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Did Biden Really Abandon Nigerian Christians?

November 24, 2021

The US State Department recently released the lists of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) on religious freedom, part of its responsibilities under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRF). The list now includes Russia alongside countries like Burma and China. But one change angered many religious freedom advocates: the removal of Nigeria from the list.

IRF advocates claim this is tantamount to abandoning Nigerian Christians, who are often the target of violence in that country. I think the situation is more complicated than that: Nigeria’s addition to the list was the result of the IRF community’s shameful embrace of the Trump Administration—and thus shouldn’t be cheered—while it’s not clear this list has any actual impact on preventing religious repression.

Why are people concerned about Nigerian Christians?

Nigeria is threatened by instability, that is true. Boko Haram has committed horrific terrorist attacks, many of which target Christians. There is communal violence between Christians and Muslims, with reports of targeted killings of both Christian and Muslim Nigerians. Nigeria’s government has definitely failed to stop this violence. So there is good reason to be concerned about what’s happening there.

As experts have noted, however, the narrative of a coordinated campaign against Christians isn’t quite accurate. Much of the communal violence has overlapping ethnic and economic divides along with religious ones. Boko Haram does target Christians, but presents a threat to all of Nigeria. Yes, Christians are under threat and the government is not doing enough to help. But IRF advocates risk over-simplifying this conflict in a way that may actually exacerbate tensions.

What are critics of Biden’s move saying?

Concerns about the removal of Nigeria seem to be strongest among Christian groups.

These are an extension of the pathologies of IRF advocacy, while the shift on Nigeria can actually allow for religious engagement that can resolve tensions.

Christianity Today, building on a story from the Religion News Service, noted that Nigeria was “finally” added to the list last year. They quoted Sam Brownback—a conservative Christian involved in religious freedom efforts, and Trump’s IRF ambassador—as saying this was a “serious blow” to religious freedom. He went further to say this “rewards” the Nigerian government’s inaction, and specifically pointed to the threat to Christianity. Nigerian Christians were equally concerned about the Nigerian government’s inaction, but also welcomed Biden’s acknowledgment of the threat Boko Haram poses.

Providence Magazine—a conservative leaning outlet on Christianity and foreign policy—ran a piece characterizing this as “turning a blind eye” to Nigeria’s Christians. They also quoted the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins—who is involved in IRF advocacy—who pointed again to the threat to Nigerian Christians.

What’s wrong with this narrative?

As someone who ran the Pew Research Center’s work on global religious freedom, I spent years cataloguing religious violence in Nigeria. There is a serious issue here; Christians are being killed. That being said, I disagree with the way critics of the Biden Administration are characterizing the move.

First, we need to pay attention to the context of Nigeria’s addition to the religious freedom list. It was the final year of the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration presented itself as a “champion” of religious freedom, both domestic and international. Yet, Trump’s anti-Islam policies clearly contradicted this (and we would have counted them as a restriction on religious freedom at Pew if they occurred in another country).

Moreover, Trump skewed the nature of IRF advocacy—which had been officially ecumenical—by what Jacob Lupfer characterized as “equating religious freedom with evangelical causes.” The IRF community should have called out the anti-Islam and sectarian nature of IRF policy under Trump. Instead they kept quiet, hoping to protect their expanded institutional access, which I have written about here and elsewhere. Others openly abandoned their principles, cheering authoritarian regimes when they said the right things about protecting Christians.

We can legitimately debate whether or not poisoned origins undermine a good deed. But you cannot tell me that the Trump Administration’s addition of Nigeria to the CPC list was due to a consistent and clear desire to protect religious freedom for all.

Second (and related), we need to look at the background of the people now attacking Biden. Tony Perkins is a conservative culture warrior. That alone doesn’t disqualify him from IRF advocacy (although it definitely undermines claims it is nonpartisan). But he has also argued that Islam is an ideology, not a religion, and questioned the legitimacy of progressive Christianity. Both of these directly contradict religious freedom. Brownback has made less objectionable statements about Islam, but he is also a conservative culture warrior. And he served the Trump Administration, doing nothing to stop its anti-Muslim policies and possibly enabling them (as Lupfer discussed). I think they are a bit less than credible here.

That’s because IRF plays a unique role in US foreign policy debates. It’s is important enough to compel policy responses but not important enough to provoke substantive debate.

Third, we need to question whether this CPC list has the magical impacts IRF advocates seem to suggest. The idea is that this list makes it easier for America to put diplomatic and economic pressure on states to change their religious freedom record. Has it actually done so? There are very few success stories the IRF community can point to. The religious repression of the repeat members of the CPC club has stayed the same or gotten worse. Additionally, the sectarian framing of IRF advocacy under Trump—often focusing specifically on Christians—could actually intensify tensions, as I’ve discussed. So it’s not like keeping Nigeria on the CPC list would really do anything.

However, removing Nigeria from the list may help. The biggest concern is inaction by the government in the face of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram or communal violence. The IRF community assumes a “name and shame” approach will work. Instead, engaging with troublesome states—especially those, like Nigeria, where the problem is inaction—could be more effective. We’ve seen some evidence that this works. For example, Christianity Today ran a column by Nigeria’s President calling for unity among Nigerian Muslims and Christians; efforts like this could have a lot more impact than putting sanctions on Nigeria.

The critiques of the Biden Administration’s move are an extension of the pathologies of IRF advocacy, while the shift on Nigeria can actually allow for religious engagement that can resolve tensions.

Of course, none of this will matter

I honestly wondered whether it was even worth writing this. That’s because IRF plays a unique role in US foreign policy debates. It’s important enough to compel policy responses but not important enough to provoke substantive debate. Those who think religious freedom matters focus their efforts on broadening its impact on US foreign policy, and are thus not interested in debating its nuances. Everyone else either questions religious freedom’s importance or ignores it altogether.

Additionally, this issue has always leaned to the right, which got worse under the Trump Administration. At this point it’s basically a conservative issue. There are two problems with this. One: it should be a liberal issue, and there are liberal alternatives (see work done by the Center for American Progress, some by me). Two: by ignoring this issue, liberals hand it over, removing us from this policy debate.

So I’m expecting (mostly conservative) IRF advocates to ignore me, and the rest of the foreign policy community (right and left) to ignore me as well. I’ve tried to make the case for more people caring. And I’ll keep trying.

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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.