”

“There is no daylight between commissioners appointed by Republicans and those appointed by Democrats—we have worked together as a unified team, and it’s an issue both parties can support under the Biden administration as well.”

The inconsistency is something advocates right and left told me they want to correct. “Religious freedom has unfortunately become understood in partisan terms in the U.S. political space,” said Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at Tufts University who served as vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “That’s to the detriment of our domestic politics and to the detriment of our capacity to accomplish the protection of religious freedom around the world.”

BIDEN, WHO DESCRIBED his campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation,” will be under pressure to continue a policy advocating for persecuted religious believers, even with pushback from his far-left contingent.

The question is how high a priority it will be and whether it will be integrated into national security and other concerns. Already Biden has pledged to raise the U.S. refugee resettlement cap next year to 125,000 refugees from its current 15,000—a move that appeals to an array of Christian and other religious groups. It’s a return to more traditional levels of refugee resettlement after four years of drastic Trump cuts, and higher than most years under Obama.

In similar ways, Biden’s early foreign-policy picks lean traditionally liberal as opposed to progressively liberal. Antony Blinken, his longtime adviser and secretary of state–designate, has advocated for use of force when called for. Some associates have described him as a hawk.

Blinken has reflected on Obama’s “failed” policy in Syria, and said President Trump should be “rightly applauded” for “striking back smartly” against the Assad regime in Syria after a deadly chemical weapons attack in 2017.

Thames, who worked with Blinken when he served as Obama’s deputy secretary of state, said religious freedom issues resonate with the 58-year-old career diplomat in a personal way. “He cares about persecution, about religious minorities, and was always an ally.”

Blinken at the announcement of his appointment in November paid tribute to his Holocaust-surviving parents. His stepfather, escaping a death march in Bavaria after four years in a concentration camp, met up with a tank and was greeted by an African American GI. “That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly,” he said.

Advocates next will follow Biden’s appointment to succeed Brownback, the international religious freedom ambassador. Though Biden and Brownback served together in the Senate, Brownback received no votes from Democrats during his 2017 confirmation and isn’t expected to stay on under Biden.

Top candidates to replace him include Rabbi David Saperstein, who held the post under Obama and earned respect from Republicans and Democrats. Others are Katrina Lantos Swett, the former chair of USCIRF and daughter of the late House Democrat and human rights advocate Tom Lantos; and Gayle Manchin, the current chair of USCIRF and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The Biden transition team also is considering Nury Turkel, a Uighur American lawyer currently serving as a USCIRF commissioner. As a child Turkel survived a reeducation camp in China. He arrived in the United States as a student in 1995 and gained asylum three years later. Nominated to serve on USCIRF by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last May, he’d represent hard experience on the ground but less experience in Washington bureaucracy, and could become the first Muslim to fill the post.

REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS, despite many recent divisions, have maintained bipartisanship on international religious freedom. Brownback at the 2019 ministerial invited Pelosi to a panel discussion on persecution in China with longtime freedom fighter Frank Wolf, a former House Republican, just as Pelosi prepared to take up the House impeachment inquiry.

Nadine Maenza, a Trump-appointed USCIRF commissioner, said, “There is no daylight between commissioners appointed by Republicans and those appointed by Democrats—we have worked together as a unified team, and it’s an issue both parties can support under the Biden administration as well.”

Both sides of the political divide are motivated by the reality that religious-led violence and persecution of believers is on the rise. The latest Pew report, released Nov. 10, shows government restrictions on religious freedom worldwide at their highest levels since 2007.

“This violence that we see around the world against religious minorities, whether within traditions or across traditions, really comes down to a rejection of religious pluralism and instead an abrasive will to dominate,” said Prodromou.

Where she sees most promise coming out of the Trump years, ironically, is in the Middle East, often seen as the seat of religious strife. The movement of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel is “an incremental move in the direction of accepting the reality of religious diversity and pluralism.” That’s a late-term development a Biden foreign policy team can build on.

—with reporting by Harvest Prude


Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.

@MindyBelz

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