Religious freedom is in crisis around the world. From violent Islamic extremists committing genocide across the Middle East (and inspiring terror attacks globally), to the destruction of crosses by the Chinese government, from blasphemy laws that silence religious debates and incite violence, to the imprisonment of religious leaders in places like Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere, religious freedom seems to be diminishing.
Yet, the United States continues to consider promoting religious freedom a fundamental foreign policy objective. In fact, there are now more than 50 full-time State Department employees who work on religion related issues, more than ever before. It is clear that understanding religion is critical to foreign affairs.
Contributors were asked to consider how a candidate might handle issues of international religious freedom as the next president of the United States.
While there is much, and justified, concern within the humanitarian and security communities about the potential effects of Donald Trump’s rhetoric in further facilitating a “holy war” narrative within the Middle East, it would be wrong to view rhetoric alone as our only foreign policy consideration.
The Middle East is a region already fraught with hyperbole. Every one of our allies at once curse us while they are assisting us. “Winks and nods” are given in back rooms between leaders whose private cooperation with America is only made possible by their public pronouncements against us. Such double-speak is an essential part of diplomacy and coalition building. Our Christian ethic prefers binary choices but such is the luxury of our two party, democratic system. A luxury not enjoyed by a single one of our enemies or allies in the region, despite sometimes ignoble attempts.
What’s more essential to problem solving than rhetoric is actual foreign policy actions, and, furthermore, understanding the philosophy that would undergird an administration’s policy. That philosophy not only emanates from the Oval Office, but it is – more importantly – reflected in the countless thousands of appointments made by an administration.
A RETURN TO AMERICAN HEGEMONY
So, if you control for rhetoric, the election of Donald Trump would represent a return to theories of American hegemony that have largely undergirded our global, security and prosperity for the better part of the post-World War II world. That status quo advanced human rights and religious freedom, and contained those nations which sought to destabilize the world without regard for these universal rights.
Our single greatest departure from this conviction has been in the two terms of the Obama presidency, whose bias against American hegemony alone prompted a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize for Mr. Obama, and has since resulted in a frighteningly unstable world.
OBAMA’S FAILED EXPERIMENT IN AMERICAN HUMILITY
In leading from behind, Mr. Obama has left many wondering if we have led at all.
This is seen in the total failure of President Obama to contain the incomprehensible atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad and various Islamist groups in Syria, and then the general destabilization of the Middle East. Mr. Obama came to power at a time when there was only one truly, failed state in the world: Somalia. He will leave office with nearly a dozen nations weakened or teetering under the threat of extremism, including: Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and even Kenya. If it wasn’t for the French that list would also include Mali.
Among those most affected by these policies have been vulnerable religious minorities, especially Christians and Yazidis who have been the victims of genocide during the Obama administration, as the administration has itself declared. Such is also the bi-partisan opinion of two houses of the US Congress and parliamentarians who voted in the EU and Great Britain to declare genocide against Islamic extremists earlier this year.
At times, the Obama administration’s Christophobia has been so pronounced it couldn’t even get itself to use the word “Christian” to describe the twenty-one beheaded in Libya. The talking points called them “Egyptians” despite the ISIS-propaganda video being named: “A Message in Blood Written to the Nation of the Cross.”
Obama will leave the White House with a dismal human rights record directly resulting from his inability to stop Assad or to prevent ISIS, and while Mr. Obama is fond of lamenting the meddling of Russia, he fails to acknowledge that it was his Syrian and Ukrainian policies that have largely led to it, providing the first opportunity since the end of the Cold War for Russia to reemerge as a global threat.
Mr. Obama has rooted his bias against American hegemony in the overextension of such ideology by the George W. Bush administration. He might argue, and rightly so, that the “Bush Doctrine” theologized foreign policy theory, and it was his doctrinaire approach that led the administration to be distracted by nation building.
Yet, Mr. Obama’s overreaction has created a world that is far more dangerous with much greater suffering. His experiment in globalization lacked patience and discipline. In lessons learned from both two extremes we find an opportunity for a Trump – or a Clinton – administration to find balance.
AMERICAN HEGEMONY HAS PROTECTED CHRISTIANS ABROAD, EXCEPT IN IRAQ BECAUSE OF INTERVENTIONISM
For Donald Trump, whether or not the United States believes itself to be – or even wants to be – the world’s sole super power doesn’t change the fact that we are the world’s most powerful, affluent, and militarized nation. We have earned this status because of our ideas, values, and hard work. It is ours to lose or to keep. Being strong is actually a strength.
And, till now, one of the byproducts of American hegemony has been the protection of vulnerable religious minorities abroad – Jews in Russia, the Hmong in Vietnam, are two prominent examples. A strong America has always been perceived as a threat to those nations which restrict the freedom of religion, and our strength has been tied to our values. Our national identity has transcended our national leaders.
When America has not lapsed into pre-emptive war and nation-building, a strong America has always been a gift to those religiously persecuted, abroad. This was especially true of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians until the Second Iraq War when that community faced the beginning of a long persecution by Islamic extremists who leveraged our shared religion to justify their mass persecution. A leader of the Iraqi church once quipped to me, “when the U.S. sneezes, we bleed.” Until ISIS, many in the Iraqi Christian community viewed American interventionism as equally damaging to their ancient culture as militant Islam.
Mr. Trump has the unique strength of having been publicly against the Second Iraq War while simultaneously being critical of Obama’s destabilizing policies. While the orthodoxy of his anti-Iraq-War position has been questioned by Secretary Clinton, one cannot deny that even if he made a passing comment in support of it on a single radio interview, he was against the war almost immediately, far more frequently and far longer.
Trump is for a strong America, but not an interventionist one. Yet, he appears willing to leverage U.S. strength when required to advance our self-interest abroad, and – according to Mr. Trump’s apparent worldview – that self-interest includes values like the protection of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East.
In nearly every public speech since the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign he has referenced the plight of Christians abroad, especially at the hands of the Islamic State, and he has stated repeatedly the necessity to provide safe zones in the region for them.
He acknowledges that one of the great failures of both the humanitarian and security communities since 2003 has been a failure to protect these vulnerable religious minorities, and he’s right. Till now, despite billions being poured by the international community into the region, the humanitarian and other assistance provided to hundreds-of-thousands of displaced Christians has almost entirely been provided by private donors. The exception being $10 million mandated by Congress for the Christians in the Nineveh Plain. A GAO inquiry determined that the money never made it to the community. It was “lost.”
GOVERNING VERSUS TALKING ABOUT IT
All of this assumes, Mr. Trump is capable of taking a more measured approach than is required of a presidential candidate if he actually becomes president.
It assumes he becomes a businessman again more than the provocateur that this campaign has demanded of him. It also assumes that he’s smarter about distinguishing between terrorists and the greater Islamic community around the world, a community which has been far more victimized by terrorism than any other community in the world.
While Muslims in the Middle East do not face the threat of eradication – as do Christians – countless millions have been killed or displaced. So, a President Trump must find nuance in his vocabulary and make way in his policy for the majority of Muslims who are peace-loving and who actually dream of sending their children to an American college or university for opportunity alone. He must distinguish between Jihadism and Islam.
And, by no means, do I aim to diminish the potential effects of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric; especially at a time when the freedom of speech levied by the likes of Charlie Hebdo has cost so many lives at the hands of terrorists. Words are dangerous in our world.
But, this is also a concern as old as America itself. It was especially relevant at a time long considered the most divisive in American politics (until today). It was a time when one German observer advised, “believe nothing a newspaper … says that in any way might support a party or person.” It was a time when another observer referred to U.S. news organizations as being devoid of “justice and right judgement” for “a political party end is always in view.”
In fact, it was during that time that Andrew Johnson’s incendiary rhetoric became one of his articles of impeachment. Johnson was “warned away from his rhetoric by his advisers, chastised in the press of his own time, and ultimately censured (though not convicted) by congressmen.” In his speeches he chided hecklers, named his political enemies, and spoke almost exclusively in hyperbole even with the occasional reference to Jesus Christ. Though, he was comparing himself to Jesus.
In the end, he chose his words over his opportunity to actually make difference. The analogy is imprecise for some of Johnson’s policies were actually deplorable, but in the end he traded playing toward popular sentiment for the opportunity to actually act upon what mattered to him. Once he became president, after Lincoln’s assassination, he chose public speeches over the hard work of governance. Perhaps, he really wanted to be a kind of celebrity, not a president?
If Mr. Trump becomes president, he proposes a stronger America at a time when we need American values like never before, but he must make a hard pivot away from the limelight to the hard work of running the free world. It takes theater to win the White House these days but it takes temperament to run it. You might say it’s the difference between hosting a show like The Apprentice and running a business like The Trump Organization.
Many Christians abroad wonder if the world can bear much more of the last eight years.