January 14, 2017
DESERET NEWS: Concerned about religious freedom? Here's the first step President Trump should take
How long will the most remarkable suite of tools to give voice and support to those being fractured and forgotten be overlooked by the next administration?
To set the context: millions of people of faith — Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus included — are suffering in the shadows of genocide and persecution, ranging from benign harassment to explosive violence. Five billion people, to be exact, currently live in contexts characterized by religious restrictions and injustice, sometimes deadly, that undermines part of what is most fundamentally sacred to human dignity: a free conscience freely exploring life’s deepest questions.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Office of the State Department were designed to specifically ensure that the United States remains a beacon of support to those suffering. Critical in this regard is the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, an office that has proven to be a powerful addition to the United States, as well demonstrated by the current ambassador.
Unfortunately, during the previous three presidential administrations it is an ambassadorship that remained vacant far too frequently. Considering the current and three previous individuals who have served in this capacity, it has taken on average a remarkable 353 days before a nomination was made by the president for this position. To be clear, this is not an issue of congressional willpower as evidenced in the fact that the four appointments for this position were confirmed on average in 44 days. Under President Obama, the Senate confirmed his first nomination, Ambassador Susan Cook, in 28 days and his second, current Ambassador David Saperstein, in 17 days.
Congress has consistently moved to confirm appropriate nominations. The challenge has been with the executive branch.
President-elect Trump should therefore demonstrate his sincere commitment to the many individuals and faith communities around the world living at the edge of extinction by nominating in his first 100 days an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He should do so for three reasons.
First, the United States was the first nation to constitutionally guarantee religious freedom and therefore has a unique and significant history in this regard. USCIRF and the IRF ambassador-at-large are unmatched anywhere else in the world and contribute substantive awareness and soft power without new taxes, new legislation or ongoing entanglement.
Second, a swift appointment signals to the many evangelicals in his base, for whom this is a deeply resonate issue, his seriousness to his campaign positioning. Moreover, given that these offices work on behalf of people of all faiths or no faith, an early nomination can help assuage concerns a Trump administration will willfully turn a blind eye to various faith groups.
Third, religious freedom is closely tied to other human rights, macroeconomics and security. To use just one example, 10 of the 12 World Economic Forum macroeconomic pillars directly correlate to the degree to which religious freedom exists. Societies are most prosperous and most secure when they allow people of all religions or no religion to live according to the dictates of their conscience. Strengthening the IRF office should therefore be viewed as giving tangible expression to a powerful argument that has tremendous resonance around the world today from those facing governmental control in North Korea, genocide in Iraq, anti-Semitism in Europe and starvation in northeastern Nigeria.
President-elect Trump’s first step — as recently argued in an open letter (Bit.ly/PresTrumpLetter) collecting signatures — should be to break with what has been an unfortunate pattern of relegating to secondary importance a human right denied to 5 billion people by nominating in his first 100 days an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The need is pressing, the tools are present, Congress is supportive, but at the executive level does the political will exist?
Millions around the world pray that it does.