The Senate has continued to delay the confirmation vote of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Amidst emerging global crises, it becomes increasingly critical that Brownback be immediately able to move into the position, and begin his advocacy work. Further delay of Brownback’s confirmation not only risks lives, but delegitimizes American foreign policy abroad.
The position does not get much attention in the media, but is of critical importance. First created in 1998, following the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department has worked with countries to repeal, and stop the implementation of laws which impede religious freedom, as well as working to free people imprisoned and persecuted on account of religious beliefs. This office offers a key outlet within the State Department to pursue policy goals within a uniquely religious framework.
The Pew Research Center has reported that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.” On top of this shocking statistic, the emergence of a series of current issues brings particular attention to religious freedom abroad.
The Islamic State has continued to carry out a genocide against religious minorities including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in the Middle East. North Korea suppresses religion and deifies dictators. China has systematically oppressed Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians. Conversion from Islam and public practice of minority religions is still against the law in a variety of countries including Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The suppression of religious expression in Europe is on the rise as well, as countries pass bills blocking public expressions of faith such as burqas and large crosses. Finally, in Myanmar, we see a government actively carrying out a genocide against its Muslim population.
The U.S. Constitution recognizes religious freedom as the first among many freedoms, and for good reason. It establishes the protection for many to worship something higher than government, and in so doing limits the power of the state. With this collision of spiritual and temporal power, it becomes understandable as to why authoritarian leaders throughout the world and throughout history have attempted to suppress the practice of religion by the citizenry. For a state will never be able to consolidate complete political control if it is forced to compete with a higher power.
One of the reasons we have not found success in these conflicts before is because we underestimate the importance of religion to these communities. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 8 in 10 people identify with one of the major religious groups. The importance of religion in world affairs can not be understated, and for this reason, the State Department would hinder itself to not have somebody working on these issues in a full time capacity. It is good for our government to separate church and state, but the question must be asked: At what point does our incapability to incorporate the role of religion into our foreign policy doctrine hinder our ability to make change on the world stage, especially in areas where religion exists as a crux of societal life?
As a people whose roots lay in fleeing religious oppression, it becomes all the more crucial that we, as Americans, commit ourselves to combat those who seek to oppress. With the state of religious freedom in the world today, it is necessary to confirm Brownback and to give the Office of International Religious Freedom the tools needed to protect this most foundational of freedoms for people everywhere.
Hunter Estes is currently studying international security at Georgetown University. His Twitter handle is @realHunterEstes.
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