Debate continues to roar on Capitol Hill as Senate committees argue over the qualifications of President Trump’s nominees for numerous positions throughout his administration. Although there has been, and will continue to be, widespread media coverage, one position that hasn’t received enough attention is that of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State.
As my organization, International Christian Concern (ICC), has witnessed in recent times, filling this position with the appropriate candidate is vital for efforts to expand religious freedom around the world. This position is key to prioritizing freedom of religion in diplomatic channels with foreign governments. The Ambassador also meets with victims of persecution, non-governmental organizations, and other government staff who are working on behalf of this issue.
There is widespread consensus throughout the international religious freedom community that having continuity in this position is necessary toward making gains on religious freedom. Allowing this position to go unfilled leads to the breakdown of relationships with foreign government leaders and other individuals and organizations with which this office engages. Without an IRF Ambassador, we lose a central figure devoted to the furthering of religious freedom around the globe.
Freedom of religion was viewed by our founders as the most basic of inalienable rights and one of our first freedoms. Beyond our own Constitution and founding documents, this right is also codified in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Beyond the positive moral consequences for promoting religious freedom internationally, there are also numerous practical consequences that benefit the interests of the United States and our allies. National security continues to be the top priority of our government. Religious freedom provides a basis for a stable society that respects differing beliefs. This tolerance is the foundation of a country that is a cooperative actor on the international stage.
Robert Seiple, the first Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, testified before congress on the first international religious freedom report. His testimony designated a number of states as countries of particular concern due to their violations of religious freedom. According to William Inboden of the Hoover Institute nearly every country he cited at the time was, or would become, a national security concern for the US and its allies.
There is evidence of this historically as well. Inboden says that “every major conflict the US has engaged in over the past 70 years have been against an enemy that has violated religious freedom.” This includes the current threats to the US of radical Islam and authoritarian regimes. Lack of religious freedom is a common thread throughout these conflicts.
There are also serious economic ramifications when countries constrict religious freedom. Countries that do not promote religious freedom tend to have higher rates of social hostility towards people of faith, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. From angry mobs attacking Christian neighborhoods in Pakistan to possible genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Burma, this hostility destabilizes an economy and a workforce, making outside investment and trade more difficult. This, in turn, carries negative consequences for the global economy.
Robust religious freedom can also be a major economic stimulus. According to the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation (RFBF), religion contributes $1.2 trillion to the United States’ economy. This is the equivalent to the world’s 15th largest economy. Faith-based charities alone account for $95 billion of activity that positively affects our society.
Theodore Roosevelt Malloch of the RFBF states that “analysis of new comprehensive data demonstrates that the countries with the least religious liberty also suffer the worst economic freedoms and are lacking in political rights.”
Beyond the moral, security, and economics arguments, one cannot overlook the human element of religious freedom. Believers all over the world who suffer for their religious beliefs under oppressive regimes or face social hostility from their neighbors are looking for a leader in the international community to raise these issues with their government in order to find relief. The United States should continue to be that leader.
Just last year, then Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, visited Mexico after numerous reports from International Christian Concern and others detailing the persecution faced by some rural Christian communities. After visiting with victims and government leaders, we have seen improvements from the Mexican government. Restitution has been paid to some who have been ostracized from their village, and there have been victories for religious minorities in Mexican courts. Although there is still much work to do in Mexico, it is clear that the Ambassador’s visit raised the profile of persecution in Mexico and had a positive influence for the many believers who seek to worship as they please without fear of reprisal.
In our increasingly globalized world, it is imperative to have an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the US State Department to encourage the protection of this right. Prioritizing this first freedom will not only improve social aspects of the international community, but also national security and economic aspects as well. It is our hope, along with many other allies of religious freedom, that the Trump administration will swiftly nominate a new ambassador and continue to prioritize freedom of religion in their dealings with other countries.