During Providence’s happy hour at the Eighteenth Street Lounge in DC on February 22, 2018, Paul Marshall offered his advice for Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Below are Marshall’s remarks. If you’d like to attend future Providence happy hours, we send notifications via our Facebook page and our weekly email newsletter.

I have been asked to summarize the advice I would give Sam Brownback, the newly confirmed ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. However, since the ambassador is a former congressman, governor, and senator deeply immersed in international affairs who has long fought for religious freedom, I doubt whether I could tell him anything he doesn’t already know well. But I will give such thoughts as I have, concentrating on the current context.

The ambassador will operate in three contexts that in varying degrees seek to thwart him from promoting religious freedom.

The first of these is the evolving international context. With China and Russia, we are re-entering an era of great power and not-so-great power competition, and there is the emergence of regional powers such as Iran. These countries seek to block many American initiatives. Coupled with this development is a paler version of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. (Indeed, there are people who critique Huntington because they seem to think he was advocating such a clash!) Huntington’s analysis has seemed most cogent with respect to the Muslim-majority world, but we should note that China’s leaders now often invoke Confucianism and not Marxism, while the Russians invoke their Orthodox heritage. They too are portraying themselves in “civilizational” terms. In this case, they are even more likely than before to treat religious freedom as a “Western” imposition.

A second context is America’s politics and culture, where religious freedom was once almost universally accepted and is now contested. In the 1990 case Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Scalia, held that the state could deny unemployment benefits to a person fired for violating a state prohibition on the use of peyote, even though the use of the drug was part of a religious ritual. Most disturbingly, the court held that “if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.” In short, there was no religious freedom exemption from generally applicable law.

This decision shocked many people, and Chuck Schumer in the House and Ted Kennedy in the Senate introduced the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to allow such exemptions in particular cases. The Act passed by overwhelming margins, and President Clinton quickly signed it to the applause of the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

However, the Supreme Court held that RFRA applies only to the federal government and not the states. So, states began to pass their own RFRAs, an ongoing process. Now, particularly because of their possible effects on “gay rights” and funding for abortion, contraceptives, and the like (as in the Hobby Lobby case), such bills are being falsely castigated as bigotry, and the media often writes the term “religious freedom” in scare quotes.

Consequently, today much of the left views religious freedom with suspicion, though this characterization should not be exaggerated, especially with respect to politicians and international matters. The recent “21 Wilberforce Interim International Religious Freedom Congressional Scorecard” lists 28 Democrats and 20 Republicans as “Notable Leaders” in this area. But anti-religious freedom sentiments are growing (one reason the post of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom has been vacant for most of the last nine years), so our efforts must remain bipartisan.

A third context is the State Department itself. Many there do not like having ambassadors-at-large because they cut across regional and country specific lines of authority and make matters more complex and occasionally muddied. Also, many State Department employees do not like to deal with religion because they mistakenly believe it is unimportant, or because they correctly believe it is a difficult and sensitive topic.

This context is doubly important because, while the work of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom is vital, the ambassador is most effective when he or she influences the department and US policy as a whole. The combination of ambassador-at-large and religion is thus a difficult one at State, so having someone as politically experienced as Brownback in the role is vital.

Turning now to the ambassador’s task, we should stress for clarity that religious freedom, as that term is commonly understood, is often not really about one human right alongside others. The problems of Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, or Rohingya in Myanmar, are that they have been subject to genocide. Other religious groups have also been subject to horrendous attack. When we address their and others’ plight, we are focusing on the denial of all and any human right on the basis of religion. This is our and the ambassador’s proper focus.

Finally, when we decide where to focus our energies most, we should concentrate on the worst situations, especially those where we can make a difference. Such cases include the previously mentioned Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Of course, there are also the victims of Iran’s religious repression, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and China’s growing repression.

There is much for the ambassador, and the rest of us, to do.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Religious Freedom Institute, and a Contributing Editor of Providence.

Photo Credit: Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp where they are being helped by the International Rescue Committee. Some of the 12,000 Iraqi Yazidi refugees arrived at Newroz camp in Syria after fleeing Islamic State militants. By Rachel Unkovic for International Rescue Committee, via Flickr.