Peter Henne on Pompeo Investigation Could Undo Religious Freedom Movement’s Success

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news briefing at the State Department on May 20, 2020, in Washington. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool Photo via AP)

Peter Henne is director of Middle East studies in the Global and Regional Studies Program at the University of Vermont.


The growing concern that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got his inspector general fired to remove the threat of an inquiry into a Saudi arms deal should worry advocates of international religious freedom. The religious freedom movement has already mortgaged its bipartisan reputation to curry Pompeo’s favor. If he loses standing as one of the president’s closest advisers, it will have disastrous implications for persecuted believers around the world. Rather than rely so much on one person, the movement would do well to return to its bipartisan roots.

The international religious freedom movement’s fortunes have long depended on the attention it gets from the White House and top officials at State. In the 1990s, an ecumenical group of activists successfully pushed for the creation of a watchdog agency, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the appointment of an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. Both were housed and supported by the State Department.

These developments were much needed. Despite the spread of democracy after the crash of the Soviet Union, oppression of people of faith, studies found, contributed to social tensions and violence. But the religious freedom movement struggled to keep its momentum in succeeding administrations. President George W. Bush downplayed the issue and President Barack Obama’s administration took its time nominating IRF ambassadors and releasing annual IRF reports.

This seemed to change after the 2016 election. Vice President Mike Pence pledged to make international religious freedom a priority, and President Donald Trump nominated former senator and Kansas governor Sam Brownback, well-known for his IRF advocacy in the Senate, as ambassador.

Pompeo also emerged as an essential conduit for the movement, implementing several initiatives to raise awareness of religious persecution and give the IRF advocates access to policymakers. The State Department has hosted two ministerials, gathering global religious freedom leaders in Washington to make common cause. Echoing IRF activists, Pompeo has spoken forcefully of religious freedom as America’s “first freedom.”

Now this “success” may be the movement’s undoing.

Tying itself to the Trump administration, specifically Pompeo, has come at the cost of politicizing the issue of religious freedom. When I was an active participant in the movement, we prided ourselves on advocating in a truly bipartisan spirit and criticizing Bush and Obama alike.

This changed under the current administration. The movement seemed unconcerned when Trump loyalists were installed on the commission that is meant to be a neutral watchdog. Rather than a fighter for persecuted religious communities, USCIRF risks becoming a platform for allies of a conservative administration. Critics have been given fodder for their claims that IRF is slanted toward conservative Christianity and pushes U.S. interests.

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Source: Religion News Service