I was honored to be invited by the State Department to attend last week’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. This event brought together foreign diplomats and government officials with US policymakers and nonprofits who work on international religious freedom to discuss the global religious freedom situation.
Many humanists and progressives alike have been worried that the Trump administration’s international religious freedom campaigns would focus largely on cases of discrimination against Christians, as the administration has largely framed domestic religious freedom issues as a battle between victimized Christians and an overreaching federal bureaucracy and radical civil rights activists. Sam Brownback, the current ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, is also a committed Christian who has waded into culture wars in the past.
To the contrary, however, I found that Ambassador Brownback and the State Department are, at the very least, putting forth a legitimate effort to include nontheists and religious minorities in the conversation about international religious freedom. Several presentations at the event (including during the off-the-record civil society sections) took pains to mention the rights of nontheists not to belong to any faith and described the suffering nontheists face in countries that maintain and enforce blasphemy laws.
Even the Potomac Declaration, issued at the end of the Ministerial, has some positive language defending nontheists, such as including the right “to hold any faith or belief, or none at all” and the right to “equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.” The declaration also opposes “the threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs” and states that “persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies.”
These declarations aren’t necessarily something humanists and progressives would expect from the Trump administration, but they are the result of constant engagement by the American Humanist Association with the administration on international religious freedom, as well as an understanding by Ambassador Brownback and others that while we may disagree on domestic religious liberty, there’s little space between conservatives and progressives when it comes to the basics of international religious freedom.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything at the ministerial was perfect. Several victims of religious persecution were asked to address the audience, and none of them were nontheists (most were from Abrahamic faiths). Brownback, speaking about the event to the media, stated:
We were as inclusive as possible because we wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all, everyone who cares about religious freedom and who will join us in this cause. Religious freedom really, truly is for everyone. It’s a right given by God and it’s a beautiful part of our human dignity.
While the first two sentences of that statement are flawless examples of inclusive diplomacy and advocacy, the last sentence is unfortunately exclusionary of the quarter of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated and may not believe that religious freedom rights are divinely bestowed upon us.
Overall, the ministerial was a successful event that called together advocates of every possible background and put forth a valiant effort to be inclusive. While humanists will likely oppose the Trump administration on much of its domestic agenda, we should seek to work with the State Department on international religious freedom where there is an earnest effort by the government to engage us and become more inclusive. Through engagement, we have the ability to help ease the plight of suffering nontheists around the world, and ensure that governmental international religious freedom advocacy continues to be even more inclusive.