Washington Wednesday: International religious freedom

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 31st of October, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

Open Doors USA reports that about 1 in 12 Christians lives in a country where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punished.

In raw numbers, that’s more than 200 million believers experiencing high to severe persecution for their faith.

Of course those numbers don’t include people of other faiths who experience the same. Roughly three of every four human beings on the planet live without religious freedom.

That’s why—20 years ago this month—Congress passed a bill.

AUDIO: The vote is 98 aye, zero no. The bill is approved.

It’s the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. It established the Office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department. It also created the the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. That’s an independent body advising Congress, the president, and the State Department on these issues.

On the bill’s 10-year anniversary, President George W. Bush talked about the effect of the law.

BUSH: In all these ways, the act has placed religious liberty where it belongs—at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

One of the lawmakers who helped pass the measure was then-Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Last year President Trump nominated him to fill the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

And Harvest Prude, WORLD’s reporter in the nation’s capital, sat down with him this week at the State Department to discuss his work. She joins us now to talk about it. Good morning, Harvest!

HARVEST PRUDE, REPORTER: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: Sam Brownback has been around for a long time: the Senate, then a stint as governor of his home state, Kansas, and now this. I’m curious, what stood out to you?

PRUDE: Well, for those who don’t know, he was an evangelical Christian who converted to Catholicism. As you said, he’s been in politics for a long time. But he actually says this is the most important job he’s ever had. And maybe most impressive of all is that he’s doing this without caffeine. He actually gave it up a couple of months ago.

EICHER: How on earth did he make it through the Senate confirmation process?! This is a scandal … ?

PRUDE: Haha, yeah, I don’t know how that one got under the radar!

EICHER: Clearly, religious freedom has been a theme of his career, and we just heard President Bush talking about the first decade of the religious-freedom law. Did Ambassador Brownback have anything to add about the second decade?

PRUDE: Yeah, he did talk about that. And while there have been points of progress, he’s pretty pessimistic about the worldwide trends. Here’s what he said.

BROWNBACK: Well, unfortunately there are more threats than there has been expansion over the last 20 years. And I think, people ask that question a lot and there was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom right after the fall of communism and the world just kind of started moving and there was a big expansion of freedom and now it’s like we’ve had this reset and a lot of people now are more religiously restrictive. And a lot of times it’s to favor the domestic majority religion or it’s a political move by an administration to hold down a minority or it’s a regime that wants to control things as they don’t trust religion because they can’t control it. As if you could control God. And so there’s just a real constriction that’s been taking place over the last, I’d say, five to 10 years in particular.

EICHER: The general approach to religious freedom seems to be the so-called “name and shame” lists that come out. Which is to say, the U.S. government or some international body will call out oppressive countries, but not much else beyond that. Has Ambassador Brownback offered any kind of new approach?

PRUDE: Yes, he’s talked a lot about the shortcomings of name and shame alone. He told me one key is to make good behavior within a country’s best interest. Like how the U.S. sanctioned Turkey to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson. But he said you have to be flexible.

BROWNBACK: You’re always looking for whatever tool it is that would make something happen. And often we’ve used sanctions, but we’ve also used aid in a lot of places and sometimes it’s both, where you’re trying to encourage one set of behaviors and discourage another set. I would hope in the future that more countries would just come to the conclusion this is in their own best interest and would act, rather than requiring all these sticks and carrots, but that’s still to be — I do think you’re going to start seeing this right be much more broadly recognized and protected by governments just because the past experience of the last decade has been bad.

EICHER: Well, speaking of sticks and carrots, we ought to talk about Saudi Arabia. For decades the U-S government named-and-shamed the Saudis for their human rights violations. Then proceeded to grant waivers citing national security interests. And now we have the Jamal Khashoggi scandal. Is it fair to say the U-S has been letting them off the hook too easily?

PRUDE: Yeah, that’s definitely an ongoing point of conversation. In fact, in her latest column for WORLD Magazine, Mindy Belz makes this very point. She says our alliance with Saudi Arabia has come at a high cost. It’s not that we shouldn’t be allies with Saudi Arabia, but we should still hold them accountable.

Here’s what Ambassador Brownback said about that.

BROWNBACK: I think people are starting to recognize if you have a bad actor, whether they’re an ally or not, they’re not going to improve unless there are consequences to the bad actions, unfortunately. You’ve now seen us do it with two allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and before we’ve shielded them generally. But that shielding hasn’t gotten us anywhere. They continue to be bad actors on it and I think we have to just see that the relationship can sustain sanctions in one category if you’re clearly not performing according to your international obligations in that area. The other thing I hope people realize that read and listen to some of these things just the critical role the United States plays in all this. We’re the only country that will push this in an aggressive enough and an effective enough fashion to change behavior. Others will talk about it, but they won’t push it.

EICHER: What priorities will the U.S. government be pushing on this front?

PRUDE: Ambassador Brownback told me he’s hoping to see more of our allies  pursuing religious freedom alongside the U.S. And he said he’ll be keeping an eye on the Middle East in particular. It’ll be interesting to see whether his position wins the day when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Turkey and these other bad actors that have historically been able to get away with their human rights violations.

EICHER: Harvest Prude is a WORLD reporter based in Washington. Her interview with Ambassador Brownback is going in the next issue of WORLD Magazine. If you’re not a WORLD member and you’d like to see it, let us know and we’ll send you a copy, absolutely free. Just let us know who you are and where to send it.

Visit worldandeverything.org, and look to the top of the page for a link to sign up for your free copy of our magazine.

Harvest, good work. Thanks!

PRUDE: You’re very welcome!

(Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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