WASHINGTON – Describing the USA as a country founded on religious tenets, President Donald Trump urged other nations Monday to join him in trying to end “religious persecution.”
“The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government,” Trump said at the United Nations. “They come from God.”
It was an unusual address, which the White House billed as the first time an American president convened such a meeting at the United Nations. Critics scoffed because of Trump’s immigration travel restrictions against predominantly Muslim countries and other policies.
Trump's push is a major departure from his tendency toward a go-it-alone strategy on foreign policy.
"Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent, moral duty," Trump said, announcing the United States is committing an additional $25 million to protect religious freedoms, religious sites and relics from attacks.
The White House described his call to action as the president’s key event at the international gathering. The United States has convened two gatherings of foreign leaders to discuss religious freedom issues in the past two years.
Trump may be the most visible and active on this issue of any president since Ronald Reagan, said William Inboden, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin who worked on international religious freedom issues for the George W. Bush administration.
What’s most notable, Inboden said, is how Trump’s approach has gone against some of his other foreign policy impulses.
“The Trump administration has, by and large, been pretty unilateralist,” he said. “But they’re taking a very multilateral approach on international religious freedom.”
The administration is praised by some for elevating the issue when, according to annual reports from the Pew Research Center, government restrictions on religion have increased around the world.
“It is really important to have multilateral cooperation right now because there are so many serious crises of religious freedom violations,” said Emilie Kao, director for the Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, which advocates for the separation of church and state, said Trump can prove he's serious by changing his own policies.
"President Trump was elected on the promise of a 'complete and utter shutdown' of Muslim immigration to the U.S.," Moline said. "Since then, his administration has worked tirelessly to redefine `religious freedom' as a license to discriminate."
Critics accuse the administration of putting a priority on some religious groups over others and turning a blind eye to abuses by some of the worst offenders, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
Some said the prime audience for Trump’s remarks Monday is not the leaders of other countries but Trump’s political base.
“This is a play for the evangelical crowd in the United States,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “This is a play for the conservative movement here at home, which will surely be energized and galvanized by this even as it probably won’t register all that much with most Americans.”
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, called Trump's remarks a "historic speech that goes beyond just talking about international religious freedom to taking tangible steps that will lead to people of all faiths being able to securely and publicly worship."
Trump has made religious freedom a signature issue of both his domestic and foreign policy.
Some of his domestic actions – such as a proposal announced in August to give federal contractors more freedom to hire and fire workers – have been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union as “taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion.” Conservative groups such as the Becket Fund have said the rule simply clarifies that religious groups can hire people who follow the groups' observances and practices.
Trump announced Monday a new coalition of U.S. businesses formed to encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.
“Too often, people in positions of power preach diversity while silencing, shunning or censoring the faithful," Trump said. "True tolerance means respecting the right of all people to express their deeply held religious beliefs.”
Internationally, the administration’s emphasis on the issue is propelled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, international religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback and Vice President Mike Pence who sat by Trump's side Monday. All three are conservative Christians for whom religious freedom is a personal passion.
"Americans have always believed that our first freedom is the freedom of religion," Pence said Monday when he introduced Trump as a "tireless champion" for the cause.
Trump said the "immortal truth" that human rights come from God is "proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights."
When Pompeo hosted what the White House called the first religious freedom ministerial in 2018, many countries didn’t know what to expect, he acknowledged.
“I think some suspected there were ulterior motives that just don’t exist,” Pompeo told Christianity Today before a bigger gathering in July.
Since those events, partner governments have hosted regional conferences on the issue. The United Kingdom, Germany, Mongolia and Taiwan created special religious freedom ambassadors, according to the administration. Poland led an effort to get the United Nations to establish a day for the international body to honor victims of religious persecution.
Inboden said some nations probably welcomed the chance to cooperate with the United States on an issue since “they’re not finding many others.”
“Other countries,” he said, “might be a little more cynical about this and wondering how genuine is the administration’s commitment and also how much can they really work with the administration without risk of reputational taint.”
Inboden gives the administration credit for mobilizing other nations and bringing more global attention to the issue, even though he faults the president for not being tough enough on the issue with allies such as Saudi Arabia or adversaries such as North Korea, Russia and China.
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement in the Obama administration, is more critical. Bruen said leaders may show up to the religious freedom events to try to garner favor on what is a top priority issue for this administration.
“But it is not being reflected in where those countries are spending their resources or their time,” he said.
He called Monday’s event, months after the religious freedom ministerial Pompeo conducted in July, a questionable use of the national security apparatus “when we’re grappling with really significant and serious issues and when there hasn’t been any demonstrable progress toward the stated goal of this.”
“This is yet another example of Trump putting the show before the substance,” Bruen said.
Trump’s event took place on the same day as a United Nations summit on climate change, an issue on which Trump has rejected a multilateralist approach.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UN: Trump, Pence seek to elevate religious freedom as global priority