After the smoke cleared from “The Battle of Lafayette Square” and the cringeworthy visit by the first couple to the St. John Paul II National Shrine was over, most Americans missed what was supposed to be the crown jewel of the Trump religion propaganda trifecta: the signing of an executive order on international religious freedom. Forced to cut his losses, a public signing ceremony planned for the Knights of Columbus-run shrine was scrubbed and the president retreated into the White House and signed the document privately, releasing the text as the news cycle was putting the final nail in his religious co-optation public relations campaign.
What exactly was the supposed purpose of this third act?
As executive orders go it was really quite pedestrian. It had lots of old words about God, about religious freedom for everyone, about priorities, about more funding, about training, about punishing bad actors. They were the same old, tired words written to mask the worst actual record on international religious freedom in memory.
In keeping with the first two parts of the propaganda campaign, the order was a piece of campaign theater that was overshadowed by the ineptitude of the president. With white evangelicals and white Catholics making up a large part of his base, words on religious freedom – along with more old words on abortion – are the last rhetorical refuge for this failed presidency, especially as Trump’s poll numbers drop.
Just how bad has his performance on religious freedom been?
Let’s run the list:
- In January 2017, Trump ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to abandon the environmental and historic review process for the Dakota Access Pipeline to greenlight the construction of the pipeline, overriding the objections of desecration of sacred sites by Native Americans.
- The president issued the so-called Muslim Ban to partially fulfill his campaign pledge to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
- By essentially shutting down refugee admissions into the U.S., this president eliminated the possibility that those fleeing religious persecution can find refuge in the U.S. As a result of this shutdown, many religiously affiliated refugee resettlement agencies were put out of business. This is a direct attack on central theological tenets of every branch of Christianity in the United States, as well as the beliefs of Jews and Muslims.
- At his direction, the administration has banned asylum seekers from exercising their legal right to file for asylum based on fear of persecution, including religious persecution.
- His child separation policies at our southern border deprive predominately Christian families of their human dignity, and holding children in cages is de facto an intentional assault on their human rights.
- In response to the mass slaughter and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas by the government of Myanmar, the administration clutched its collective pearls but did not investigate charges of genocide, nor did it provide sufficient aid to improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Bangladesh.
- Likewise, the administration has refused to act in the face of the mass persecution of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in China.
- And finally, the administration continues to expand arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite its recurring religious freedom violations. A Trump-appointed commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom celebrated Mohammed Bin Salman as a supposed champion of international religious freedom .
Despite this miserable record, the administration has convened two international Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom to beat its chest over its alleged commitment in front of foreign diplomats. Yet the presence there of Frank Gaffney, one of America’s leading Islamophobes, betrays the administration’s real beliefs. Gaffney was not there to study his way out of his errors. Given that Secretary of State Pompeo, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and USAID’s new religious freedom adviser Mark Kevin Lloyd all have a history of Islamophobic positions and comments, attendees knew all too well what was really going on. I know from personal conversations with diplomats who attended that the world fully understands the hypocrisy.
So what is the alternative to the U.S.’s international religious freedom system?
The first step would be to shut down the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. It has been dominated since its founding by conservative Christians who advance a pro-Christian bias and an partisan anti-Democratic political agenda. Its spending of tens of millions of dollars has made no difference on the ground anywhere in the world. It has settled a religious-discrimination lawsuit out of court, been a platform for notorious Islamophobes and been criticized by a scathing GAO audit, and it is known throughout Washington for having an inept staff with poor work products.
Next, the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department should be led by a career diplomat and not a political appointee. This would help take politics out of religious freedom and allow a president to seat an ambassador quickly and eliminate the inevitable year-long wait each term for a political appointee to be vetted and confirmed by the Senate.
The third reform would be to ditch the exclusive reliance on “name and shame” tactics of dueling annual reports. Right now, both USCIRF and the State Department publish religious freedom annual reports. The main thrust of both is reduced to calling out bad actors and threatening them with sanctions and hectoring speech. In more than two decades of the current policy configuration, there is no evidence our current tools change bad actors. The alternative is to play the long game by embedding significant human rights staff in the bilateral diplomatic relations where the hard day-to-day diplomacy really takes place. If we really care about what China does to Uighurs, why isn’t Ambassador Brownback in the trade negotiations with China? Without offering specific positive policy rewards for eliminating specific anti-human rights behaviors, exclusive reliance on name and shame tactics has only failed.
The final reform is to cut off the massive cash flow to conservative Beltway bandit organizations that have taken tens of millions in federal dollars to run short term international religious freedom projects that draw up their gangplanks when the money runs out and retreat back to the U.S. to seek money for more federal dollars to be spent in the same short-term fashion. It is this cash flow that keeps many faith-based organizations in the international religious freedom game while keeping their mouths shut about any possible reforms in the space. The waste of tens of millions in taxpayer dollars is an outrage. This money should be redirected to fund more diplomacy at the embassy level, particularly where human rights records are the worst.
Trump hopes by shouting “Religious Freedom for All,” his political base will mistake the high decibel level for effectiveness. The gap between the rhetoric and the record is real. Only a new administration can bring any change.