INTENT ON WRITING his own presidential chapter, Biden will have to contend with a formidable momentum on international religious freedom the Trump administration created.
The president relied on Vice President Mike Pence as a liaison with religious freedom advocates and a spokesman for their causes. Diplomacy driven by the State Department under Pompeo came with Pence’s endorsement. Following the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, when the State Department bureaucracy failed to move forward with rebuilding plans for decimated Christian and Yazidi areas, Pence personally dispatched a team to Iraq and pressured USAID to distribute funds via faith-based groups.
The Trump team’s unorthodox approach has cut both ways, say insiders. It represents a religious-liberty emphasis needed in secularized diplomatic circles, yet in the hands of a polarizing president,it sometimes backfired.
The vice president and secretary of state have looked also to Sam Brownback, the former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas whom Trump named his ambassador-at-large running the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. IRF hatched the idea of hosting large-scale annual ministerial events aimed at advancing religious freedom globally.
The first, convened in 2018, was the highest-level gathering to date on the issue. Eighty nations sent official representatives. The three-day event at State Department headquarters in Washington brought together top government officials, the world’s top religious leaders, human rights advocates, and faith-based international aid groups. At an opening ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jewish survivors of Nazi camps joined recent victims of religious-driven oppression—among them, escaped Chinese house church leaders; Rohingya Muslims from Burma; and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who escaped ISIS captivity in 2014 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
“Nothing of that scope and scale had been attempted before, or even imagined,” said Knox Thames, then the State Department special adviser for religious minorities. Thames served two years at State under Obama before working for Brownback under Trump, where he steered the idea of hosting a ministerial. The event grew in 2019, with more than 100 nations attending. In 2020 the Polish government hosted the event in Warsaw (mostly virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions). Brazil will host the 2021 ministerial, suggesting the events will have a life beyond the Trump administration.
Out of the annual gatherings has grown an International Religious Freedom Alliance of senior government representatives, along with numerous roundtables in the United States and abroad to address similar issues.
During the Trump years, a Washington-based roundtable grew from 15 attendees to 75, then mushroomed to 150 after Brownback began showing up to the meetings.
“These are good things that can be carried forward,” said Thames. “The Trump administration led on them, and they approached them holistically, with religious freedom for everyone. We spoke about Christians when they were persecuted, Muslims when they were persecuted, Baha’is when they were persecuted.”
Thames, who resigned in September to become a visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said insiders didn’t know what kind of response to expect in launching the ministerial gatherings. But they elevated international religious freedom to an “unprecedented height,” he said, adding, “It’s safe to say the Trump team did more than any other administration has.”
Those successes allowed the United States to play a critical role helping once-pariah nations like Uzbekistan and Sudan improve their record on equal treatment for religious minorities. But there were setbacks, too.
Overseas on strategic policy areas, like China and Turkey, the Trump administration would leave the religious freedom quotient out of high-level discussions. Trump could be inconsistent, his bullying style undermining a campaign to improve treatment for minority religious groups. He mocked asylum-seekers, comparing them to UFC fighters with face tattoos at a 2019 event in Las Vegas. And he called the U.S. asylum program a “scam.”
Administration officials didn’t consult advisers like Brownback on refugee and asylum policy, Thames said. Slashing refugee admissions and targeting Muslims with travel bans made it difficult to promote religious freedom: Foreign leaders saw the United States talking about religious liberty and at the same time turning away those feeling persecution.
“There was a disconnect between this green light we’d been given to push hard and run fast on promoting religious freedom internationally, versus these very restrictive and problematic policies on refugees,” said Thames. “When I would travel, I’d be asked about it, everywhere. It was disappointing.”
“There is no daylight between commissioners appointed by Republicans and those appointed by Democrats—we have worked together as a unified team, and it’s an issue both parties can support under the Biden administration as well.”
The inconsistency is something advocates right and left told me they want to correct. “Religious freedom has unfortunately become understood in partisan terms in the U.S. political space,” said Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at Tufts University who served as vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “That’s to the detriment of our domestic politics and to the detriment of our capacity to accomplish the protection of religious freedom around the world.”