The Trump Administration’s Focus on Religious Freedom
In 2016, Martin R. Castro, who was appointed by Obama to chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote that religious freedom is often used as a “code word” for “discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia,” and “Christian supremacy.” Indeed, religious-freedom arguments were deployed by Hobby Lobby in its 2014 Supreme Court case to successfully argue against its obligation under the Affordable Care Act to offer contraception to employees. More than 100 statehouse bills across the country use religious freedom as the grounds for everything from campus free-speech policies to discrimination by private businesses against same-sex couples.
Under Trump, religious freedom has assumed what is arguably an unprecedented dominance in foreign affairs. Pence and Pompeo, both of whom speak often of their Christian faith, have used it to connect disparate parts of the administration’s policy, including post-ISIS reconstruction, criticism of Chinese mass surveillance and Iranian repression, and wrangling over Russian influence in Ukraine. Those who argue, as Brownback has, that “religion is upstream from politics and government” are usually seeking to give it a larger public role.
Religious freedom, Brownback told me, is not limited to Christianity. “I think we have a special obligation to stand for religious freedom for everybody, everywhere,” he said. “It was in our founding … It’s a backbone, fundamental issue for us. It’s something that we hold very dearly. But other countries—they don’t have the same attachment to it as we do.”
At the same time, he didn’t want the United States to be slow to come to the defense of Christians. “Some people,” he said, “don’t want us to stand up for Christians, because they don’t want to be too supportive of Christians. To which I respond, I think we need to stand up to religious freedom for everybody, everywhere. And that includes Christians.” And Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, and “religions people haven’t heard of,” as well, he added. The administration seems to be most vocal about a lack of religious freedom in those countries, such as China, Cuba, and Iran, that it opposes for strategic reasons. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has escaped the same level of harsh criticism, despite having been excluded from U.S. travel in 2005, and later, under Obama, by the office Brownback now leads. The 2005 denial, when Modi led Gujarat state, was for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” relating to what the State Department called “complicity” in riots that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Muslims.
Brownback told me that his role is “to shine a light” on religious persecution, but Trump’s willingness to let purely moral considerations drive policy appears to be limited. In Myanmar (also known as Burma), where government-abetted violence has killed more than 10,000 Rohingya Muslims and forced the expulsion of roughly 1 million more, Brownback’s outspoken criticism, as with Xinjiang, has run ahead of the administration’s broader response. Limited sanctions of Burmese officials have failed to slow violence on the ground. United Nations investigators have called for the violence to be investigated as a possible genocide. The United States, thus far, has not. In 2018, Brownback did speak up publicly about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over Brunson’s detention, saying at one point that the Turkish president was “not acting like much of an ally.” The issue soured U.S.-Turkey relations, and Trump continued to press on it until Erdoğan relented.