January 10, 2019
Twenty years ago, when the first ambassador at large for religious freedom was confirmed, Robert Seiple joked later, "It was just me and the vacuum cleaner." And, he laughed, "I was grateful for that sweeper, because that office needed it!" Thanks to President Trump, America's come a long way since that barebones operation in 1999. That's because, under this administration, religious freedom isn't just part of the agenda. In some places of the world, it's the agenda.
After eight years of Barack Obama -- when the government's only position on faith was to suppress it -- most people around the world wondered if America would ever find its voice on religious liberty again. Two years into this administration, they've been pleasantly surprised to see that Donald Trump hasn't just met the expectation for America's involvement abroad, he's surpassed it.
In a new Christian Science Monitor column, Christa Case Bryant talks about how the president may have permanently changed the way future administrations treat religious liberty. "I think there's been a sense among conservative religious groups ... that recent administrations have just ticked the box of the IRFA rather than genuinely embracing the agenda and investing in it," says Peter Mandaville, a former senior adviser of the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs. "I think it's felt that with this administration, they've had an unprecedented opportunity to push this issue."
When Ambassador Sam Brownback was confirmed (by a single vote), a lot of critics thought Christianity would get special treatment at the State Department. That perception changed almost immediately, as Sam got to work championing a diverse set of minorities -- from the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the Uyghur in China and everyone in between.
And the administration's involvement didn't stop with Ambassador Brownback. Leaders at the highest levels of government -- from President Trump to Vice President Mike Pence and later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, started making international religious liberty a topic in other conversations about trade and national security. Now, after two years of skepticism, people on both sides of the aisle see Brownback -- and the Trump administration by extension -- as advocates for religious freedom for everyone.
There have been words (day-long seminars like the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom) backed by actions (the release of Chinese Christians and Pastor Andrew Brunson) that only solidify the president's commitment. Some extremists will always call the protection of religious liberty a "misguided enterprise," Bryant points out, but there are also many others who see this as one of the few areas where there seems to be bipartisan cooperation. "There are a lot of people on the Left who are interested in religious freedom, and they were happy to have had someone who would be a balance in there," says the Rev. Johnson Cook. "I think I was a game changer."
Just as President Trump is proving to be.
For more on just how important religious freedom is to the future of human rights, international economies, and national security, check out this publication by FRC's Vice President for Policy, Travis Weber.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.