In Selected Opinion

By Peter Henne – Religion News Service

As the Iowa caucuses approach, the Democratic presidential field continues to churn. Candidates try to clarify their stances on a variety of issues, to stand out from the pack. But one area remains ignored: international religious freedom.

Even though many see it as a conservative cause — thanks in part to the Trump administration’s emphasis on it — religious freedom abroad presents an opportunity for a Democratic presidential candidate. The cause appeals to religious voters, will help distinguish the candidate’s foreign policy and will provoke a much-needed debate on religion in politics. It’s time for Democrats to start talking about international religious freedom.

For the past 20 years, international religious freedom has been a persistent, but often ignored, part of U.S. foreign policy. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which was passed with the backing of a bipartisan, ecumenical coalition, established an office in the State Department led by an ambassador-at-large, a mechanism for reporting religious freedom abusers, and a government-funded watchdog agency, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Religious freedom was never a policy priority during the Bush and Obama administrations, but with the arrival of the Trump administration, this seemed to change. The deployment of Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration’s efforts promised action, and international religious freedom advocates got high-level access through his ambassador-at-large, Sam Brownback.

Progressives, meanwhile, have been leery of the issue, in part because its major supporters have been evangelical Christians. Some progressives worry that attention to religious freedom concerns is really meant to advance evangelical policies or even serve as a cover to convert non-Christians. Domestic religious freedom debates, meanwhile, mostly involve conservative challenges to abortion and health care access and marriage equality.

I’ve experienced progressives’ distrust directly. For much of the Obama administration I worked on, and later ran, the Pew Research Center’s project tracking global religious freedom. I found conservatives much more interested in this work, and I had to spend most of my engagement with progressives convincing them it wasn’t an evangelical front.

This polarization intensified under Trump as he prioritized international religious freedom in a way it never had been before. The IRF community, as freedom advocates are known in government circles, has responded enthusiastically, praising Trump’s apparent commitment and avoiding criticism of his more questionable policies (more on that below).

Religious freedom is already being viewed primarily as a way for Trump to shore up his evangelical base in the 2020 presidential race. From Pence’s redirection of humanitarian aid to Middle East Christians to the appointment of high-profile evangelical Trump supporters to USCIRF, Trump has ensured continued evangelical support.

But if Democrats may be inclined to write off religious freedom, they will ignore, first of all, the fact that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, enshrined in both the U.S. Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We still need to resolve the proper border between religious freedom and issues like women’s health and LGBTQ equality. Yet, at its core, religious freedom is about ensuring that people can choose and practice the faith of their choice, or choose to practice no faith at all. This is something any Democrat should care about.

There would also be strategic benefits for the first Democratic candidate to make international religious freedom part of that candidate’s platform.

First, it is a way to engage with religious voters, some of whom are growing wary of Trump. Some evangelicals have been dismayed by Trump’s cuts to refugees, many of whom are fleeing religious persecution. And both international religious freedom advocates and evangelicals reacted angrily  to Trump abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, as this may lead to further harassment and displacement of the country’s Christians. White evangelicals are unlikely to turn on Trump altogether, but enough are concerned about him that a Democratic candidate emphasizing religious freedom could make some headway in both the primary and general elections.

Second, championing religious freedom aligns well with foreign policy positions the candidates already hold. Elizabeth Warren has spoken out against China’s repression of the Uighurs, a priority for IRF advocates as well. Bernie Sanders led the fight to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a conflict arising from and contributing to religious tensions in the region. Tying these and other policies to religious freedom would make it easier for candidates to articulate a clear foreign policy vision.

Finally, there is an opportunity, and drastic need, for a progressive approach to religious freedom. Under Trump, it  is increasingly associated with fighting “Islamic extremism,” not to mention Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s right-leaning commission on unalienable rights, and advocacy for abortion restrictions. But a more inclusive approach is possible.

Maggie Siddiqi of the Center for American Progress has advocated for an understanding of domestic religious freedom that could be expanded to international affairs. Her colleagues at CAP, notably Brian Katulis,  have published reports advancing progressive IRF policies (one of which I wrote). And under former Secretary of State John Kerry, Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, led a religious engagement effort as a broader approach to religion in international affairs.

These disconnected initiatives could provide a foundation for a real progressive alternative on this important issue. Given several of the Democratic presidential candidates’ comfort in discussing faith, there is an opportunity to directly debate conservatives on how best to connect religion to politics.

In a Democratic field this crowded, with voters still undecided, any distinctive policy statement — even on a low-priority issue like religious freedom — could help a candidate, especially an underdog like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or California Sen. Kamala Harris, be heard above the din.

The alternative is letting a fundamental human right be defined and seized by the Republican Party.

(Peter Henne is director of Middle East studies in the Global and Regional Studies Program at the University of Vermont. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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It’s time for Democrats to start talking about international religious freedom

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