On June 2, as protests over the death of George Floyd raged across the United States, President Donald Trump elevated the stature of religious freedom within the State Department.
“Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority,” read the executive order (EO) he signed, “and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.”
It received almost no media attention.
The provisions—long called for by many advocates of international religious freedom (IRF)—could overhaul a US foreign policy that has historically sidelined support for America’s “first freedom.”
That is, if the order survives a potential Joe Biden administration.
It is common for a new president to reverse EOs issued by their predecessor. In his eight years in office, President Obama issued 30 to amend or rescind Bush-era policies. In his first year in office, Trump issued 17 directed at Obama-era policies.
While IRF has typically enjoyed bipartisan support, current political polarization leaves few sacred cows.
Trump signed the EO after a visit to the Pope John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC. It was previously scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Polish-born pope’s 1979 return to his home nation, which set off a political and spiritual revolution that defied the Soviet Union and eventually ended the Cold War.
However, Washington’s Catholic archbishop called it “baffling and reprehensible” the facility would allow itself to be manipulated one day after Trump lifted a Bible in front of St. John’s Anglican Church across from the White House in the wake of the aggressive dispersal of protesters opposing police brutality and racial injustice.
The president’s gesture risked corroborating critics who argue that Trump’s religious freedom policies are a nod only to evangelical Christians concerned for fellow believers.
“President Trump’s executive order will make the commitment to international religious freedom more robust,” said former congressman Frank Wolf, arguing the Trump administration has been markedly stronger on the issue than those of either party.
“If you care about religious freedom, this is an issue to vote on.”
Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who retired from the House in 2015 after 34 years of service, was a forceful advocate for the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The bill, passed 98–0 by the Senate, provided for an ambassador-at-large position, responsible for producing an annual State Department Report on International Religious Freedom, and designating violators as “Countries of Particular Concern.”
It also created the independent and bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), to advise on foreign policy.
A third provision, for a special advisor on IRF to serve at the National Security Council, went unheeded until February this past year, when Trump appointed Sarah Makin to the position.
A 2016 amendment to IRFA, named in honor of Wolf, re-clarified that the ambassador-at-large must report directly to the secretary of state. Some did not respect this arrangement, following presidential delays even to fill the position. George W. Bush presented his candidate 16 months after assuming office; Barack Obama waited 28 months.
By contrast, Trump nominated current ambassador Sam Brownback, previously the Republican governor of Kansas, only six months into his term.
“The US government has slow-walked international religious freedom,” said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
“It is a difficult and sensitive issue, raises tensions with other countries, and tends to get siloed within the State Department.”
Wolf stated that under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the department resisted declaring Nigeria’s Boko Haram a terrorist organization. It viewed this issue through an economic lens only.
Trump’s EO authorizes a minimum of $50 million for programs to advance IRF through the prevention of attacks on religious minority communities as well as the preservation of pluralistic cultural heritage.
It also stipulates there must be no discrimination against faith-based entities in funding awarded through the State Department’s US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Vice President Mike Pence’s 2017 pledge to directly assist beleaguered Christian communities in Iraq serves as a case-in-point why Trump’s EO will be helpful. Eight months later, no funds had been distributed.
“Many State Department officials have a religion deficit in knowing how to engage,” said Chris Seiple, the newly appointed senior advisor for the Center for Faith Opportunities and Initiatives at USAID.
“They don’t have the skill set, and fear it could risk their career if they violate the religious establishment clause [of the First Amendment], so they back off.”
USAID likes to give big grants to large organizations with a proven track record, Seiple said, but this runs against current wisdom in development circles, which emphasizes local actors. And around the world, these are often people of faith.
Seiple, also president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, said better development comes when communities work together across religious divides in a respectful, robust pluralism.
A new analysis of a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, released this month, found a 15-point increase in the favorability rating by Hindus toward Muslims in India, from 56 percent to 71 percent, if they reported frequent interaction together.
In the Philippines, Christian favorability towards Muslims increased from 50 percent to 61 percent. And in Lebanon, already favorable Sunni Muslim attitudes towards Christians improved from 81 percent to 87 percent.
“Harness self-interest,” said Seiple. “If there is a serious religious divide and yet officials bring peace and development, they will get a good job evaluation.”
Wolf wants to see this same attitude at the State Department. For years, he said, he pushed for greater IRF training and the creation of a career track.
Trump’s EO now makes it mandatory—and assigns a deadline.
Within 90 days of the order, all heads of agencies assigning overseas personnel must detail their plans to ensure IRF training is conducted before departure, as well as in three-year cycles.
The 2016 IRFA amendment already required such training of foreign service officers before they deployed overseas; President Trump’s EO expanded the training to the Department’s civil service employees involved with foreign affairs. According to the State Department, more than 10,000 of its employees have completed IRF training.
By contrast, an Obama administration fact sheet on its efforts to promote and protect IRF stated it “dramatically increased” such training to reach 330 diplomats and embassy staff.
“This executive order could massively expand the number of people taking training on international religious freedom,” said Judd Birdsall, director of the religion program at Cambridge University’s Centre for Geopolitics.