When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convenes the second of his ministerial-level, multifaith conferences on religious freedom around the world on July 16 to 18, global threats to Christianity are likely to figure prominently, if recent comments by American officials are any guide. Pompeo is a guiding light. An Evangelical Christian, he says he sees a role for Jesus in all he does. He talks about facing a culture war for his faith.
In interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network and speeches in recent years, the former Sunday school teacher who adopted conservative religious views as a cadet when he joined a student Bible study group at West Point, characterized Islamists as a minority among Muslims. But Pompeo added, at a Capitol Hill event when he was a Republican member of Congress from Kansas before joining the Trump team:
“[T]hese folks are serious and they abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior [and] truly the only solution for our world,” as David Brody, the Christian network’s chief political analyst, reported in a profile of Pompeo in April this year.
In 2015, speaking at a church in Kansas, Pompeo addressed cultural confrontations ahead: “We will continue to fight these battles, it is a never ending struggle . . . until the Rapture,” evincing his belief that a moment will come when “sinless Christians will be miraculously transported to heaven.”
As secretary of state, Pompeo appointed a fellow Kansan, Sam Brownback, to be his ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Brownback was an unpopular governor criticized by his Republican party because of his economic mismanagement of the state. A strong social conservative, he also rolled back rights for the LGBTQ community and withdrew anti-discrimination policies. He was narrowly confirmed as ambassador when Vice President Mike Pence, an Evangelical who left the Catholic church, cast the deciding vote in a deadlocked US Senate.
A convert to Roman Catholicism, Brownback is reported to have links with Opus Dei, a conservative, often-secretive theological movement among Catholics.
On June 27 this year, Brownback said in a speech in Congress to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that Christians were in peril everywhere.
“According to a recent study by Pew, Christians face the most widespread harassment of any religious group, targeted in 144 countries globally,” Brownback said. “Religious persecution is a defining challenge of the 21st century.”
The Pew findings, based on 2016 data, found the number of countries where attacks on Muslims were targeted stood at almost the same, 142. Jews faced harassment in 87 countries. Reports of harassment of other major religions, primarily Hindus and Buddhists, stood at 40 countries combined, about the same total as all folk or traditional beliefs.
The global outlook for Christians is not all bleak. This year, Pew noted in a new report that Christianity was thriving in Africa and that by 2060, despite setbacks in Nigeria and recently Eritrea, the continent of 54 nations would be a major force in the Christian world.
In 40 years,the Pew Center reported, there will be 727 million Christians in Africa. Six nations are predicted to be in the top 10 numerically worldwide: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The 2019 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, published by the State Deprtment in April, does not overlook or diminish the abuses against Muslims. Among the report’s “countries of particular concern” are China — focused on the targeted Muslim Uighur population (as well as Chinese Christians), North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia, where its own Muslim population is repressed by an absolute monarchy, a regime especially harsh on women.
India, where a Hindu nationalist government won a large majority in recent elections, has been added to the list in a cautionary category. India bars visits of the religious freedom commission, which calls on the Trump administration to press the issue of access.
The Trump administration just recently declared India to be a key to a new strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region — the main interest of the White House — along with trade.
“In 2018, religious freedom conditions in India continued a downward trend,” the religious-freedom report concluded. “India has a long history as a secular democracy where religious communities of every faith have thrived. The constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom, and the nation’s independent judiciary has often provided essential protections to religious minority communities through its jurisprudence.
“Yet, this history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives — including, at times, the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities — that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities.”
Paradoxically, high on that list of countries of particular concern released by Pompeo and Brownback are governments led by autocrats on whom President Trump lavishes praise and counts among his best friends. They are not likely to face criticism from the White House.
In promoting or seeking to defend Christianity around the world as a cultural imperative, Evangelicals in the Trump administration and in Congress talk of the power of Christian values. Pompeo incorporated such ideas in his declaration early in June that he was redefining rights for Americans, effectively reversing or downgrading commitments to more secular international human-rights agreements.
He announced the creation of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, dedicated to operating on the principles of “natural” law and rights.
Pompeo further announced on July 8 that the commission will be led by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and a career-long conservative Roman Catholic with close ties to the Vatican. She has been a strong opponent of abortion and LGBTQ rights, and — out of step with current social trends — has questioned “alternative family forms,” according to the LGBTQ Nation. The gay-rights publication reports that after studying the commission’s membership that Pompeo has “stacked” it with anti-LGBTQ activists.
Glendon is a former United States ambassador to the Vatican, under President George W. Bush, and was vice president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Scientists from 2003 to 2013. In 1995, she led the Vatican delegation to the United Nations Fourth World International Conference on Women in Beijing. She has been a leading legal scholar and prolific author, including writing a book on Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievement in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Pompeo has suggested that the document needs revising if not replacing. Glendon’s book, “A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” was well received, including by Brian Urquhart, writing in The New York Review of Books in 2001.
Glendon, as chair of Pompeo’s new commission, colored already by Evangelical origins and tone, could be tested as a respected legal, if conservative, scholar.
One American politician in the race for president in 2020 has unequivocally had more than enough of Republican piety.
Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Ind., speaking in a televised debate on June 27 with other Democratic candidates, said that Republicans who have allowed the horror of brutal immigrant detention conditions to persist along the US-Mexican border have no right to talk about religion.
“[T]he Republican party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “Now, our party doesn’t talk about that as much, largely for a very good reason, which was we are committed to the separation of church and state, and we stand for people of any religion, and people of no religion.
“But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it,” he added. “And for a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.