US State Department Hosts Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

On July 16-17, 2019, the US State Department hosted its second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. While positioned as a human rights conference to promote freedom of religion and belief, and highlight persecution of religious minorities around the world, in fact it was a charade masking the underlying intention of undermining and challenging the universality and nature of human rights. The rhetoric used in the Ministerial reflected the changing narrative of the US Administration on human rights - pinning one human right against another, positioning rights as “God-given”, and undermining them in other ways under the guise of protecting them - echoed narratives of other governments and conservative forces, and signaled a deeper entrenchment of fundamentalism.

On the surface the event appeared to represent a strong global effort to “reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change”. It was the U.S. State Department’s largest and highest profile convening on human rights in history. A milestone highlighted by various speakers, including by Vice President Mike Pence in his keynote address. Hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the ministerial featured speeches by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, and the EU's Special Envoy on the topic. Political and religious leaders from across the world were also present, and survivors of religious persecution from different religious denominations, including from countries from which President Trump has banned entry, were prominently featured in the program. 

What surprised me most was that the first speakers to take the stage were survivors of white supremacist attacks - an issue usually wholly ignored by the current Administration. It included a rabbi from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and a Muslim survivor of the Christchurch shooting earlier this year in New Zealand. Though the majority of speakers focused on the persecution of Christians with many claiming that Christians are the most persecuted religious minority.

Attendees at last year’s convening note it was openly hostile to LGBTIQ people and religious denominations other than Christian. Not this time. The language used was largely grounded in international law principles. The U.N. and other multilateral institutions were referenced frequently, as were international legal documents, principles and precedent. A few invited speakers, like the Norwegian Special Envoy for Religious Freedom, even mentioned the vulnerability and importance of protecting LGBTIQ people. And, while abortion did not enjoy the same level of omission, I noticed only a couple of references to it, for example when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar criticized “wealthy nations” for “pushing abortion”. 

Overall the charade was incredibly effective. If one did not have background knowledge of the Administration's hostility toward migrants, against Muslims, its extensive attack on the rights of trans people, and increasing restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights, this event could leave you thinking the US was dedicated to working with international organizations and protecting human rights, including protecting Muslims from being targeted because of their faith. 


Maria Sjödin and Rev. Brent Brent Hawkes, Pastor Emeritus of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto and founder of Rainbow Faith and Freedom

The fact that protection of human rights was not at all the core aim of the ministerial came through between the lines. Only once in two days did I hear someone say “or no faith at all”, recognizing that the right to religious freedom also embodies a right to not believe. Would-be hostility against sexual and reproductive health and rights, LGBTIQ people or migrants, was couched in human rights language, particularly the right to religious freedom, specifically by the many references to it as “the first freedom”. Yet signs of the First Amendment posted throughout the conference halls included only the first clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and excluded the subsequent mention of freedom of expression, the press, and the right to assemble. 

Speakers from Hungary and Poland used religious freedom and cultural heritage as justification for their anti-immigrant policies. Poland emphasized the need to help migrants in their place of origin, thus avoiding displacement and, implicitly, migration; while Hungary stated “we are a Christian nation, not many European countries dare to say that these days.” 

Another element exposing the charade was the enthusiasm with which right-wing anti-abortion and openly anti-LGBTIQ organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) welcomed and praised the ministerial. Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council (FRC) even presented on the panel “Monitoring International Religious Freedom”. FRC and ADF are designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Much of the rhetoric at the Ministerial echoed the recent launch of Secretary Mike Pompeo's Commission on Unalienable Rights. The Commission, launched in advance of the ministerial, is also framed as a tool for safeguarding human rights, while in fact doing the opposite. Both the ministerial and the Commission supposedly emphasize the fundamental importance of human rights, while insisting they need to complement the US Constitution and its founding principles. The very founding principles, drafted during an era of race and class segregation and discrimination, which describe inalienable rights as ones bestowed by God (not people), on “all men” (not women). The announcement of the formation of the Commission references “natural law”, while at the Ministerial the term “God-given rights” made a frequent appearance. Both are terms used to describe a “God-given” social order, which is often characterized by male-domination, subservience of women, race and class segregation, and complete erasure of LGBTIQ people.

Neither the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom nor the Commission on Unalienable Rights are business as usual. Both are frightening signals of a growing institutionalization of strategic and highly thought-out fundamentalism within the Trump Administration. A fundamentalism with the potential to further roll back the hard fought gains protecting human rights as truly universal, regardless of religious denomination, gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other number of distinguishing features. As human rights defenders, civil society activists and organizations, it is our duty to not let this changing rhetoric claiming to protect rights while, in fact, undermining them, blind us into complacency. The lack of open hostility is not a lack of threat. It is an even bigger threat precisely because it operates within the international human rights framework. It is a threat which we must stay vigilant in the face of in order to ensure that the definition of human rights and who and how they protect is not changed in a way that defines us out of existence.