After Donald Trump became president, his cabinet and government agency appointments seemed to be pulled straight from the Divine Comedy, or more specifically, Dante’s Inferno. Scott Pruitt, fresh off of fights against the Environmental Protection Agency, was tapped to lead the EPA. Betsy DeVos, with her utter lack of understanding of public schools, was named Secretary of Education. Even more appointees were officials whose careers preceding their appointment ran counter to their new mission.
The latest appears to be Tony Perkins, of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, who was appointed chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in June.
The Family Research Council (FRC) is an anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim organization that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hatewatch” Initiative. In a nutshell, the organization promotes marriage as solely being between a man and a woman and the idea that Islam is inherently incompatible with the US Constitution.
While Perkins’s comments upon becoming chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) seemed to recognize the pluralistic nature of religion in the US and abroad, his record of efforts, actions, and attitudes towards Christian supremacy leave his intentions on the commission, quite reasonably, in question.
Since becoming president of the FRC in 2003, Perkins has made anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim sentiment keystones of the organization—almost obsessively. He’s part of the religious right advocating to protect an inaccurate definition of religious liberty in America that justifies stymying rights of other groups of people. In his particular crosshairs is the LGBTQ+ community.
The Family Research Council’s website states that they “oppose the vigorous efforts of homosexual activists to demand that homosexuality be accepted as equivalent to heterosexuality in law, in the media, and in schools.”
On the third anniversary of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, Perkins claimed that the decision opened the floodgates to “the left bulldozing their ways through every possible social norm.” He also compared gay marriage to pedophilia.
Recently, the FRC has published further commentary about Islam, claiming that the faith is a danger and that Muslim Americans do not deserve the same First Amendment freedoms as other Americans. “If people want to live in America—including Muslims—they need to embrace our Constitution and our culture,” Perkins claims. “There is no such thing as coexistence between Sharia law and our constitutional republic. That isn’t religious prejudice but ideological reality.”
The organization promotes anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims, including the nonsensical argument that allowing Muslim Americans to practice their religion in the United States means that the war on terror is lost. These comments are championed by FRC Executive Vice President Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, who has plenty of other anti-Muslim commentary in his repertoire.
After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June of 2016, Perkins and the FRC blamed the shooting on the Obama administration for elevating Islam and marginalizing Christians.
Allow me to pause here for a moment to remind the reader that the man promoting this bigotry is now the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—an entity meant to promote egalitarian and free religious practice around the globe.
There are still seventy-two countries around the world that have anti-homosexuality laws. Will Perkins, who has aggregated so much anti-gay sentiment through his role at FRC, turn a blind eye to the persecution of the international LGBTQ community? Will he see state action against gay people in Chechnya or Russia, for example, as a reason to take considerable action?
USCIRF describes itself as “dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.” Knowing Perkins’s past positions, it’s concerning to think he and USCIRF would prioritize religious freedom as the freedom to discriminate.
Some hope that Perkins will have turned over a new leaf and gained the Spiderman-sense that “with great power comes great responsibility.” However, all signs point to Perkins approaching international religious freedom and discrimination as he has at the FRC—that is, supporting the liberty of Christians while vilifying others.
The likelihood that Perkins takes this watchdog role seriously may be scant. However, it is incumbent on humanists to watch the watchdog—looking to expose injustice across the globe where he may refuse to shed light.