If you mention the evangelical delegation to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to ask which one

13 September 2019, 1157 EDT

The other day, Emily McFarlan Miller–a journalist with Religion News Service–noted a sense of deja vu. The AP had an article on a delegation of US evangelicals who travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince (and effective ruler). The deja vu was because there was a similar delegation–with some of the same individuals–last year, which she wrote about at the time. These repeated visits, and the visitors’ response to the conservative Islamic Kingdom, are surprising, and may represent a shift in how evangelical elites view Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 visit took place shortly after the (technically) alleged (but, come on) assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and was led by a US man who’d previously praised MbS as a sincere reformer. Noteworthy individuals on the trip included former Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers and a recent appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. After returning, he praised MbS’ reforms and “support for moderate Muslim rule.”

The recent visit also included Moore and other prominent evangelicals. And while Moore has not been as effusive in his praise this time (yet), the delegation did release a statement saying they are “delighted” by the “developments” in the Kingdom.

This may be obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing how surprising it is that US evangelical elites are so positive about Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has an extremely conservative form of Islam as its official religion, with minimal rights for non-Muslims (including Christians). One of evangelicals’ major foreign policy priorities has been international religious freedom (IRF), so it seems strange to praise one of the most repressive states in the world.

So what’s going on?

Last year, I suggested it was shrewd marketing on MbS’ part. Evangelicals are one of Trump’s most important voting blocs, and his Administration has built up its IRF efforts to keep them happy. So it’s conceivable that, if they called on Trump to denounce Saudi Arabia, he may have done that. By establishing close ties with evangelical elites, MbS could be heading off diplomatic tensions.

It’s possible we’re being too hard on them too. While Moore and others have been eager to praise MbS and other autocratic leaders (like Egypt’s al-Sisi), this statement felt a bit more reserved. Yes, they said they were “delighted” but they also noted a desire to see continued improvements in the Kingdom. I have heard from former colleagues (I used to work on IRF when I was in DC) that many are avoiding publicly critiquing the Trump Administration’s questionable religious freedom record to ensure they have behind the scenes access to push for change. Something similar may be behind this Saudi visit. Whether or not that is happening–and whether or not you think this is noble or self-serving–that’s one potential explanation.

But there’s a third possible explanation: for some evangelicals, the emphasis of IRF efforts may be shifting. It used to be a broad-based campaign, opposing all government infringements on religious belief and practice, no matter the community affected. Since Trump came to power I’ve noticed a shift to emphasize the plight of persecuted Christians and the threat of radical movements in Muslim societies. At times it almost seems as it some IRF advocates would accept progress in those areas at the expense of others. For example, another evangelical visit to Egypt praised Sisi, its authoritarian leader, for his defense of Christians, even though he’s presided over a broad crackdown on Egyptian society.

Indeed, the recent delegation’s statement specifically mentioned the threat of “radical Islamist terrorism” and “the Iranian threat.” This echoes Moore’s praise for MbS’ “moderate Islam” and the defense of Sisi I just mentioned. It’s possible that some in the IRF community are narrowing its focus and merging it with general conservative stances (like standing up to Iran).

I’m never sure if it’s worth writing on international religious freedom, since progressives have mostly written it off and conservatives aren’t interested in my critiques. But this matters beyond this community. Again, evangelicals are a crucial interest group in Trump’s coalition. If their conception of human rights is shifting, this could have major implications for US foreign policy.