US State Department

Religious freedom is a universal constant, mostly, kind of

By J Brooks Spector 1 June 2018

Methodist Pastor Howard J. Wright (R) raises his arms as he delivers the sermon during the 68th annual Easter Sunrise Service atop Stone Mountain, in Stone Mountain, Georgia, USA, on 08 April 2012. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

The United States issued its annual religious freedom report earlier this week and announced a global conference to advance that right. One notable missing example of reporting on religious discrimination, persecution or worse, not surprisingly, was the United States itself. Former Kansas governor and the current Special Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback discussed the report, the conference and freedom of religion as a core right.

Earlier this week the Trump administration rolled out the newest edition of a report, required by law, on the state of religious freedom around the world. The way the report is crafted is to have the first drafts of each of the individual country reports come from US embassies. The report writers draw on local official information as well as from a wide variety of religious groups, NGOs, journalists, human rights monitors, and academics. The Washington office that puts the whole thing together folds in other information they have gleaned from various other sources.

Among the various disclaimers right at the beginning of the report are that “the views of any particular source are not necessarily those of the United States government”. It continues:

The report is designed to spotlight examples of government and societal action that typify and illuminate issues reported in each country. Specific inclusions or omissions should not be interpreted as a signal that a particular case is of greater or lesser importance to the US government, or that a case is the only available example. Rather, the goal is to shed light on the nature, scope, and severity of actions impacting religious freedom through illustrative examples.”

Okay, fair enough; sometimes it reports on things that are not the position the government takes on such charges. The US government has been tasked with doing such reporting for the past 20 years, and the model for this report is the State Department’s annual human rights report.

That latter document has become an impressively accurate barometer of human rights standards, practices, and abuses around the world since it began, way back in the Carter administration. (Read the full religion report here.)

The report on religious freedom includes sections on practically every nation on the planet, from tiny Pacific island nations to places as diverse as China, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and every nation in between. It is obviously also geared to becoming – similarly to the human rights one – a standard reference for Congress, other government offices, the American and international NGO community, and international organisations, along with the governments whose own practices come under a close scrutiny, as well as for the citizens of those countries. One notable missing example of reporting on religious discrimination, persecution or worse, however, is, not surprisingly, the United States itself.

(Hmmm… Note to human rights and similar organisations all around the world: Here is a unique niche opportunity to evaluate those evaluators along the same set of standards already used by the US in evaluating other nations. Given the words articulated and some of the behaviours of the Trump administration at the national level, as well as the actual circumstances in some jurisdictions at the local and state levels across the country, such an evaluation of the US might seem to be only fair. You know, as in the old adage of “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander”.)

Anyway, just after the report was released to the public in Washington, we had an opportunity to speak by phone with the State Department’s Special Ambassador on International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, who had helped introduce the report. Brownback may not be a household name much beyond the American Midwest, and so he deserves a very brief introduction.

A political appointee named to this position in 2017, early on in the Trump administration, over his career he has been both a Republican senator from Kansas and then that state’s governor. His political career has not been without controversy. As conservative, business-friendly governor, he pushed hard for major tax cuts as a way to make Kansas increasingly attractive to outside investors, in-migrants and other residents as a good place to do business or live in. His critics, however, have noted that the precipitous drop in tax revenues that ensued significantly rolled back spending on public education and caused cutbacks on other public services, all without turning Kansas into a stunning innovative economic powerhouse or positive example for the rest of the nation.

Ambassador Brownback, even via the medium of an international phone call, exhibited the sunny openness that seems to be the currency of realm of the American Midwest. As an ice-breaker, when asked whether he preferred to be called governor, senator or ambassador, he laughed genially and said he actually preferred the term “grandpa”. It is not clear that is a standard government title, however.

Photo: Kansas senator Sam Brownback at the Republican presidential debate on business and economic issues at Ford Community & Performing Arts center in Dearborn, Michigan, USA on 09 October 2007. EPA/JEFF KOWALSKY

Asked what a section dealing with the US would look like, Brownback said that the enabling act doesn’t call for such an evaluation, although the US is subjected to reviews on such topics by the OECD and in a number of other forums. But he felt inclusion of such a discussion of the US in this report would “divide the coalition supporting religious freedom”. Asked about the rising politicisation of religion, of the threats, angry words and behaviour against Muslims or of anti-Semitism within the US, most especially by the president, Brownback denied the US was “anti-anything” in a religious sense, but in any case, such a question was not part of his job description.

Regarding the just-announced, high-level international conference on freedom of religion that came with the release of this report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said:

This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for freedom for all…. We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy their most fundamental of human rights.”

This conference is scheduled for 25-26 June, and invitations are only going out now, just by the way. Watch for one in your mail.

A State Department briefing paper on the conference tried to put it into subtler context, saying it is a “conversation-starter” rather than the final word on religious freedom, and that the conference will “convene government and religious leaders, rights advocates, and civil society from around the world to discuss challenges, identify concrete means to push back against persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all”.

This should be fun to watch once it gets going – and one hopes every one of the immigration officials stationed at the nation’s ports of entry and airports will be prepared to let in all these delegates without fuss, especially those delegates from countries across the Middle East.

Some beyond the conference’s organisers may also argue that freedom of speech and expression is at least as important as the right to worship in one’s choice of ways. Alternatively, there is also the argument that freedoms and human rights simply aren’t divisible and rankable as primary, second-most-important, third-most-important rights, and so forth. According to that view, focusing on religious freedom – and ignoring simultaneous, sustained pressure for free speech or freedom of assembly – might sound like a rather hollow gourd.

Moreover, this declaration of the primacy of freedom of religion might well set up the US – if pure logic is applied – to vociferously, equally and strongly oppose persecution or mistreatment of Christians in some nations, but also apply equally strongly to pressures against Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, agnostics, and adherents to traditional beliefs, without much regard for those nations’ governments’ relationships with the US. (Maybe we are thinking of a number of Middle Eastern nations in this context such as those that like to play with swords and glowing crystal orbs).

That said, the conflict between an absolutist defence of religious freedom and the compromises of realpolitik relationships almost certainly will get a heated, energetic airing during this newly announced conference. At the minimum, such arguments will come from the exertions of NGO human rights activists who will circle around this conference’s meeting rooms and halls like bears zoning in on a pot of honey. That is where the deals are struck, after all, and that’s where the NGOs earn their stripes.

Okay, so back to our conversation with Ambassador Brownback. He says the conference will promote coalition building against “bad actors” in order to push for statutes of non-discrimination. But what happens when the US is harshly criticised?

I’m sure there will be plenty of people who say that, but I don’t have the authority to speak on that.”

That said, who will?

And of Donald Trump’s derogatory language to Muslims and the people of the Middle East – how would that change the texture of any discussions in the conference on religious freedom?

I don’t know that it changes the texture of the discussion of religious freedom and not to pick any faith over another…. That’s what we do and what we intend to do,” said Brownback.

Regarding the conference itself, it is not yet clear how many people, governments, and non-governmental organisations are being invited or are attending, noted Brownback.

But this is the secretary’s first ministerial and he is very vested in it. Now we really want to talk about it as a way to address terrorism and economic growth.”

Okay, so we’re going to make this a dialogue about terrorism too. That cat is back among the pigeons all over again.

Asked about the primacy of concern in this administration over persecuted Christian minorities, the ambassador disagreed that there was such direction. And asked about the recent Irish referendum to open up the possibilities of abortion, Brownback said that essentially was up to the Irish; he had no view on the matter.

Elements of the US religious press, reporting on this conference and report, seemed generally positive in their initial reporting. The Catholic World Report, for example, quoted the positive comments from Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and chair of the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, even as he tried to tie the meeting to the war on terror. Smith said:

Religious freedom is under siege globally, challenging US interests. It is no coincidence that the worst violators of religious freedom globally are also the biggest threats to our nation – those who wish to do Americans the most harm, and those who most want to tear down the pillars of democratic societies.”

(Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat ironically, given that statement, Pompeo and Brownback had listed China, Burma, Turkey, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan as some of the worst offenders, even though some of those same nations are closely tied to US military and foreign relations generally via bilateral and multilateral pacts and programmes.)

Watching such circles being squared in plenaries and committees will be interesting.

Meanwhile, The Washington Times added:

While critics say the administration’s overall foreign policy has in some cases put human rights concerns behind US economic interests, Tuesday’s developments suggested Mr Pompeo, a conservative Christian, seeks to counter that narrative by pursuing the human rights aspect of religious freedom.”

Reaching back almost a year ago, Foreign Policy contributor Judd Birdsall had written of Brownback’s appointment and his policy brief, saying:

If confirmed by the Senate to serve as the next US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will face a daunting trifecta of challenges: Recent data from Pew Research Center reveals that religious persecution is on the rise, America’s image is in decline, and global majorities view President Donald Trump as ‘arrogant’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘intolerant’.

When it comes to religious tolerance, a sceptical world doesn’t believe America practices what it preaches. Unsurprisingly, at the release of the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom last week [in 2017], journalists peppered a senior State Department official with questions about how high-minded rhetoric on the importance of religious freedom abroad squares with Trump’s promise to prioritise Christian refugees, his efforts to enact a so-called ‘Muslim ban’, silence in response to increased attacks against American Muslims, conflicting views on Russia, and enhanced security cooperation with religiously repressive Saudi Arabia.”

Given this background, Birdsall, then, had offered five suggestions to build a more effective coalition on this front, including building better bureaucratic co-ordination within the State Department, championing religious freedom as an intrinsic part of the broader range of human rights, communicating this vision across ideological and theological continua, reassuring and defending vulnerable Muslims, and emphasising the point that religious freedom is a universal principle, not small-ball identity politics.

Such precepts were good advice a year ago when Brownback began his task, and they remain so for him and his efforts into the future. And just maybe, the president might choose to take heed of some of this advice as well. DM


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