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Why you should care about Biden’s new Religious Freedom Picks

August 3, 2021

A (very small) corner of the policy world got excited Monday afternoon: the Biden Administration announced its picks for top international religious freedom positions. This is an area I’ve worked in for over ten years alongside my academic work, but it’s one that few policy experts pay much attention to. The reason for our excitement is the the same reason everyone should be excited about Biden’s picks.

International religious freedom policy: The forgotten floor of Foggy Bottom

US international religious freedom (IRF) policy officially started with the IRF Act of 1998. This law created an IRF office in the State Department with an Ambassador level leader. It also created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a watchdog agency. A later law, the Global Antisemitism Review Act of 2004, established a special envoy position on this issue (this was later changed to an Ambassador-level position).

The IRF office tended to be staffed by influential figures in this area, but had a low profile in the State Department. George W. Bush’s first ambassador was Robert A. Seiple, who had run World Vision among other organizations. Obama’s Ambassadors were Suzan Johnson Cook (a pastor) and Rabbi David Saperstein. These officials were cheered and prodded to action by what I call the IRF community, an informal gathering of activists and religious organizations focused on this issue. For a good overview of this element of US foreign policy, see this book by Gregorio Bettiza).

I worked in this area when I ran the Pew Research Center’s project on international religious freedom. We collected data on government and societal religious repression around the world and created indices to track its level and change. After I left Pew I switched to advocacy, writing here and on Medium about religious freedom issues. I also tried to make the argument for IRF as a liberal/progressive issue Democrats should champion. Much of my academic work, in turn, focused on the causes and impacts of religious repression.

Trump the tempter

The IRF community was frequently frustrated by the lack of high-level policy attention to this issue. This seemed to change with Donald Trump. The Trump Administration claimed IRF would be a priority and quickly appointed a high profile ambassador in Sam Brownback. The IRF community gained significant institutional access (so I’m told-I had left DC by this point).

By the end of the Trump Administration, I couldn’t help but feel the critics of IRF were right. Maybe this issue is inherently conservative.

I had also been concerned that this theoretically nonpartisan issue was perceived as a conservative one, and the IRF community’s embrace of Trump may exacerbate this. The dominant voices tended to be conservatives, and most progressives shied away or were openly critical of the issue. There were notable exceptions, like work by Brian Katulis and his colleagues at the Center for American Progress, but progressives tended to let conservatives have this one. The IRF community had been open with its criticism of Obama, but seemed quieter when it came to Trump’s cuts to refugee admissions (many of which were persecuted for their faith) or his chumminess with repressive leaders. This could give more ammo to IRF critics.

So I (and others) have been arguing that the IRF community made a Faustian bargain (sorry) with the Trump Administration (hence the Futurama image). They gained the power they’ve always craved, but at the expense of their souls:

  • IRF activists praised repressive regimes like Egypt’s.
  • They failed to use their institutional power to help people in need.
  • They championed policies to help persecuted Christians that would likely backfire, as I discussed in this report for the Center for American Progress.
  • And they attached themselves to a corrupt Secretary of State who tarnished their image.

By the end of the Trump Administration, I couldn’t help but feel the critics of IRF were right. Maybe this issue is inherently conservative. Maybe the charge that it is a sectarian rather than universal ideal was validated by its conservative evangelical drift under Trump.

Others, however, maintained their faith (sorry again). Peter Mandaville–a former religious affairs official in the Obama Administration–organized a project advocating for the positive use of religion in foreign policy (to which I contributed). Melissa Rogers (now a Biden Administration official) and E.J. Dionne wrote a useful report with recommendations on religion policy. And maybe the Biden Administration was working to revive and correct this issue.

Biden the Redeemer?

That brings us to the recent appointments.

The Biden Administration announced they were nominating Rashad Hussain for IRF ambassador, Deborah Lipstadt for anti-Semitism envoy, and Khizr Khan and Sharon Kleinbaum for USCIRF. Lipstadt is a well-published academic and should be an effective envoy. Kleinbaum is an influential Rabbi who previously served on the commission. These are both clearly good choices.

If US IRF policy now recognizes the importance of engaging with other communities, and includes an official acknowledgment that the dignity of Muslim-Americans matters, it may regain credibility as a serious, nonpartisan issue.

But I want to talk about Hussain and Khan. These are both great choices as well, but for different reasons.

Hussain has a long career with the Department of Justice and the House Judiciary Committee and comes from the Biden Admin National Security Council. He was also Obama’s envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the international organization made up of Muslim states. There are issues with these states’ human rights records and the extent to which they really support the world’s Muslims. But it was a useful effort to promote engagement across religious lines. Hussain thus clearly has relevant experience on this issue. And, importantly, he seems to be an insider in the Biden-Obama world, which may ensure this issue gets the attention it deserves.

Khizr Khan is a lawyer and founder of a religious freedom NGO. He is also the father of Humayun Khan, an Army officer killed in Iraq. Khan and his wife spoke at the 2016 DNC in support of Hillary Clinton, for which they were vilified by Trump despite their family’s sacrifice. Khan’s professional experience means he is qualified. Moreover, by appointing him, Biden is making it clear that religious freedom includes the dignity of Muslim-Americans, something many seemed to forget when they cheered Trump as a “champion” of religious freedom.

And that is why everyone should be so excited about these nominations. Hussain is well-positioned to craft an effective US IRF policy. Despite all the attention under Trump, he accomplished very little in this area. And Khan is well-positioned to work alongside Kleinbaum and the rest of USCIRF to ensure America is living up to its commitments. (I have less to say on Lipstadt, as this is not an area I focus on, but would welcome thoughts in the comments). It should be noted that the Religious Freedom Institute, which is nonpartisan but leans to the right, cheered these appointments (full disclosure: I know, used to work for, and occasionally spar with the founders of this organization).

Their impact may last well beyond the Biden Administration, however. I believe these picks have the potential to undo the damage done to IRF by the Trump Administration.

Trump claimed to defend IRF while demonizing Islam and Muslim-Americans. The IRF community did little to speak out against this. As a result, it began to appear that IRF only applied to conservative Christian interests, or only applied outside the United States (I don’t have room to even go into what he did to harm domestic religious freedom).

If US IRF policy is now directed by a Muslim-American who recognizes the importance of engaging with rather than, as I’ve termed it, selectively “naming and shaming” other communities, IRF may regain credibility as a serious, nonpartisan issue. If US religious freedom deliberations include an official acknowledgment that the dignity of Muslim-Americans matters as much as that of conservative evangelical Christians, it will be harder to ignore this in the future.

Of course, this all depends on the Senate actually confirming them.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.