In Russia, where President Vladimir Putin wants to insert references to God and heterosexual marriage into the constitution, certain forms of violence against women have been decriminalized—so long as the violence takes place within a traditional marriage. In Poland, where abortion access is already severely restricted, President Andrzej Duda has promised to sign draft legislation that would compel women to carry to term fetuses with severe congenital deformities, and a third of municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”—all in order to “defend Christian values,” as one leader of the ruling party puts it. In Turkey, reports of gender-based violence have risen sharply under the auspices of a president who has derided women’s equality and railed against birth control while claiming to champion traditional families.
In the United States, we should become increasingly familiar with this pernicious form of religious nationalism—because, under the banner of “religious freedom,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to offer his blessing to these kinds of initiatives. In 2019, Pompeo established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, a commission ostensibly intended to reformulate America’s commitment to advancing human rights abroad. But the secretary of state already seems to know which rights may take preference, and at whose expense. “There are those who would have preferred I didn’t do it and are concerned about the answers that our foundational documents will provide,” Pompeo commented last fall at a gathering of the Concerned Women for America, a conservative women’s group, at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. “I know where those rights came from. They came from the Lord.”
To be clear, at that gathering, Pompeo expressed a concern for the rights of a variety of oppressed religious groups, from the Uighurs in China to the Yazidis in the Middle East to persecuted Christians in countries like Iraq. Religious persecution is real and devastating, and it is always good news when national leaders can stand up for the rights of mistreated minorities. But these expressions of support for the genuinely oppressed are far from the only agenda of the commission, which seems to have more to do with securing the freedom of some governments to impose religious orthodoxy on their own populations.
Around the world, the formulas of religious authoritarianism are remarkably consistent. The leaders convince their followers that their religion is under threat from a despicable or demonic force. The invisible enemy usually involves some combination of globalism, secularism, liberalism, feminism. In many Christian-dominated countries, “gay ideology” plays a prominent role; in Islamic countries, the “secular West” is a popular bogeyman. The leaders promise to grant followers the “freedom” to direct their hate against these deviants. And then the regime goes on to strip everyone else of their rights, bolster hyperconservative religious allies with public funds, and consolidate a kleptocracy where religion is too often reduced to organized hypocrisy.
Women and LGBT people are the canaries in the coal mine of human rights. Wherever their rights start to collapse, you can be sure, the freedom of the press, the freedom from corruption, and the freedom from fear will soon fall, too.
Mike Pompeo and his commission represent the stirrings of this kind of movement in the U.S. Pompeo’s declared aim is to make “religious liberty” count as America’s “first freedom” and as the central pillar of its international human rights policy. Sounds inspiring, right? Too bad that “religious liberty,” in the mouths of so many Cabinet leaders in the Trump administration, really means something like “religious privilege.”
For years now, leaders of America’s Religious Right have been making the spurious claim that the Constitution is written in the language of “natural law,” and that it entitles them not only to discriminate against gay people and others of whom they do not approve, but also to a steady stream of public money in the form of unique subsidies, exemptions, vouchers, grants, and other means. They have also aggressively cultivated the conviction that they themselves are the victims of persecution.
A glance at the roster of commissioners is sufficient to make clear the purpose of Pompeo’s effort. Seven of the 12 commissioners, according to analysis by GLAAD, were already on record expressing hostility to LGBT rights. The chair of the commission, Mary Ann Glendon, is the former ambassador to the Vatican and has opposed women’s reproductive rights just as vigorously as she has defended the Catholic Church against scrutiny. She once suggested that honoring Boston Globe reporters for their work in exposing an epidemic of child abuse by Catholic priests would be like awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.
Almost immediately after the commission was formed, hundreds of human rights organizations, foreign policy experts, scholars, faith leaders, and former government officials recommended the body be disbanded. In May 2020, in anticipation of the commission’s report, 20 senators challenged the commission for featuring “a group of largely ideologically uniform scholars, some of whom have expressed views openly hostile to internationally-recognized human rights.” As Rob Berschinski and Andrea Worden note on the website Just Security, “Pompeo continues to serve as the Commission’s cheerleader-in-chief, generally referencing the body’s motivating theme in unabashedly religious terms.”
One group that is happy with Pompeo’s program, on the other hand, is the leadership of America’s Christian-nationalist movement. In a conversation about the commission with Pompeo in January 2020, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, “When you talk about this, you’re essentially saying allow countries to make their own decisions based upon their religious conviction and cultural heritage and not force them through a form of cultural imperialism with our global policies to adhere to something that is an anathema to them.” Which is pretty much what the Polish right-wingers say when they set up their “LGBT-free” zones; so much for “religious freedom.”
True religious persecution is a terrible scourge, and assisting those who suffer from it will require a broadly coordinated effort. But that is precisely why an issue as important as this should not be put in the hands of people who largely represent one skewed perspective. Pompeo has also worked hard to staff the agencies that disperse U.S. funds with ideologues who share his views. He recently appointed Merritt Corrigan, USAID’s new deputy White House liaison, who wrote, “Liberal democracy is little more than a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself.” Bethany Kozma, deputy chief of staff for USAID, declared that the “U.S. is a pro-life nation.”
Although the American public often has trouble accepting what is going on at the highest levels of the American government, religious authoritarians abroad have no such trouble. They see it—and they like what they see. Over the past several years, alliances between America’s Christian nationalists and like-minded religious nationalists in in other countries have grown in strength, with links forged through groups, such as the International Organization for the Family, that couch their advocacy for regressive social positions as a defense of the “natural family.”
It is hard to imagine anything worse for the American national interest than making the U.S. a leader of such a regressive agenda. Pompeo’s commission and other efforts to promote “religious freedom” will not only undermine the rights of many people around the world; it will also promote some authoritarian regimes at the expense of democratic movements and diminish still further America’s credibility as a champion of democracy at home and abroad.
So why on Earth would any secretary of state pursue such a course of action? The answers are the same in the U.S. as they are in the regimes that Pompeo’s policy will end up assisting. President Trump knows that his hopes for political survival depend almost entirely on his base of white Christian-nationalist supporters, and Pompeo has demonstrated that he will stop at nothing to please his boss—especially if it might enhance his reputation and career prospects. If blessing some more LGBT-free zones and spouse abuse-friendly regimes is a way to consolidate authoritarianism at home, he seems happy to make the trade.
—Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury).