That infant presidency of Donald Trump has not been short on surprises, most of them destabilizing, but what should religious believers think about the president’s surprising decision to make his first foreign trip a tour of religious capitals?
Breaking with the precedent of an American president making his first foreign visit to Canada – though George W. Bush opted to go to Mexico first – Trump departs Washington on Friday to visit Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome, before squeezing in a few days of sybaritic summitry typical of NATO and the G7.
President Trump won’t actually be in Mecca, of course, as he is not a Muslim and all such “infidels” are barred from setting foot in Mecca under pain of flogging. But the Saudi king is the custodian of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, so greeting him in Riyadh is as close as a Christian can get to Mecca itself.
Trump will give an address to Muslim leaders from across the Islamic world, a reprise of Barack Obama’s address in Cairo eight years ago.
In Jerusalem, Trump will visit the holiest sites in the world for Jews and Christians, the Western Wall and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
He will also give a major address at the Israel Museum, expected to focus on his vision for Israel’s security and peace with her neighbors.
In Rome, Trump will meet with Pope Francis and visit St. Peter’s Basilica.
It is expected that the president will focus on religious liberty, to which he has given priority attention, and take up the Holy Father’s strong statements in Egypt against any and all violence in the name of religion.
For his part, Francis will likely raise the issue of immigrants and refugees, on which he has stark differences with Trump.
What though is to be made of the three religious stops together? Is the president going pilgrimage?
Had George W. Bush made such a trip, it would have been interpreted as a fruit of his personal piety and desire to give religion a greater role in international affairs.
President Barack Obama would never have made such a trip. He chose to address the Islamic world from Cairo, then a state ruled along secular lines.
He famously opted not to visit Jerusalem on that early trip; the choice of Cairo over Jerusalem for his first Middle East trip was an early sign that his relations with Israel would be increasingly fraught.
Perhaps three things can be concluded from Trump’s first foreign itinerary.
First, he takes seriously the religious dimension of international security issues.
During the administrations of Bush and Obama, the religious dimension of Islamist terror was downplayed and, in the latter case, sometimes completely denied. Trump, during his election campaign, explicitly spoke of “radical Islamic” terrorism.
Saudi Arabia is the origin of Wahhabi Islam, the birthplace of al-Qaeda and the home of the 9/11 terrorists. It is a country that both advances and battles against radical Islamism. That Trump would make his first foreign visit to such a country highlights that he wants to engage that issue in its religious heartland.
The visit to Saudi Arabia also indicates that the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the campaign, as has been the case with many other issues, was for political purposes, not a core governing principle.
Second, the three religious capitals will underscore a new priority on religious liberty. Trump speaks of religious liberty at home and abroad more often and with greater intensity than his immediate predecessor.
What he says in Saudi Arabia, where religious liberty is violently lethally suppressed, will be of note. It will certainly be a topic that Trump raises with Pope Francis, and he will present himself as a defender of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
Third, the trip embraces new emerging alliances in the Middle East. In recent years, new possibilities of cooperation have emerged between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
This has been driven by two developments. The rise of ISIS after the “Arab Spring” has made Saudi Arabia more active in combatting extremism, which in the past it was happy to indulge. Also, the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran was vehemently opposed both in Jerusalem and Riyadh as placing Teheran on the road to regional hegemony.
Containment of Iran as a malign influence now unites Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Trump’s consecutive visits to their capitals is aimed at fostering that alliance.
It is impossible to predict what a famously undiplomatic president will do on the diplomatic stage.
Will Trump revisit his campaign comments – subsequently abandoned – that NATO is obsolete? Will he harangue his counterparts to increase their NATO contributions? Will he support the G7’s exclusion of Russia’s Vladimir Putin as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine, or will he attempt to soften it?
Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state for President Bill Clinton, wrote a 2006 memoir on religion in global affairs: The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. She argued there that American foreign policy neglected the role of religion, and that it should be engaged as a potential force for peace.
No doubt that she would be surprised that Trump would be the one to build his first foreign trip on those premises.