America’s Founders recognized the centrality of religious liberty to a free society. The reason for this was simple – no society can retain a virtuous and worthy character if its people cannot worship as they see fit. As James Madison wrote concerning religious liberty in his Memorial and Remonstrance, “This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.” That is why religious liberty is foundational to the functioning of a free society. It is also why when it is ignored or denied, tyranny tends to follow.
The necessity of religious freedom to a free society at home is why we must defend it abroad. In China, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, there are tens of thousands of people who are persecuted daily for their faith. That these nations are also America’s adversaries is no coincidence, because the treatment of religious freedom is fundamental to how a society functions. Any nation that disregards this essential right cannot claim to be good in any other measure and will inevitably become a society whose values are antithetical to those championed by the United States. That is why religious freedom was a central issue in the Trump Administration’s foreign policy.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views the practice of any religion without its authorization and supervision as a threat to the supremacy of the Party. This is evident in its treatment of people of faith everywhere in China, but it is most clearly the case in Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims are even now being rounded up and put into Orwellian concentration camps. They are surveilled at all times; they attend “re-education” classes run by the CCP; the women undergo forced sterilization procedures; and they must all perform forced labor.
The Trump Administration took decisive and historic action in response to this human rights catastrophe – we introduced tough sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the shameful oppression; we worked with American companies to ensure none of their products were made with China’s slave labor in the region; and finally, in my last few weeks as Secretary of State, I designated the actions of the CCP as amounting to genocide. The Biden Administration has thus far upheld that correct designation, but has indicated its central focus regarding China, and the rest of the world – much like under the Obama Administration – will be in other areas, such as climate change, while relegating religious liberty to being a side issue.
This is unfortunate and foolish – it would be a grave mistake to prioritize climate change at the expense of allowing religious oppression to fester and grow throughout the world.
The Trump Administration upheld its commitment to religious freedom even when it strained relations with our allies. When Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was serving God by ministering to a small congregation in Turkey, was arrested on a ridiculous, false charge of assisting in the 2016 coup attempt, the Trump Administration stood firm and demanded his release. The Turkish authorities thought that, as a minority Christian pastor with a small following, he would be an easy target for persecution and prosecution. The Trump Administration soon made them aware of how mistaken they were – we introduced sanctions and threatened higher and higher tariffs on Turkish goods until President Erdogan relented, and Turkish authorities agreed to let the innocent man go free. The ACLJ was also instrumental throughout this ordeal – it represented Pastor Brunson throughout his trials with the Turkish government, and all Americans should be grateful for their service. It is an important reminder that the power of the American people goes far beyond what our government may do. Pastor Brunson was an innocent man targeted for the religion he preached – such cases demand decisive and effective responses from our government and our people, and I am proud of the work we accomplished together and that Pastor Brunson was returned home safely.
The Trump Administration’s focus on religious freedom in its foreign policy was not narrowly political. It reflected an understanding, which was also our Founders’ understanding, of the importance of religious freedom to free societies. Where religious liberty flourishes, freedom tends to flourish as well. And where religious freedom is denied, you can bet that tyranny will follow. That is why religious freedom must be a central issue, not a side issue, in foreign policy.
This has been central to the ACLJ’s mission for decades, and it’s something I am dedicated to continuing to press forward through my work here.
Mike Pompeo is the former Secretary of State and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
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