Judd Birdsall on Our First Look at How Pompeo and Blinken See Religious Freedom Differently

Judd Birdsall on Our First Look at How Pompeo and Blinken See Religious Freedom Differently
Image: US Department of State / Flickr. Secretary of State Antony Blinken releases the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report.

The rollout of the US State Department’s most recent report on international religious freedom (IRF) this week was a study in the contrasts between the Trump and Biden administrations.

But there were also continuities.

Here are two of each that stand out to me as a religious freedom scholar and former staffer in the IRF office:

1. Humility

At last year’s rollout, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted, “There is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom” and “We remain the greatest nation in the history of civilization.” Hardly a winsome self-characterization. His only caveat was “America is not a perfect nation,” which is the kind of thing you say when you think you’re pretty close to perfect or don’t want to get into specifics about how you’re not.

By contrast, this week current Secretary of State Antony Blinken was self-effacing and specific. Blinken, who is Jewish, lamented that “we’re seeing antisemitism on the rise worldwide, including here in the United States as well as across Europe.” The same goes for anti-Muslim sentiment, which he labeled a “serious problem for the United States as well as in Europe.” Blinken’s modesty and self-awareness add credibility to America’s promotion of tolerance. What should differentiate the US government from authoritarian regimes is not only a higher level of respect for religious freedom but also more honesty about shortcomings and actively addressing them.

2. Co-equal Human Rights

In an article for Christianity Today last November, I argued that American religious freedom advocates can be divided into two basic camps: “First Freedom” and “Article 18.” The First Freedom camp asserts that religious liberty is not only sequentially the first freedom enumerated in the Bill of Rights but also the foundational right because it touches on matters of ultimate significance. The Article 18 crowd points to the fact that religious freedom is the 18th article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which suggests it is part of a broader web an interconnected, equally important rights.

Pompeo and other Trump officials were vocal proponents of the First Freedom view. Blinken implicitly but clearly repudiated that view and articulated the basic outline of the Article 18 perspective:

Religious freedom is co-equal with other human rights because human rights are indivisible. Religious freedom is not more or less important than the freedom to speak and assemble, to participate in the political life of one’s country, to live free from torture or slavery, or any other human right. Indeed, they’re all interdependent. Religious freedom can’t be fully realized unless other human rights are respected, and when governments violate their people’s right to believe and worship freely, it jeopardizes all the others.

During the Q&A with reporters, IRF office director Dan Nadel was asked whether this comment from Blinken represented a departure from the Trump approach. Nadel responded, “Secretary Pompeo did express his view that there was perhaps a hierarchy of rights concept and that’s a view that this administration does depart from.”

Importantly, Nadel followed this observation by stating that the approach of the Biden administration “in no way is to indicate that religious freedom is any less important.” The Trump administration invested considerable financial and political capital in the promotion of religious freedom, but its efforts were widely criticized as disproportionate. The danger now is that a more proportionate approach can look, especially to the First Freedom camp, as a diminution of religious freedom advocacy. The challenge for the Biden administration will be to articulate and demonstrate that its approach is more conceptually sound and practically beneficial.

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Source: Christianity Today

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