Freedom of Religion – A Matter of Effective Balancing

U.S. Department of StateThis October, the State Department is scheduled to convene a three-day public-private partnership workshop, part of the new “Boldline Religious Freedom” initiative, aimed at protecting the rights of religious minorities.  In principle, promoting religious freedom is a laudable endeavor – but given the unparalleled level of resources and energies this Administration is devoting to this as a stand-alone pursuit, we have a couple of red flags to raise.

To be clear, neither the Council nor any of its member organizations holds animus against the protection and promotion of religious freedom.  Several of our member organizations themselves are faith-based in character, and organizationally we have applauded mention in the Department’s own annual human rights reports when the rights of LGBT individuals and communities to practice their religious faith have been violated.

But balance is important to effective diplomacy – and the question of balance is the first red flag to raise.  The only ministerial hosted to date by this Administration was devoted to religious freedom.  At its closure, Secretary Pompeo announced a follow-on series of regional events around the world aimed at advancing religious freedom.  The Department has created a religious freedom-dedicated International Visitor Leadership Program, and an International Religious Freedom Fund to put resources to the task.  The Department’s Assistant Secretary-designate for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor carries a singular focus on religious liberty.  Ambassador Brownback, the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, has carried a higher profile and more interventionist approach than his predecessors.  And Pompeo will host a second ministerial on religious freedom in 2019.

So, is the Department of State becoming a department of religious affairs?  We’ve yet to see a parallel focus by the Secretary on any other issue important to U.S. national interests – not Middle East peace, nor Syria’s burgeoning refugee crisis, nor promoting secure and stable governments, or encouraging democratic institutions and regional stability.  We’ve seen no embrace of human rights, and no strategy to counter Russia’s threat to American leadership and values – no focus on encouraging economic reforms that can both allow other countries to feed their people AND create conditions in which America’s trade and investment interests can thrive.

And we’ve seen no awareness by Secretary Pompeo that all of these issues are interconnected.  Pulling one thread to its end can only tighten the rest – and pursuing one stand-alone goal may well be counter-productive to wider success.

That leads to our second red flag.  Simply put, we worry that the Administration’s very understanding of religious freedom may be warped at its core, embracing the notion that religious faith can be used to sidestep a government’s compliance with core responsibilities of ensuring equal protection, justice and rights for all citizens.

Our concern, of course, is based on this Administration’s unprecedented championing of religious exception policies at home – policies that have infringed on fairness toward LGBT citizens, among others.  The baggage in this regard carried by Ambassador Brownback is clear; so is that of Vice President Pence.  And the influence of religious Christian conservatives with them is clear as well.

The damage that can be done by headline promotion of religious freedom policies in foreign countries that are struggling with their own understanding and practice of democracy is potentially immense.  That potential should be of concern to all Americans – particularly given the Administration’s conscious effort to strip away the democratic guard rails intended to protect equality in our own country.

We’d like to see the Secretary – or perhaps his nominee for Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights – explain publicly how the Department’s unprecedented championing of religious freedom fits into a broader policy framework in which these broader democratic rights and freedoms are understood and advanced.  And we’d like to see more attention to that broader framework.

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