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Michael Swartz / July 19, 2019

American Leadership in Religious Freedom

Trump’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was important.

For the second consecutive year, the Trump administration has held what’s now called the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the concluding keynote address yesterday, outlining the Trump administration’s accomplishments as well as new sanctions against leaders of several nations deemed to be detrimental to the freedom of worship.

While the International Religious Freedom Act dates from 1998, it’s only been since President Donald Trump arrived that the office created by the act has come into its own. “Nobody would really tend to [the issue],” said Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former senator who was among the Act’s original sponsors. “Then this administration comes along.” To that end, also included among the initiatives announced at this year’s Ministerial was a new International Religious Freedom Alliance.

As The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “The hope is that the new alliance’s high profile might do for religious liberty what has been done for human trafficking. One goal is to promote similar discussions within countries to advance religious freedom. Think of it as a credible version of the U.N. Human Rights Council, without human-rights abusers like Cuba and China.” (As if on cue, Cuba and China were singled out in the ministerial: Cuba for not allowing its delegation from the country to attend and China for its treatment of the Uighur Muslims in the remote western sections of the nation.) In fact, the timing of the event couldn’t have been better, since a Pew Research report released Monday found an increasing amount of hostility to religion around the globe.

Yet, as Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Meyers pointed out, the problem isn’t just overseas. Meyers, the rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — where 11 members of the congregation were murdered last October by an anti-Semitic sociopath — asked, “How do I console a congregant who has been unable to set foot inside any synagogue since October 27?”

A number of attendees agreed that the problem was also a domestic one. Fearful that an overly zealous revival of religious freedom would reverse hard-won gains on certain social issues, groups such as Human Rights Watch and the hard-left Human Rights Campaign held a “sideline” event to discuss their concerns. “We do take freedom of religion seriously, but we also take reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights internationally seriously,” said HRW researcher Ryan Thoreson. He conceded, though, that “good discussions” had occurred at the conference about their issues.

Others argued that the emphasis on religious rights allowed other problems to be glossed over, including Human Rights First senior official Rob Berschinski. “There is nothing inherently wrong with this being the second ministerial on religious freedom, but I would love to see a first ministerial on government attacks against journalists, or what can be done about authoritarians jailing activists, or any number of other important human rights issues.” Brownback, however, contended that securing religious freedom paves the way for those other rights.

Yet for all the successes at the summit, the one thing that plagued it was … its success. Fearful of giving any credit to the Trump administration, many in the mainstream media chose to ignore it, with much of the in-depth reporting coming from left-wing outlets like The Atlantic, which prefaced a statement about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with this ominous observation: “When asked recently if God might have engineered Trump’s election to protect Israel from Iran, Pompeo, who keeps a Bible open in his office, replied, ‘As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.’” (Left unasked by The Atlantic: Is it preferable for a secretary of state to have an open Bible or a hidden server?)

There’s no question that, in a religious sense, President Trump has committed his share of high-profile sin. Yet the president has arguably done some atonement by putting the proper subordinates and policies in place to encourage work in the mission field.

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