NEW YORK — At a time when the ideological makeup of Capitol Hill is more divided than ever, the nation’s international religious freedom czar is calling on the next administration to maintain religious liberty as a bipartisan issue.
“At the (2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief) the crowd gave a standing ovation to both Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech and Speaker Pelosi’s speech and I was happy because this needs to stay bipartisan, and this is pretty hard to do in this sort of partisan environment,” said Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom since early 2018.
“The key to it is to stay focused on what you’re about, stay inclusive with everybody, and then if there’s things that in particular rub one party the wrong way don’t do it.”
Brownback was speaking during an online discussion Wednesday organized by the Religious Freedom Institute.
President Bill Clinton signed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act with bipartisan support, creating Brownback’s position and an independent Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“We wouldn’t have seen the international communities taking this issue seriously the way that they do now if it wasn’t for the United States leadership on that issue, so I hope we don’t lose track of that,” said Samah Norquist, chief advisor for international religious freedom at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “We have every opportunity with the executive order, with the secretary’s implementation plan, to get this into the DNA of what America does in its diplomacy and foreign assistance overseas.”
Norquist worked directly with Pompeo to create the implementation plan that prioritizes international religious freedom in the country’s foreign policy. She said the Trump administration’s June executive order that mandates prioritizing the issue “puts a lot of mandates on countries, U.S. ambassadors and mission directors to come up with action plans.”
A November Pew Research Center study shows that in 2018 there was the highest level of government restrictions on religion worldwide since 2007 and there were 56 countries that had what the study considered high levels of government restrictions on religion.
Chris Seiple, the principal advisor at the Templeton Religion Trust, said he is encouraged to see the institutionalization of religious freedom. However, he’s concerned that religious persecution is increasing worldwide.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We’ve got to get to another level here as civil society, as a government. Religious pluralism, this presence of diversity that has to be mutually engaged across difference, is something that development and diplomatic and even defense initiatives have out to encourage.”
Seiple called religious pluralism the key to a prosperous state.
“If you have thirty (religions) there’s going to be peace because there’s a marketplace. There’s a level playing field and people have the opportunity to choose,” Seiple said. “They choose their faith and then they have the freedom to bring that faith into the public square.”
As part of the conversation around the importance of religious pluralism the panelists looked at the issues religious people face in the Middle East and Asia, particularly in China.
In the same Pew study, China was cited as the most restrictive Asian government towards religion in 2017 and 2018. The country’s communist regime, for example, has claimed it has the right to pick the next Dalai Lama – something Brownback has publicly spoken out against. He’s also spoken out against the Chinese government’s use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition to oppress the Muslim majority in Xinjiang.
On Wednesday, Brownback said it will take a global community to change the country.
“China, a communist, atheistic government is now seeking to put its will down and front and center on the people and to force it. We don’t want a world like that. We don’t want a world where you are limited by your government as to what you can do in your faith,” he said.
In terms of the Middle East, Seiple said he wants the Muslim majority to follow the Koran when it says, “vie with each other in virtue, compete, outdo each other in good.” He said that mindset will serve everybody. And everybody wins when they can bring their faith into the public square.
Back home, one thing Seiple suggested for the Biden administration is to highlight countries with the best religious freedom practices instead of just the worst violators. He also noted it would be helpful to have religious literacy training so people can better understand each other’s interests.
But step one is inclusivity.
“The government has to provide the table and make sure there’s a seat for everybody and that is the role of civil society – to come on in philanthropy and business to make sure that those rights are protected and promoted,” he said.
President-elect Joe Biden has yet to announce who will take over the role of U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Whoever it is, Brownback hopes they are focused on religious freedom as a bipartisan issue and is faithful themselves.
“Dealing with so many people of faith it just helps if your faith is important to you because you understand where the other person is coming from even if you don’t share a faith,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg