Faith communities must clearly articulate support for international religious freedom

By Dr. Elijah M. Brown

President Donald J. Trump faces a world in which millions of individuals daily face life-threatening realities because of their conscience and deeply held religious convictions. These individuals include atheist bloggers in Sri Lanka who were hacked to death, Tibetan Buddhists who set themselves on fire to protest government interference and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar who were denied citizenship. Christians — the most persecuted faith community worldwide — teeter at the genocidal edge of extinction in Iraq, languish imprisoned in metal containers in Eritrea, and face starvation in northeastern Nigeria in addition to a raft of governmental restrictions from Russia to Cuba. Simply put, religious freedom remains one of the most pressing problems in the world today.

Simply put, religious freedom remains one of the most pressing problems in the world today.

Headline grabbing, religious bans, blanket restrictions and refugee injunctions will not ease the burden of oppression faced by those living through hostilities and marginalization. The U.S. government, however, has developed an unparalleled suite of tools that meaningfully address the scourge of persecution. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for example, conducts regular fact-finding missions and publishes an annual report with recommendations that, when enacted, positively advance religious freedom in countries of particular concern.

The National Security Council is to include a special advisor to the president on international religious freedom as an advocate at the level of the executive office. Within the U.S. Department of State, an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom leads a critical office that trains Department of State officials on religious freedom. This office was further strengthened this past December with the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.

Unfortunately, all too often the positions and processes created to cultivate a proactive foreign policy sensitive to prisoners of conscience and the vulnerable victimized for their faith have floundered with presidential inaction. For example, since the creation of the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, presidents have taken, on average, a stunning 353 days to make a nomination. Three hundred fifty-three days is a pattern worth breaking.

Religious freedom is much more than a secondary periphery issue narrowly constrained to participation in worship; it underpins a wide array of human rights, economic interests and national security.

It is also a pattern that deeply undercuts mounting evidence that countries that maintain broad, plural and inclusive religious freedom are less prone to violence, less likely to export terrorism and more likely to grow their overall economy. Religious freedom is much more than a secondary periphery issue narrowly constrained to participation in worship; it underpins a wide array of human rights, economic interests and national security.

Furthermore, it stands in stark juxtaposition to our own national identity. As the first nation in the world to constitutionally guarantee religious freedom, the United States has a substantive history of standing for this “first freedom.” Far from diminishing the United States, actively working to advance religious freedom is a source of hope and goodwill to those facing tyrants and terrorism.

To be fair, people of religious convictions and communities of faith across the nation have not always clearly articulated to the president their support of policies that advance international religious freedom. For this reason, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative recently sent President Trump a letter signed by hundreds from across the United States, urging him to nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in his first 100 days. At this critical juncture, as people of faith, we can and should do more to stand with brothers and sisters persecuted around the world.

Although early into this new administration, the evidence is far from certain that President Trump will break an executive office pattern of minimizing religious freedom as a cornerstone human right and American value. What is more clear is that, over the first 353 days of a Trump presidency, more than 7,000 will likely die for their faith, and millions more will suffer through horrific conditions and ongoing discrimination.

This pattern of complacency is one that is worth reversing, and people of faith have an opportunity to encourage President Trump to do so. Little else in the first 100 days of a new administration could do more to clearly signal a commitment to one of the most denied human rights and directly and practically counter the realities of oppression than to nominate a special advisor on international religious freedom and an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Those dying for their faith do not have 353 days to wait.


Elijah M. Brown, Ph.D., is executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.