Religious Freedom in the Trump Era

By Benjamin Harbaugh

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[1] When James Madison penned these words over 200 years ago they were revolutionary. Certainly, other religious declarations had been propagated earlier, such as the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, or the Warsaw Confederation in 1573. However, none had language as broad and inclusive as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Religion has always been a foundational aspect of the American experiment, but the founding fathers also placed limits on the role of religion, protecting the United States against theocratic rule. The give and take between the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause has tended to favor the latter until recent decades. The Trump Administration has benefitted the American people by flipping this precedent in two domains: in U.S. foreign policy and by institutionalizing mechanisms favorable to religious freedom.

Dr. Chris Seiple, President Emeritus at the Institute for Global Engagement, said the following over a decade ago: “Academic and policy discussions of international issues generally ignore religion or, at most, treat it as part of some other problem to be solved.” He went on to say that, to be relevant on the international stage, “U.S. foreign policy must acknowledge the place religion occupies in global politics and engage in candid conversations that include both secular and religious voices.”[2]

Since Dr. Seiple wrote this article, many other analysts have come to the same conclusion. George Bettiza, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, spoke to this effect at an event hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs in the fall of 2019.[3] His talk highlighted the importance of understanding how faith impacts foreign policy around the world.

The Trump Administration understands religion to be an important pillar in its overall foreign policy approach. The current Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, is the highest profile individual to ever hold that position. Under his tenure, the office has twice held the largest religious freedom event of its kind in the world,[4] pushed back on state persecutors such as Iran and China,[5] and launched an unprecedented alliance of countries dedicated to moving the dial on international religious freedom.[6]

Ambassador Brownback is only one of multiple U.S. officials actively pushing for religious freedom around the world—Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence are also outspoken on the issue. The prioritization of religion in foreign policy serves America’s interests as it recognizes the reality that around 85% of the world is religious and that faith heavily influences state actions and convictions.[7]

The Trump Administration has also acted to institutionalize the importance of religious freedom. From executive orders[8] to updated federal guidance,[9] the current administration is reshaping government policy.

In this vein, Politico recently announced that the White House is appointing a member of Vice President Pence’s staff to a position on the National Security Council (NSC) focused on advancing international religious freedom.[10] This appointment is likely to have substantial impact on the topic given the high-profile influence exerted by the NSC in advising and assisting the President on national security and foreign policy.

This appointment to the NSC means that religious freedom will now have a dedicated role in the White House—a position that has not been filled since its creation under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act which  stipulates that a Special Advisor for International Religious Freedom should work to coordinate efforts within the executive branch.[11] The decision to finally staff the unfilled NSC position signals that this administration is using every tool at its disposal to institutionalize religious freedom.

The Trump Administration is serious about advancing international religious freedom. As religion has risen in importance both domestically and internationally, the U.S. has responded in important and necessary ways. The United States is perfectly positioned to protect religious freedom around the world—a fundamental human right and one deeply valued by our founding fathers.

Benjamin Harbaugh is a former intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] United States Constitution, First Amendment (1789).

[2] Chris Seiple, “What to Read on Religion and Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, (September 2009).

[3] Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, “Finding Faith in Foreign Policy?” (October 2019).

[4] The State Department, “2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” (July 2019).

[5] Carol Morello, “State Department condemns Iran, China for persecuting religious minorities,” The Washington Post, (June 2019).

[6] The State Department, “Declaration of Principles for the International Religious Freedom Alliance,” (February 2020).

[7] Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape,” (December 2012).

[8] U.S. President, “President Donald J. Trump Stands Up for Religious Freedom in The United States,” (May 2018).

[9] U.S. President, “President Donald J. Trump is Safeguarding the Right to Religious Freedom for Students and Organizations,” (January 2020).

[10] Nahal Toosi and Gabby Orr, “White House taps Pence aide for religious freedom role,” Politico, (February 2020).

[11] Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, Public Law 114–281, 105th Congress, (1998, rev. 2016).

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