Is religious freedom just for the faithful?

19 March 2019, 0948 EDT

Yesterday, Michelle Kosinki of CNN reported via Twitter that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was holding a special briefing for “faith-based media” only. She later relayed that the State Department was refusing to release the list of invited media or a transcript of the event. And we’ve now learned that the topic of the briefing was the state of religious freedom around the world. This creates a dangerous precedent and raises some serious issues about the manner in which conservatives define religious freedom. It also highlights why progressives need to engage with, rather than write off, religious freedom.

As anyone who’s read my posts here, on Medium or on Huffington Post back in the day, knows, international religious freedom (IRF) is an issue I follow closely. I ran the Pew Research Center’s work on religious freedom, and also wrote reports on this topic for Georgetown’s Berkley Center and the Center for American Progress. Unlike many who work on this issue, I come at it from a liberal perspective. I’ve tried to convince fellow liberals that this cause can be nonpartisan while also nudging international religious freedom advocates to live up to their claims of an ecumenical and bipartisan movement.

So I’ve been concerned by events in the IRF community under Trump, particularly their allergy to criticizing policies they would normally find problematic. The community was very tough on Obama, but insisted this was because they were principled advocates for an issue. If they then give a pass to Trump, they start to look like the conservative interest group their critics claim them to be.

And I was very concerned to see the State Department apparently limit discussions on religious freedom to “faith-based media,” which may not be representative of all different faiths (we won’t know until they release the attendees). There are two issues with this. The first is that IRF advocates claim to include atheists and agnostics in their ranks, but they would seem to be excluded from this event. The second is that IRF advocates repeatedly complain that they get little attention outside their own circles; excluding mainstream media is one way to ensure that continues.

A bigger issue is how conservatives seem to be defining religious freedom. Prominent religious freedom cases in American politics include religious individuals seeking exemptions from nondiscrimination rules and government funding for houses of worship. These touch on major debates about the nature and limits of religious freedom, which is beyond the scope of this post. But they all tend to involve the claim that people of faith are entitled to privileges on the basis of being people of faith. This has led to some pushback from the non-religious, such as a current case challenging clergies’ tax benefits. Religious freedom advocates deny they discriminate against the non-religious, but if they are ok with events like this State Department press briefing it will be harder to make that case.

This also highlights why progressive need to engage with this issue. Many are skeptical of religious freedom advocacy–both domestic and international–seeing it as a smokescreen for conservative or evangelical Christian interests. I sympathize with these concerns. But it will be very hard to push back on events like this press briefing if criticism is seen as merely a rejection of IRF’s importance. If, instead, progressives can advance an alternate–more inclusive–version of religious freedom, they may be more effective. The Center for American Progress has done some important work in this area recently, both on domestic and international topics, which may be useful model for future engagement.