Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, speaks about the 2018 International Religious Freedom Annual Report at the Department of State in Washington, Friday, June 21.

The U.S. is uniquely positioned to quell persecution and expand liberty around the world. The method? Promoting religious freedom. The problem? Too few are listening.

Religious freedom is a human right, the exercise of which is inextricable from personal liberty. Yet 80% of people around the world live in religiously restrictive environments. They are limited in their ability to choose what to believe — or not to believe — and how they express those beliefs. They are often targets of violence and discrimination.

The U.S. has the resources and structure to make a difference in these regions, but talk is cheap and action comes at a premium. The Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom, released annually by the State Department, too often falls flat as a routine update that Congress fails to read thoroughly. Bureaucracy and apathy within the State Department hampers meaningful plans. And competing policy goals within the administration make it difficult to coalesce around a unified international agenda.

Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, is leading a charge for change, but it’s slow going. He has traveled the globe to build relations with faith leaders and governments, although he notes that some political leaders are unwilling to alter behavior that benefits them. “Governments are calculating instead of doing their job,” Brownback said recently at a religion and foreign policy workshop hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

At home, he makes a strong case for why Congress should take international religious freedom seriously. Locations that persecute in the name of religion often overlap with international security risks. It benefits politicians to view threats to personal liberty and the threat to security in the same vein. Ultimately, promoting human rights and religious freedom abroad is the work of lawmakers, and they need to see it as one of their legislative priorities.

" Ultimately, promoting human rights and religious freedom abroad is the work of lawmakers, and they need to see it as one of their legislative priorities. "

Now they have a chance to carry out that duty. Next week, the State Department will hold a conference on international religious liberty that will bring together government, religious and private sector leaders from around the world. The online description says the event “focuses on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change.”

We hope that’s the case. If past efforts are any indication, however, participants may leave the gathering with more talking points than “concrete outcomes.” We hope the Utah delegation turns the messages into meaningful legislation.

15 comments on this story

For Utah’s elected officials and their colleagues, transforming tragedy into action is the task ahead. They should share Brownback's vision for U.S. involvement: Upon entering his position almost two years ago, he vowed to not simply "name and shame" violators but to affect change. "Time is short. Every passing day finds more people persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and even killed for simply practicing their innermost convictions," he said ahead of his confirmation hearing. "We cannot let this dire situation continue without an aggressive response."

It's a bold sentiment and one that is desperately needed, but Brownback can't go at it alone. He will need the full weight of Congress and the administration to unify behind a shared political and economic strategy for the U.S. to succeed in protecting one of mankind's divinely appointed rights.