Can conservatives and liberals find common ground to combat religious persecution around the globe? That was the assumption of the sponsors of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. But 20 years later, as the Trump administration is prioritizing this concern, it’s clear that not even this seemingly nonpartisan cause is neutral ground in the culture wars that continue to divide Americans.
The act called for the creation of an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the creation of a bipartisan commission to provide independent policy recommendations. While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations appointed ambassadors and issued, as the act demanded, an annual report on religious persecution, the State Department has now augmented this effort by convening its first conference on the subject last week. The persecution has worsened in the past two decades, with little but lip service offered as a solution, so the timing of the conference was right. Moreover, even in an administration that is as polarizing as this one, this effort ought to have generated the same kind of bipartisan support as the original legislation.
But as a Sunday New York Times editorial demonstrated, the fight for religious liberty abroad is now as much a source of partisan division as the religious-freedom cause taken up by conservative Christians in America.
It’s not surprising that the Times would find something to criticize in just about anything the Trump administration does. But the views in the paper’s editorial, “A Too-Narrow Vision of Religious Freedom,” are indistinguishable from anti-Christian prejudice. As far as the Times was concerned, Evangelical Christians’ interest in religious liberty and the Trump administration’s effort on their behalf renders the subject questionable if not altogether suspect.
The U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, pledged to protect freedoms for “all faiths,” but the editorial said that he made this vow “despite his own strict Catholic leanings” — as if American Catholics supported the imposition of a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition.
The piece then used the presence of Vice President Mike Pence at the conference as a signal that anything he and other Evangelicals support was, in principle, illegitimate:
Yet, the event, headlined by Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, was clearly meant to appeal most to the evangelicals who are among the president’s most fervent political supporters, reflecting a selectivity that is antithetical to the very concept of religious freedom.
In essence, the Times is claiming that the Trump administration is not to be trusted when it defends religious freedom. The reason? Most Christians, the editorial suggests, are religious bigots who oppose freedom for others. But how does a newspaper that sees most American Catholics and Evangelicals as bigots have any standing to speak about the sort of religious liberty that its editorial page endorses?
How can we explain such unabashed religious bias, even in the context of an editorial claiming that the administration isn’t sincere about protecting religious freedom? Clearly, some liberals are questioning the legitimacy of the entire subject of religious liberty. Evangelicals and Catholics have found themselves under fire in the culture wars for refusing to accept federal mandates about abortion drugs and contraception or participation in gay weddings. Many Christians worry that religious freedom is being sacrificed here in the U.S. to encourage progressive social goals, such as the celebration of abortion and same-sex marriage. But leftists see such worries as a reason to distrust all calls to protect our “first freedom,” as Mike Pence called religious freedom in a recent speech.
The belief that conservative Christians are an obstacle to progressive measures is so ingrained among liberals that they often dismiss the genuine peril that this faith group faces throughout the Muslim world and in totalitarian countries. Protecting Christians from persecution should not be a priority for U.S. foreign policy, this thinking goes, and, indeed, we should question the motives of Christians drawing attention to the persecution.
It is true that, as the Times asserts, Christians aren’t the only people of faith threatened throughout the world. But it’s simply false to claim that the Trump administration is sacrificing other victims for the sake of Christians. The Times rebukes Trump for mentioning imprisoned pastor Andrew Brunson when justifying new sanctions on Turkey while not speaking of other non-Christian Americans also imprisoned in Turkey. But this misses the point: The U.S. wants all Americans released from unjust imprisonment abroad. The persecution of Brunson by the Islamist regime of President Erdogan, however, illustrates the dire peril Christians face in many Muslim-majority countries.
That the editorial unfavorably compared Trump’s stand on Turkey to “President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world” speaks volumes about why the Trump administration needs to speak out forcefully on religious liberty for Christians and other non-Muslims. President Obama made better relations with the Muslim world a priority, an effort that centered principally on abject appeasement of the Islamist regime in Iran, a country where non-Muslim minorities are subject to intense persecution. Unfortunately, like some in the previous administration, the Times is more devoted to promoting false accusations of Islamophobia than to advocating for people of faith who are persecuted in the Islamic world.
Another criticism of the administration’s policy is that it is selective in its outrage and giving some U.S. allies a pass for their misdeeds. That this administration is more inclined to adopt an aggressive attitude toward unfriendly nations hardly makes it unique. But the claim that this undermines the cause of religious freedom doesn’t always hold water. The U.S. has been gentle in its approach toward the military regime in Egypt. But that doesn’t mean it’s failing to support freedom for all faiths. To the contrary, though the government of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is guilty of viciously repressing its foes, its war on the Muslim Brotherhood is part of an attempt to save the country from Islamist tyrants — the very tyrants whose hold on power was encouraged by Obama. Nor could we argue that the country’s embattled Coptic Christian minority would be better off if it were at the mercy of the Brotherhood.
Equally unpersuasive is the notion that the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban disqualifies it from speaking out about religious persecution. We can debate the effectiveness of the measure, but its purpose was to ensure better vetting of those entering the U.S. from countries already certified as terrorist hotbeds by Obama’s State Department, and the ban didn’t interfere with travel from the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries.
Just as specious is the paper’s claim that administration calls for religious freedom are undermined by enforcement of U.S. laws against illegal immigration, or by support for Saudi Arabia in its efforts to keep Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from taking over Yemen. Both policies are debatable, but they have nothing to do with the subject of religious liberty. Mentioning them only shows how much partisanship and politically inspired religious bias has seeped into the discussion of topics that ought to unify Americans.
This is just one more example of how enlisting the media in the anti-Trump resistance has not only politicized an issue that ought to be bipartisan but even served to justify religious bias. So long as fighting this administration under any and all circumstances is the only priority for liberals who take their cues from the Times editorial page, bipartisan support for religious liberty will suffer.