In May, I finished my term on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and I want to offer some thoughts for action going forward, which I believe could help promote religious freedom internationally and domestically.

The recently released Pew Survey on religious freedom reports that over 80% of the world’s population lives in a religiously repressive environment; up from 70% in 2009.  We see religious persecution in China, North Korea, Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba and many other countries.  All one has to do is look at the 2024 USCIRF Annual Report, which documents that people of all faiths and beliefs are being persecuted in many places around the globe.

In the United States, we see troubling violations of religious freedom—Christian schools and churches facing threats, assaults on parental rights, the FBI visiting pro-life families, businesses canceling people and organizations because of their political and religious beliefs, and Jewish students facing rampant antisemitism on American college campuses.  We witness an insidious relativism that teaches that concepts of right and wrong are old-fashioned and even oppressive.  Vices are elevated, virtues are mocked, and faith is squeezed out of the public square.  Our culture is coarsened because of it. 

The late Cardinal Francis George, former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Chicago, predicted in 2012: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”  At the time, I thought this was alarmist, but seeing what is happening today, his statement gives me pause.

Cardinal George went on to say, “This tendency for the government to claim for itself authority over all areas of human experience flows from a secularization of our culture.  If God cannot be part of public life, then the state itself plays God.”

Chuck Colson warned us of many of these things in his later writings, especially “My Final Word,” which was published posthumously and was almost prophetic about the world we now face.

I believe the following three ideas would help in the fight for international and domestic religious freedom.

First: There should be a total ban on lobbying for China.

One of the recommendations on China in the 2024 USCIRF Annual Report reads: “The U.S. Congress should: Ban foreign lobbying by agents representing the Chinese government and its state-affiliated commercial entities that undermine religious freedom and related human rights.”  At the end of the China section, there is an additional view signed by all nine Commissioners, both Republican and Democrat, that shows how China is involved in the persecution of all religious groups in their own country and shows their influence around the world.  It states:

“It is imperative to ban lobbying for the Chinese government, its state-affiliated commercial entities, and their interests while the government continues its egregious acts of religious persecution.  These harsh actions impact every faith group in China with the leaders of the Catholic Church and Protestant house churches imprisoned and even ‘disappeared.’  Cultural genocide devastates Tibet where Buddhist monks die in prison.  Physical genocide ravishes Uyghur Muslims, with millions in detention camps and children taken from their parents.  Organs are harvested from Falun Gong and Uyghurs, some while still alive.  Hong Kong represses Christians, including 92-year-old Cardinal Zen.  China’s influence spreads worldwide.  China supports Iran, which provided training and weapons for the attacks on Israel by Hamas and they supply arms to Hezbollah and the Houthis.  China aids Russia in its war on Ukraine and supports North Korea, one of the world’s worst religious persecutors.  China supports both Nicaragua and Cuba where Christians are being aggressively persecuted.  Concerns are rising over China threatening to attack Taiwan, which many experts believe may lead to direct U.S. involvement and the loss of American military lives.  Amidst all of this, the words of 18th-century British parliamentarian William Wilberforce about the evils of the slave trade come to mind: ‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you do not know.’  Congress cannot look the other way.  For the good of our country and religious freedom worldwide, Congress must ban lobbying for the Chinese government and its interests.”

Recently I attended the ROTC commissioning ceremony at the University of Virginia for all military service branches.  I was impressed that these young men and women are stepping forward to serve our country.  To think that anyone could lobby for an adversary like China that could lead us into war and put these young people in peril is unacceptable.  There must be a total ban on lobbying for China.

Second: We must do everything possible to help and support groups that pursue legal action in defense of religious freedom.

We must support organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, First Liberty, the Becket Fund, and others so they can bring more cases to protect individuals and groups facing religious discrimination and establish legal precedent that carries the weight of law.  Frankly, these groups have been more effective than Congress in preserving religious freedom and they need the resources necessary to expand their work.  This should include fighting the rapidly rising antisemitism we are seeing around the world.   

We currently have the best Supreme Court we are likely to have for a generation. This is leading to dangerous efforts to pack the court which must be resisted. Religious freedom cases reaching the Supreme Court today are generally successful, but these cases can take up to five years to work their way through the courts.  It is an expensive proposition to carry a case from pre-filing through many appeals and to the Supreme Court.  That is why these groups need help and support for the long term. 

Many people of faith are unaware that they can protect their First Amendment freedom of religion through the active use of the courts.  Many people and houses of worship do not have the resources to bring cases on their own.  The fact that people don’t know their rights, nor have the resources to defend those rights, encourages school boards, government agencies, the military, employers, and others to discriminate as they believe their actions will not be challenged.

For a more in-depth study of this, see Judge Ken Starr’s excellent book, “Religious Liberty in Crisis.”

Perhaps an “800” telephone number and email address could be set up, and advertised on Christian and other religious media, for people to contact for help with their religious discrimination complaints.    

Third: A lobbying firm should be established in Washington to focus exclusively on international and domestic religious freedom issues.

While many groups have their own government affairs outreach, which is good, many groups are too small to support their own lobbying efforts. A lobbying firm should be established in Washington to focus exclusively on international and domestic religious freedom issues.  The firm should be staffed by former high-level Capitol Hill staffers from both the House and Senate who know the inner workings of the Congress and government agencies.  These would be people who have worked on key committees and in Senate and House leadership offices.  Working with religious freedom advocacy groups, they would be another set of eyes and ears on the Hill, following and helping shape legislation dealing with international and domestic religious freedom.  A board of directors made up of various religious freedom groups could oversee the work of this firm.  I believe this would be a direct help to all groups working on these issues.

There have been very few successes lately on Capitol Hill to further religious freedom.   In the international arena, some countries that have been designated by USCIRF as egregious violators of religious freedom have been given massive amounts of U.S. foreign aid and many have expensive lobbying efforts in Washington.   USCIRF has worked in a bipartisan way and has been faithful in its mission of researching, reporting, and naming international religious rights violators.   Yet at the same time, USCIRF has seen its budget frozen, even cut, and it has not received the necessary permanent or long-term reauthorization from Congress.  

Having worked on religious freedom issues for many years, I believe these steps would make a significant difference here in the United States and around the world.  I share these thoughts with the hope that the religious freedom community will take on some of these ideas to help advance the cause of religious freedom and improve the lives of those who are persecuted.

Frank R. Wolf

Member of Congress, 1981-2015

USCIRF Commissioner, 2022-2024