How Religion Made a Global Comeback in 2017

By Emma Green

One of the great paradoxes of Donald Trump is that, for a president who is among the least overtly pious in recent memory, he often presents the world through a religious lens. It’s in his towering rhetoric about the looming “beachhead of intolerance” in the U.S., terrorists who “do not worship God, they worship death,” and America as “a nation of true believers.” It was evident in Trump’s first international trip as president, a spin through Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Rome framed explicitly as a world tour of Abrahamic religions. Religion has been at the center of Vice President Pence’s portfolio, with visits to the evangelist Franklin Graham’s summit on international religious freedom and the annual meeting of Christians United for Israel. And religious groups were instrumental in one of the year’s biggest foreign-policy moves: Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the American embassy there.

Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests that nationalism is the dominant organizing principle in his understanding of global affairs—and it’s often washed in religious identity. This is a significant break from the Obama administration, which tended to view other factors as more significant drivers of foreign policy. But it’s still not clear what kind of strategy and tangible policies will result from Trump’s worldview, and even the religious groups he intends to benefit may end up worse off as a result.

Behind the scenes, the mechanisms of religion and diplomacy have been muddy. The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, established under Secretary of State John Kerry to work with international religious groups, has effectively been shut down. The president has spoken passionately about persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but it remains to be seen what kind of expanded aid or systematic visa help these groups will get. And the administration has bolstered its relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom continues to label a “country of particular concern” for “[prosecuting] and [imprisoning] individuals for dissent, apostasy, and blasphemy.”

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