Evangelical Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy Conflicts with Washington’s Strategic Interests
Is America okay?
Observers abroad have asked this question for four years with increasing alarm. Amid fires, floods, and plagues at home, the United States has retreated from the world stage, emerging for dinner with dictators and the occasional military parade. The Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda is driven by domestic politics so transparently that the United Nations General Assembly held in New York this month has become a party without a host.
Behind the chaos, however, a fundamental weakness in America’s relationship with the world has metastasized. The Christian right that has long held sway at the highest levels of U.S. politics has found in Trump a willing partner in a myopic focus on “protecting Christians abroad.” It has been disastrous for U.S. interests for the past four years – and it could get a lot worse if President Donald Trump is reelected on November 3.
Religious groups have maintained ties with Democrats and Republicans alike for years, pushing both the Clinton and Bush administrations to take more active roles in conflicts they view as threats to Christians – often at the cost of the Christian communities in question. For example, experts agree the resources funneled as humanitarian aid from American Evangelical groups to separatist forces in Sudan during the late 1990s and early 2000s impacted the conflict significantly. Worse, aid money inadvertently flowed to warlords and militias masquerading as oppressed Christians – in other words, they saw the game and knew how to play it. Both Sudan and South Sudan are still paying for the evangelical chess game.
Increased U.S. involvement was, however, successful in one way: it helped galvanize the Evangelical vote for President George W. Bush. The faith-based sector has long used U.S. foreign policy as a venue for policies that mirror or scale up their domestic goals. The global gag rule, for example, bans foreign NGOs receiving U.S. funds to provide or even discuss abortions with constituents – a restriction the Christian right has long sought domestically.
The use of Christians abroad to serve the interests of Evangelical elites at home is not new. What is new is the scale of the operation post-2016. Under Trump, the global gag rule went from applying to $575 million in foreign aid dedicated to family planning to the entire aid budget of approximately $8.8 billion – one of many examples of how the Trump administration has given religious groups the keys to the store.
In December 2016, Congress quietly passed the Frank R. Wolf Act, which fundamentally changed the way the State Department treats religion. Freedom of religion went from a question of global human rights issue to a national security issue. In other words, everything from foreign aid to defense strategy could be conditioned on the implications for religious freedom. As the 2020 election has drawn closer, the Trump administration has made its priorities even more explicit, with an executive order in 2019 directing the State Department and USAID to take action on global religious freedom.
So – is it working? Certainly, for some.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has extracted what appears to be carte blanche to engage in a range of repressive authoritarian activities, plus a disturbing deference from Trump in exchange for vanity projects like a new mega-cathedral in Egypt’s new administrative capital. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – himself a product of the Christian right – was duly impressed. Ironically, the cathedral is inaccessible to most Egyptians and has zero impact on the discrimination Christian communities face under the al-Sisi regime.
The message to dictators the world over is clear: one nice church equals unprecedented support from the leader of the free world.
This dynamic is at the heart of the problem with allowing the protection of Christians abroad to become a cornerstone of United States foreign policy. Not only is it unhelpful to the vast majority of Christians abroad – it is an invitation to bad actors who need only to execute a successful PR campaign to garner the support of the Trump administration and its core base of supporters.
Trump inherited a wealth of international political capital upon assuming office. After four years, the world is facing a catastrophe that has yet to fully unfold. The United States no longer has the luxury of tailoring its entire foreign policy agenda to the single issue of protecting Christians abroad – especially when the policy in question has failed to do even that.