Human l ights and international religious freedom: America’s changing position

We saw in Chapters 2 and 3 that the public role of religion in the USA is a key area of discord, with different stances taken by many Christian conservatives compared to those adopted by secular and religiously liberal Americans. Such was also the case in America’s foreign policy during the Trump administration. Bettiza (2019) explains that over time religion assumed an increasingly important foreign policy role for successive administrations, especially from the time of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. Bettiza argues that American foreign policy and what he calls "religious forces” became ever more inextricably entangled in the post-1980s, coinciding with a widespread religious resurgence in many parts of the world, including to some degree the most secular of regions, Western Europe (Bettiza, 2019). According to Bettiza, at this time in the USA boundaries between religion and state were redefined through processes of desecularisation. In relation to American foreign policy, this was evidenced in the Trump administration's attempts to reshape international relations in accord with its preference for a Christianised polity, in effect a preference for Christian nationalist values in the USA's international relations. This section examines the role of Christian nationalism in US foreign policy during the Trump presidency. It focuses on the international religious freedom policy of the Trump administration, championed by Secretary of State Pompeo, as a key example of the wider attempt to inject 'Christian values’ into the administration's policies, in line with the goals of Christian nationalism.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

Unlike many other Western countries, the USA has for decades prioritised religious freedom, both at home and in foreign policy. This is because whereas other Western countries have undergone prolonged periods of significant secularisation, which led to substantial declines in the public role of religion, the USA continues to be a religious country. This is evidenced by the fact that as many as 40% of Americans regularly attend religious services, much higher than any other Western country, especially in Western Europe. International religious freedom (IRF) has long been of great significance for American foreign policy. In America. IRF is a key concern for both religious and secular human rights advocacy groups (Haynes, 2008). IRF became of particular concern in the 1990s, a period of egregious trampling on many religious minorities’ human rights in several countries, including North Korea and Sudan. The then president, Bill Clinton, initially seemed indifferent to the issue (Bettiza, 2019). This was not necessarily because his administration believed the issue to be unimportant but because he did not believe that it was an issue which needed prioritising in US foreign policy. Seeking to change the administration's view, an alliance of human rights advocacy groups successfully lobbied Congress and other arms of government, urging the Clinton administration to take IRF seriously.

Following intensive lobbying, President Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998.1 The act identified international religious freedom as a core facet of America’s foreign policy and from this time successive administrations pursued the policy, often with vigour. The Trump administration’s policy on IRF is characterised both by great enthusiasm and by a distinctive ideological position, linked to Christian nationalism (Haynes, 2020b; Casey, 2017, 2020). This ideological focus became especially clear from April 2018, when Mike Pompeo was appointed as secretary of state. Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, applied Christian nationalist perspective to America’s IRF policy, which endorsed Pompeo's personal view that religious freedom is primary among human rights (Casey, 2017, 2020; Stewart, 2020). Mainstream human rights advocacy groups, both religious and secular, viewed Pompeo's approach with alarm. While they did not question the goal of enhanced international religious freedom, they did question Pompeo's Christian nationalist approach (Verma, 2020).

As stated in the 1788 Constitution, religious freedom is a foundational component of US culture and values. During World War II, the US government portrayed the "Christian' West’s fight against fascism/Nazism as an international struggle between ‘good’ and "evil'. In 1948, leading American Christians, notably the then first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, were instrumental in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a fundamental document of the United Nations.2 During the Cold War, America’s ideological battle with the Soviet Union emphasised the USA's Christian culture and the USSR's ‘Godless’ one (Glendon, 2010). After the Cold War, US foreign policy prioritised decolonisation, democracy, human rights, and anti-slavery and human trafficking. As already noted, promulgation of international religious freedom was the motive for the 1998 IRFA. While in the early

2000s, both Bush and Obama administrations pursued IRF policies with "an implicit Christian soft spot”, the Trump presidency prioritised "attention to Christian concerns and communities” which became "even more overt and explicit” (Bettiza, 2019: 223).

The 1998 IRFA was the result of bipartisan efforts. It was the outcome of a consensual effort to persuade an initially indifferent administration to take international religious freedom seriously. An ideologically varied group of religious human rights advocacy groups were instrumental in helping create a new architecture for human rights’ monitoring and advocacy in American foreign policy (Green., Rozell, and Wilcox, 2003; Hertzke, 2006; Haynes, 2008). Hertzke (2006) explains that it involved an "unlikely alliance” comprising Protestant Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics, Jews, Copts, Buddhists, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists. All agreed that “religious freedom [w]as a neglected norm that needed greater attention” (Bettiza, 2019: 65—66). The alliance’s lobbying was successful due to a shift “from a par-ticularist Christocentric discourse to a more universalistic religious freedom one [that] was pivotal in ensuring that a controversial act”, which authorised the State Department “to be systematically involved in global religious matters” and received Congress's undivided approval and President Clinton's assent (Bettiza, 2019: 65).

Following IRFA, three related acts were passed in five years (2000-2004):

  • The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000): The act targeted international crime syndicates who sent children and women, mainly from the Global South, into prostitution and sweatshops in many parts of the world (Lobasz, 2019)
  • The Sudan Peace Act (2002): Christian evangelicals championed the act, outraged by Sudan's then Islamist government's persecution of southern Sudanese Christians and animists. The act and its accompanying sanctions were influential in helping to develop the road map for Sudan’s ceasefire (2003) and subsequent peace treaty (2004) (Srinivasan, 2014)
  • The North Korea Human Rights Act (2004): Christian evangelicals and Korean Americans strongly lobbied for this act. It encouraged the Bush administration both to aid North Korean defectors and to draw attention to its government’s egregious human rights violations and nuclear weapons programme (Chang, 2006)

Collectively, the three acts focused on two globally relevant issues - human trafficking and slavery - and two specific country-based concerns: persecution of Sudan's religious minorities and, in North Korea, absolute denial of religious freedom and a more general refusal to recognise most human rights. The acts highlighted two attributes of the "unlikely alliance” referred to earlier. The first was the strong interfaith consensus which transcended conventional particularist interest group politics, bringing together in pursuit of a common goal even though their religious positions were dififerent. The second attribute was the alliance's strong support for the Bush and Obama administrations' international concern with minorities’ human rights. During the former, there was sustained support for females’ rights in Afghanistan and a wide-ranging and high-profile HIV/AIDS programme: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) (McAlister, 2019). In short, the acts were the result of interfaith efforts, involving both conservative and liberal religious groups from mainstream Christianity and minority faiths.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy supported a wide range of human rights, including for sexual minorities, such as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer) individuals and communities (Cooper, 2015; McAlister, 2019; Marsden, 2020). During the Obama presidency, IRFA was strengthened by two new pieces of legislation: the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act (2014), whose terms included a new regional special advisor for religious minorities, and the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (2016), known as ‘the Wolf Act’. The Wolf Act required (1) the executive to compose and announce a Special Watch List for countries which seemed to the US government to be significantly denying religious freedom to significant numbers of their citizens, and (2) compilation of both ‘Entities of Particular Concern' and ‘Designated Persons' lists. These were aimed at non-state actors, notably the Islamic State, at the time egregiously abusing many persons' religious freedom in territory it briefly controlled. In addition, the Wolf Act committed the State Department to an online training course on IRF for all foreign sendee officers (Marsden, 2020: 4). In sum, over time additional measures were added to IRFA in order to strengthen and deepen US commitment to IRF. including in relation to females and sexual minorities' human rights.

The creation and execution of IRFA took place in the context of a consensual and bipartisan approach to international religious freedom, involving a wide alliance of many faith groups, which applied itself through three presidencies: those of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. All were characterised by what Bettiza (2019) calls a “Christocentric approach”. On the other hand, each was ideologically flexible enough to accommodate a range of concerns, including anti-AIDS and pro-LGBTQ-i- policies, a focus on particular regions of especial concern such as the Near East and South-Central Asia, as well as serious efforts to try to protect Muslim minorities in. for example, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The next section explains that the Trump administration’s approach to IRF was a much more partisan approach which strongly favoured particu-larist Christian nationalist goals.

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