Yet, just last week, Trump was criticized by leaders across the political spectrum for, according to one account, “fist bumping” Turkish president Recep Erdogan—whose regime is responsible for imprisoning Brunson along with scores of journalists and civil-society leaders—and commenting that he “does things the right way.”
This ministerial, which is really just a fancy word for “big meeting,” could be interpreted as the unveiling of an element of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy strategy. For the last three days, delegations from around the world have gathered to hear victims of religious persecution share their stories. American officials have declared in no uncertain terms that they believe the United States should evangelize religious liberty around the world, and that democracy is built on a foundation of freedom in faith.
During his remarks, Pence argued that the U.S. has a responsibility to spread this democratic welfare around the world. The U.S. religious-freedom model is “worthy of imitation,” he said, quoting George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. “America has always, and will always, lead the world by our example.”
Officials also argued that promoting religious freedom supports American security. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., argued in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that religious liberty is “an overlooked weapon in our modern arsenal of democracy.” In her position, “I have seen over and over … how peace and security are threatened by the denial of religious freedom,” she said. Earlier in the day, Pompeo and Pence name-checked human-rights abuses in adversarial countries, including China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. Pence spoke passionately about rising anti-Semitism in Europe. And ISIS loomed large, with its “savagery unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages,” as Pence put it. The focus on ISIS is no coincidence—this, too, fits with the Trump administration’s stated strategy. As Brownback put it: “More religious freedom leads to less terrorism.” In the same breath as he vowed to ensure religious freedom around the world, Pence promised that America “will not rest or relent until ISIS is driven from the face of the earth.”
While the administration’s leadership may be sending a strong message of its values to the world, that message hasn’t necessarily penetrated the Oval Office. Over the last year and a half, President Trump has often seemed to veer away from the role of alliance-building and affirming democratic institutions. He has struck out against Western allies in North America and Europe and cozied up to authoritarian regimes—often the very ones that were criticized throughout the ministerial.
“It’s like the first-ever Super Bowl for religious freedom,” said Johnnie Moore, the de facto spokesman for Trump’s evangelical advisers and a newly appointed commissioner on USCIRF, the independent governmental body that monitors religious freedom around the world. Moore has spent a lot of time in the past several years traveling around the world as a sort of unofficial, freelance representative of Western values, meeting with leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi and the crown prince of Bahrain. In his view, the Trump administration’s focus on religious freedom is a big shift from the past.
“There was talk of religion in the State Department before, of course, but it seemed more cerebral and less of a priority,” Moore said. “I think a good comparison is to think about the energy around environmental issues in the previous administration. It seems like there is energy akin to that around religious freedom in this one.” While the documents released at the ministerial, including a “Potomac Plan of Action,” offer concrete steps countries should follow to protect religious minorities, the administration’s own commitment to this principle has been complicated in practice: Take, for example, the Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Detroit who were rounded up for deportation, despite the protests of advocates who said they would face persecution in Iraq.
There was no hint of the tension that seems to underlie all of American foreign policy these days: that in any given tweet, the president is liable to lash out against allies or enemies, possibly undermining the relationships that diplomats have been working to build. At least for a few days, safe in the State Department building, blocks away from the White House, the United States was restored to its self-conceived role as a shining city on a hill. “I bring greetings,” Pence said, “from a champion of religious freedom, at home and abroad.”