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Daniel PhilpottJune 09, 2020
A Dec. 22, 2019, photo from a rally in Hong Kong to support the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group that has seen an estimated 1 million members detained in internment camps in China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)A Dec. 22, 2019, photo from a rally in Hong Kong to support the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group that has seen an estimated 1 million members detained in internment camps in China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

On June 2, President Trump signed the Executive Order Advancing International Religious Freedom, but few noticed amid everything else that happened that week. The day before the signing, law enforcement officers used rubber pellets and tear gas to forcefully remove peaceful protesters near the White House so that Mr. Trump could hold a Bible aloft in a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. This sparked two more days of controversy in which the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, brandished their own Bibles; the archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, denounced the managers of St. John Paul II National Shrine for allowing Mr. Trump to appear there; and thousands of citizens fanned a firestorm of tweets, denunciations and recriminations.

Has anyone read the executive order? Religious freedom advocates might well be frustrated that tear gas and controversy occluded a measure whose very purpose is to lift the cause of religious freedom out of the shadows. The second sentence of the order contains words that these advocates have been waiting for years to hear a president utter: “Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.”

Many have been waiting for years to hear a president say, “Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States."

Why are these words important? The answer lies in the previous sentence: “Religious freedom, America’s first freedom, is a moral and national security imperative.”

Why is religious freedom a moral imperative? While the pandemic has surged around the world and the United States agonizes over racism and police violence, several hundred Christians have been killed in Nigeria; China has escalated its brutal crackdown on churches and continues to hold a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps in Western China; and Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bahais and people of other religious traditions suffer “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion in 50 other countries, according to the widely respected Pew Research Center.

But is religious freedom also a national security imperative? This has been a hard sell for foreign policy makers in the past several administrations, which have subordinated religious freedom to fighting terrorism, securing alliances and expanding trade. Much recent research shows, though, that religious freedom mitigates terrorism and civil war, strengthens democracy, enhances economic development, fosters peace, enables reconciliation and advances opportunities for women. Religious repression has contributed to violence, terrorism and instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and other countries that have preoccupied U.S. foreign policy makers in the past two decades.

President Trump is an unlikely promoter of human rights. But the right message still merits support.

True, President Trump is an unlikely promoter of human rights. Beginning with his 2016 campaign, he has stoked animus against Muslims, immigrants, African nations and numerous other vulnerable groups of people, and he has trampled on many global norms. Still, if the message is crippled by the messenger, the message still merits support when it is the right one. The Trump administration, whose staff includes sincere and dedicated experts on the issue, has promoted global religious freedom through: an annual ministerial conference that has brought together hundreds of foreign policy officials, religious leaders and civil society leaders from around the world; the appointment of Sam Brownback as a committed and effective ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom; and, now, last week’s executive order.

The order helps to lift the U.S. government’s advocacy of religious freedom abroad into high-level foreign policy. It expands upon the work that Congress began in 1998 when it sought to ensconce the promotion of religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy through the International Religious Freedom Act, which established an office of religious freedom in the State Department, added an advisor on religious freedom to the National Security Council, and created the independent and nonpartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Since that time, annual reports have raised awareness and provided solid information about violations of religious freedom, helping to secure religious freedom’s place in global discourse about human rights. Some nations have freed religious dissidents from prisons. And several European states and the European Union have followed the lead of the United States and taken up global religious freedom in their foreign policies.

Yet it would be difficult to argue that these policies have made any country more religiously free, and the world as a whole may well be less religiously free than it was 20 years ago. Contributing to this lack of efficacy are the lukewarm commitments of presidents, who have allowed the policy of religious freedom to languish in a corner of the State Department, and of foreign policy makers who have failed to integrate the issue into their strategic thinking.

The Trump administration’s executive order aims to end this torpor, giving the cause more teeth by making religious organizations and communities partners to the government in promoting religious freedom, requiring our diplomatic missions in violator countries to develop plans of action for improving the situation on the ground, providing serious funding for programs that promote religious freedom, mandating the training in religious freedom for all civil service employees in the State Department and channeling foreign assistance toward promoting religious freedom.

The chief threat to these welcome changes would be a presidential administration that reverts to lukewarmness or even becomes hostile toward religion freedom as a priority. The executive order gives the secretary of state 180 days to develop an implementation plan—but that deadline could arrive in the middle of a presidential transition.

Should there be a Biden administration, let us hope that it would live up to the candidate’s promise of restoring national unity by taking up a cause as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed religious freedom as one of the four freedoms that defined the United States’ aims in the Second World War. After he died, his widow, Eleanor, secured religious freedom’s place in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let us hope that whoever wins the election in November will carry on this legacy, along with racial justice and protecting the health of our citizens, long after the tear gas over St. John’s Episcopal Church has wafted into the atmosphere.

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