Three Ways the 45th President Can Advance International Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is in crisis around the world. From violent Islamic extremists committing genocide across the Middle East (and inspiring terror attacks globally), to the destruction of crosses by the Chinese government, from blasphemy laws that silence religious debates and incite violence, to the imprisonment of religious leaders in places like Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere, religious freedom seems to be diminishing. 

Yet, the United States continues to consider promoting religious freedom a fundamental foreign policy objective. In fact, there are now more than 50 full-time State Department employees who work on religion related issues, more than ever before. It is clear that understanding religion is critical to foreign affairs. 

Contributors were asked to consider how a candidate might handle issues of international religious freedom as the next president of the United States.

To see all posts in this series visit: Election 2016: International Religious Freedom 

In an election year that included the U.S. government’s long-overdue acknowledgement of the so-called Islamic State’s genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims, there has been a shocking lack of serious discussion on international religious freedom (IRF). But of course the threats to IRF extend far beyond the Islamic State. Apostasy and blasphemy laws are routinely used across the Middle East and North Africa to intimidate and punish those who would leave Islam. Baha’i are still programmatically threatened by the Iranian regime, accused of apostasy from Islam. Elements of the Turkish security apparatus are capitalizing on the post-coup instability to jail and intimidate members of minority faiths as enemies of the state.

While both candidates have talked in vague terms about combatting the Islamic State, neither has enunciated a vision for promoting religious freedom as a common good that is severely deficient across the world. This need not be the case. Here are three ways the 45th president can leverage existing resources to advance this strategic value as an essential part of American foreign policy.

Implement the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act

Much of what the 45th president can do to further religious freedom is contained in the bipartisan Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015 (H.R. 1150). Though this important bill passed the House unanimously in the spring, it remains held up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the current Senate fails to get the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act to President Obama’s desk during the lame duck session, advancing such a bill in the 115th Congress could set the next president up for a quick bipartisan win that advances American national security interests within the first 100 days.

Most of H.R. 1150 focuses on modernizing the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom. The upgrades reflect 18 years of both civil society and government advocacy experience since the original IRF Act created the office in 1998. H.R. 1150 accomplishes the following:

      Establishes that the Ambassador-at-large reports directly to the Secretary of State, a reflection of Congress’ original intent that hasn’t been honored by any presidential administration to date.

      Provides the IRF office more flexibility with a tier-based system for designating Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs).

      Adds a category with which to designate non-state actors as Entities of Particular Concern, a much-needed designation in the era of groups like ISIL and Boko Haram.

      Makes training in the “strategic value of international religious freedom” required for all Foreign Service Officers.

      Establishes a minimum number of full-time employees in the IRF office, which has fluctuated across administrations.

Build on strong bipartisan support

International religious freedom as a policy priority originated with and continues to enjoy bipartisan agreement. In 1998, Congress mandated this priority by creating the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Ambassador-at-large for IRF at the State Department. The Senate approved the effort 98-0 and the House affirmed it with 87% before President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

That bipartisan collaboration continues today with leadership by Chris Smith (R-NJ), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), and others. Current Ambassador-at-large for IRF Rabbi David Saperstein exemplifies this bipartisan tradition. His nomination by President Obama was supported by conservatives, and he continues to be well respected across religious and political lines.

We acknowledge there is political work to be done on the Hill. Democrats tend to prefer addressing religious persecution in the context of a broader category of human rights. Republicans are often silent (or worse) on religious freedom for Muslims. Still, there is much room for Democrats and Republicans to put politics aside to help some of the world’s most vulnerable.

Indeed, religious minorities are acutely imperiled outside the United States in a way few Americans can comprehend. Sadly, religious persecution is an equal opportunity offender. Whether a person claims Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, Yazidism, or atheism, that person has fellow travelers somewhere in the world who are suffering discrimination, imprisonment, forced marriages, rape, torture, or death. Even the most partisan politico has the capability to recognize that the free exercise of religion trumps party politics.

Advance new arguments for international religious freedom

Religious freedom is often affirmed first from theology, philosophy, or history. We must continue to make the case for religious freedom from these first principles. However, we must also recognize that leaders of non-Western nations reject religious freedom as a western or Christian notion as alien to their culture and values. Even as we continue to make the case that religious freedom is a universal value that is—or should be—shared by all people, we can employ other kinds of arguments to bolster our case.

The great paradox of the global religious landscape is that, in the midst of rampant persecution of all faiths around the globe, we have in our pockets volumes of data that provide areligious and non-ideological affirmation for religious freedom. These arguments go a long way in opening the door to discuss religious freedom with audiences who otherwise reject religious and philosophical arguments.

The work of Georgetown University's Thomas Farr shows shows the strategic value IRF provides to national security, both to the U.S. and other nations. The research of Brian Grim, first at Pew Forum and now at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, showcases the positive socio-economic contribution of religion and confirms religious freedom as a key component to sustainable development. The Institute for Global Engagement’s Center for Women, Faith & Leadership recognizes that a lack of religious freedom disproportionately affects women and seeks avenues for women of faith to influence conversation and policy in their own cultural context.

Regardless of which candidate moves into the White House in January, one thing is certain: Without intervention, religious minorities will still be in grave danger on Inauguration Day. Those of us who advocate for our brothers and sisters in Christ—and for imperiled members of any faith or none at all—pray that we will find a fellow advocate in the Oval Office. Our counsel to the 45th president is simple: leverage modernized policy mechanisms, bipartisanship cooperation, and research to further the cause of religious freedom around the globe.


Travis Wussow serves as Vice President for Public Policy for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Previously, he opened ERLC’s first international office focused on international religious freedom and justice issues. Mr. Wussow received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The University of Texas School of Law. He and his wife, Katie, have two daughters. Follow him at @traviswussow

Matthew Hawkins serves as Coalitions Director for the ERLC, working with other groups in Washington, D.C. to achieve common objectives. In this role he hosts a podcast at CanonAndCulture.com and has served as co-chair of the Congressional Working Group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. He holds a B.B.A. from Belmont University and an M.A. in Ethics and Public Affairs from George Mason University. Matt and his wife Crystal live with their daughter in Washington, D.C. Follow him via @mthawk.


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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