The Atlantic

The ‘Religious Freedom’ Agenda

Trump-administration officials are using a two-word phrase as a rhetorical Swiss Army knife on the world stage.
Source: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty

Behind the Oval Office circus of drama and distraction, conservatives are quietly reshaping government in ways that could resonate for generations to come. One major front is the integration of religion into foreign policy, in which the phrase religious freedom figures prominently—in the same way it did during the George W. Bush administration. As it is not partial to any particular religion, religious freedom avoids running afoul of the Constitution’s establishment clause. It also has a footprint in the existing federal bureaucracy. The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an ambassador-ranked diplomat, has been around since the late 1990s. This week, Ambassador Sam Brownback, who heads the office, will host the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Nobody disagrees with religious freedom,” Brownback told me in an interview last week. “Well, the Chinese do,” he added.

One hundred and fifteen foreign ministers are expected to attend the ministerial, along with persecuted Yazidis, Uighurs, and Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was imprisoned in Turkey for 21 months. The event may help institutionalize God’s preeminent role in Trumpist-American statecraft, something that is already apparent from the administration’s rhetoric. President Donald Trump cited God to explain the April 2017 Syria air strikes; Vice President open in his office, replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”

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