Speaking before the United Nations today, President Trump praised the country’s religious freedom record and cited figures that suggest the rest of the world has much work to do, as he announced new funding to protect religious sites as well as business partnerships to fuel the cause.
“Our nation was founded on the idea that our rights do not come from government, but from God,” said Trump. “Regrettably, the freedom enjoyed in America is rare in the world.”
Trump said he had asked Vice President Mike Pence to double-check the figure of 80 percent of the world’s population living in areas that restrict religious freedom. According to Pew Research, 83 percent of the population lives in places with “high” or “very high” restrictions, mostly targeting religious minorities.
“Today, with one clear voice, the US calls on the nations of the world to end religious persecution,” Trump said.
Pence stated that Trump was the first world leader to chair a meeting on religious freedom at the United Nations.
Seeking international consensus on religious freedom, he called out Iran, Iraq, China, Venezuela, and Nicaragua for their violations and mentioned the terrorist tragedies that struck down Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand, and Christians in Sri Lanka.
Under Trump’s leadership, Pence said, the United States passed the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Act to protect religious minorities in the Middle East, and the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund dispersed 435 rapid response grants since 2018, aiding 2,000 victims of persecution. A year ago, the Trump administration doubled its funding for Christians and religious minorities returning to Iraq.
“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities, and always has been,” said Trump, who today pledged an additional $25 million to protect religious sites and relics around the world that are under threat. He urged the global community join in “measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics,” including attacks on houses of worship.
A number of evangelical leaders cheered his remarks, including Franklin Graham and Cissie Graham Lynch of Samaritan’s Purse, who attended the UN event in person. Trump called Graham “instrumental” and praised his involvement in disaster relief. Graham thanked the President for “shining a spotlight on this critical issue.”
Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd, one of Trump’s evangelical advisors, also celebrated the UN speech in comments to Baptist Press.
“I applaud today's call to broaden international support for the protection of religious freedom,” said Floyd. “It is time to bring an end to religious persecution and do all we can to see crimes cease against people of faith. I am grateful for President Trump speaking and leading in this global effort.”
In particular, Trump announced plans for a first-of-its-kind coalition of US businesses that would take a proactive role to defend religious freedom.
“This initiative will encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace,” he said. (The Trump administration has strengthened conscience protections for government employees, such as those who wish to decline participation in medical procedures such as abortions for religious reasons.)
He did not offer further details on the business coalition or who would be involved beyond describing “great business leaders, great people of strength.”
“Freedom of religion and belief can contribute to a rich pluralism that is itself associated with economic growth,” said Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, which organized a sideline meeting at the Harvard Club with US Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. “Indeed, the active participation of religious minorities in society often boosts economic innovation.”
Grim cited research showing that since the 2008 financial crisis, GDP growth rates where religious freedom increased grew at about double the rate where it decreased.
President Trump’s speech at the UN contrasts with his general approach to deprioritize international cooperation. He has pulled the United States out of several United Nations initiatives, including its Human Rights Council, in 2018.
But in terms of religious freedom, Trump has been the most prominent American champion since Ronald Reagan, William Inboden told USA Today. “The Trump administration has, by and large, been pretty unilateralist,” said Inboden, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who worked on international religious freedom issues for the George W. Bush administration. “But they’re taking a very multilateral approach on international religious freedom.”
This past July the US State Department convened its second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, attended by around 100 national foreign delegations. Since then, United Kingdom, Germany, Mongolia, and Taiwan have created special religious freedom ambassadors. Nigeria, Colombia, Ukraine, and Sudan are slated to host regional religious freedom roundtable meetings. And Poland spearheaded a UN initiative to establish a day for the international body to honor victims of religious persecution.
Trump brought domestic politics into his speech when welcoming Andrew Brunson. The pastor held two years in Turkey was freed in 2018 through Trump’s high-profile negotiation with Turkish President Erdogan, who was also in attendance. Trump said Erdogan has since “become a friend.” But of President Obama, he said, “I don’t think the previous administration tried too hard.”
Some commentators are critical of Trump’s approach. “This is a play for the evangelical crowd in the United States,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said in USA Today. “This is a play for the conservative movement here at home, which will surely be energized and galvanized by this even as it probably won’t register all that much with most Americans.”
Others criticized Trump for using religious freedom to upstage another UN meeting on climate change, held the same day. “Not participating and yet showing up at the building is throwing down a gauntlet,” David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, said in the Guardian’s report. “It’s most importantly a snub to the young people pleading for action on climate change. It’s up to the rest of the world to get on with its business.”
Evangelical leaders like Tony Perkins, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of Family Research Council, defended the President’s religious freedom emphasis on Fox News, saying, “This is the president kind of putting down a marker ... advancing religious freedom. This is a step forward with very tangible markers in terms of protecting people of faith.”
Other critics claim Trump’s commitment is empty since the President put less pressure on nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia. And a day before the UN gathering, Trump shared a stage with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, where 50,000 mostly Indian Americans cheered a leader panned by many for his pro-Hindu nationalist policies, to the detriment of Muslim and Christian minorities.
“This [UN meeting] is yet another example of Trump putting the show before the substance,” Brett Bruen, director of global engagement in the Obama administration, told USA Today.
The UN secretary-general António Guterres, seated to Trump’s right, thanked the President for his focus on religious freedom and praised the recent efforts of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyib, to promote religious peace and fraternity. He announced two new UN initiatives to support religious freedom—a strategy against hate speech and an action plan to protect houses of worship.
“Too often people in positions of power preach diversity while silencing, shunning, or censoring the faithful,” Trump said. “True tolerance means respecting the right of all people to express their deeply held religious beliefs. “I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.”