You are forgiven if you missed the most important story of the week given the political pyrotechnics culminating in President Donald Trump’s welcome disavowal of the nativist chant “Send her back.” Trump will wisely smother such outbursts at rallies, but expect provocateurs to try to get it started again and again. It’s a deeply offensive and un-American echo of the “Know-Nothings” of the 19th century, whose fury was directed at Roman Catholics.
There is a tie, though, between the Know-Nothings of long ago and another significant story of the week: the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which brought more than 1,000 delegates from 100 countries together in Washington. The statements of the gathering — on the anti-religious freedom policies of China, Iran and Myanmar, for example — do not deal with long-ago systemic discrimination against Roman Catholic immigrants to the U.S., but with its very real, very present-day cousin: violent repression of this most basic of human rights across wide swaths of the world, which is the ability to find and know God.
The forces of anti-religious pluralism are ascendant in many places across the globe. Although they are almost eradicated from the United States, the struggle for religious freedom is ongoing even here, as Philadelphia’s able and much admired Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput argued at length this month in a speech that ought to travel far and wide.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has advanced this issue of religious freedom to the fore with the assistance of Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and the strong backing of the president. It will be an enduring mark of Pompeo’s tenure at Foggy Bottom. His new Commission on Unalienable Rights will continue the State Department’s focus on the agenda of liberties owed to every individual by virtue of their existence — primary among them being the right to exercise religious beliefs freely and without interference from the state. Understanding one’s place in the universe, and whether there is a creator and what that creator demands of people, has been a driver for humankind since we began remembering our story.
Religious liberty and religious toleration are also the keys to a stable world. I interviewed Pompeo on Wednesday and raised this question: Could he persuade, say, President Xi Jinping of China, that it is far preferable and, indeed, more stable for a vast country to embrace robust religious toleration than to attempt to erase, for example, the culture and beliefs of the Muslim Uighur population by internment and “re-education”?
“We’ve certainly made this argument not only to the Chinese but to every country that’s not living up to their obligations for their give them religious freedom that they have by right of their humanness,” Pompeo replied. “Nations become stronger when they permit their citizens to exercise their core beliefs about who they really are.”
Pompeo is echoing Jefferson and Madison when he said there is “a central premise” that “religious freedom makes countries stronger” — that it produces security and safety as well as economic growth. Religious liberty is a building block of political stability; religious pluralism the cement of sturdy, long-lived states. Pompeo’s appeal is to history. He isn’t asking Xi to become the new Constantine and order China’s 1.4 billion people to convert to Pompeo’s own Christianity — far from it, in fact. Pompeo’s agenda is Madison’s: Protecting an individual’s right to seek the answers about God and to hear all the arguments produces political stability, as it has in the United States.
It has taken 2,000 years for Christianity to achieve the consensus position that no conversion by the sword is a conversion worth having. A broad and growing consensus on this point is crucial for the safety of all in the new millennium. All major world religions have their extreme fringe, but the understanding is ascendant rising that only genuine tolerance of competing religious belief systems — wide-open but noncoercive invitations to preach and proselytize any faith claim — is the building block of political stability.
This is an argument worth having with every government on the planet. It is a persuadable proposition. Good for Trump, Pompeo and Brownback to have the courage to promote Madison and Jefferson in an age of cynicism about faith and its centrality to a happy life and a stable world.