In late July, some 350 foreign ministers, religious leaders and activists gathered in Washington, D.C., for what conveners called the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. At a time when many fear the United States is retreating from its global role as a champion of human rights, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hosted the summit, described religious freedom as an “invaluable part of American diplomacy and the capacity to shape America’s vision in the world.”
The Trump administration has faced criticism for seeming to focus on the plight of Christians overseas while ignoring the persecution of other religious minorities. The three-day summit, however, was notable for its inclusiveness. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i and Yazidi delegations gathered at the State Department, where survivors of religious persecution described being tortured and arrested and losing family members because of their faith. Sam Brownback, the ambassador at large for religious freedom, noted in his opening remarks: “Religious freedom really, truly is for everyone. It’s a right given by God and it’s a beautiful part of our human dignity.”
His words echo the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that “religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” No. 2). This represented a monumental shift in the understanding of Catholic teaching, and today the church continues to play an active role in the protection not only of Christian minorities in places like the Middle East and China but of persecuted peoples of all faiths.
The Trump administration has faced criticism for seeming to focus on the plight of Christians overseas while ignoring the persecution of other religious minorities.
The United States, which marks the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act this year, has likewise upheld the promotion of this fundamental human right as a pillar of its foreign policy. In practice, however, the cause of religious freedom is routinely compromised by national security or economic concerns in U.S. foreign policy or by partisan calculations at home. Under the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry created the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, which expanded the department’s engagement with religious communities, noting in the pages of America that “we ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.” Domestically, however, the Obama administration’s blunt approach to enforcing policies like the health care mandate of the Affordable Care Act alienated many Catholics and other religious communities.
The track record of the Trump administration has been similarly mixed. The administration’s rollback of the contraceptive mandate provides welcome relief for religious employers, and the recent decision to sanction Turkey, a NATO ally that has detained an American pastor for nearly two years, may well herald an era of more muscular defense of religious freedom abroad.
The church continues to play an active role in the protection not only of Christian minorities in places like the Middle East and China but of persecuted peoples of all faiths.
President Trump, however, has repeatedly and egregiously disparaged Muslims in ways that contradict his own State Department’s purported dedication to neutrality in its promotion of religious protections. Few religious communities are more vulnerable than the Muslims, Christians and Yazidis facing displacement or extermination in Syria, yet just 11 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States in the first quarter of 2018 (compared with 790 in the first three months of 2016). Mr. Trump has capped the number of refugees from all countries at 45,000 for this year—a historic low—and is reported to be considering a limit of 25,000 for next year. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslim refugees have seen the steepest drop in resettlement in the United States in the past year.
The president’s attacks on the press also have implications for religious freedom. A. G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, told the president in a recent meeting that Mr. Trump’s characterization of the media as the enemy of the people “is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists.” There is a reason that freedom of religion and freedom of the press are placed together in the First Amendment: Both are protections of conscience, the surest bulwark against oppression and tyranny. Without a robust press to hold governments accountable, the likelihood is that other freedoms, including the freedom to practice one’s faith, will be at risk.