The Trump administration’s foreign policy really isn’t consistent enough to be placed into any single ideological camp. The president is an isolationist critic of military engagement who has repeatedly let hawks like John Bolton and Marco Rubio drive policies that depend on the threat of military force. Administration surrogates use human rights rhetoric to criticize the governments of Venezuela, Iran, and China (including an unexpectedly strong statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre this week) while the president defends and praises the most brutal dictator in the world. The Pentagon warns of a world defined by “great power competition,” while the president seems convinced that Russia has nothing but good intentions. The administration hates multilateral security alliances except when it’s trying to create new ones. Its Mideast strategy is guided by a single-minded focus on countering Iran, except when it’s not.
This incoherence makes it hard for foreign governments to make sense of the administration’s intentions, and it means that almost none of Washington’s foreign policy camps feel very happy right now. I say almost because there is one group that’s consistently and effectively—if quietly—pushing its foreign policy agenda in Donald Trump’s Washington: evangelical Christians.
Politico reported late last month that the State Department is launching a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights” to advise Pompeo and provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Details about the panel are still sketchy—and there’s certainly room for “fresh thinking about human rights discourse”—but human rights activists fear that in this context, “natural” means “God-given” and could entail providing less support for programs promoting reproductive rights and protections for LGBTQ people. The concept note outlining the commission was written by Robert George, a Princeton professor and co-founder of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.
The influence of evangelical priorities is already spreading through the Trump administration’s diplomacy. In April, the U.S. threatened to veto a U.N. resolution condemning the use of rape as a weapon of war because of its language on reproductive and sexual health, which Trump officials felt normalized sexual activity and condoned abortion. The administration succeeded in moving Germany, the resolution’s sponsor, to water down that language. According to reporting by Foreign Policy, American instruction to push back on the resolution came via a cable from Pompeo’s office.
In his first week in office, Trump reauthorized the Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, a Reagan-era rule that blocks foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals from receiving U.S. funding. (American funds were already barred from being used to carry out abortions.) The rule was rescinded under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and restored under George W. Bush, and any Republican administration probably would have restored it, too, but Trump has dramatically expanded it. Originally applying to just family planning funds, the rule now applies to all U.S. health aid, affecting nearly $8.8 billion in funds. In March of this year, Pompeo announced a further expansion of the policy, withholding funding from NGOs that give money to other groups that provide abortions.
A recent report by the International Women’s Health Coalition looked at the impact of the policy on care, finding that in many countries it has led to the balkanization of health providers, with groups adhering to the gag rule wary of collaboration with those that are not. The rule is also overenforced; many health care providers don’t know exactly what it covers and have grown wary of providing any family planning services at all for fear of losing their funding.
It’s not only traditional cultural issues where the evangelical influence can be felt. The Trump administration’s steadfast support for Israel, and in particular the controversial 2017 move to recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital, is motivated at least in part by the political influence of American evangelicals, who these days are more enthusiastic and unified in their support of the Jewish state than Jews are. In a telling moment suggesting the policy’s intended audience, evangelical pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee were invited to the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem last year despite past statements suggesting, respectively, that Jews are destined for hell and that God sent Hitler to help Jews return to Israel. If this makes some American Jewish supporters of Israel nervous, it doesn’t seem to bother Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been cultivating U.S. evangelical support since the ’90s and still does so.
In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pompeo raised some eyebrows by agreeing with the interviewer’s premise that “President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace.”
Pompeo is often dismissed by the Trump administration’s critics as a mere yes man, carrying out the president’s erratic whims, in contrast to the more hard-headed and ideological John Bolton. But it seems shortsighted to ignore the role of faith—he became a devoted Christian while studying at West Point—in his priorities and decision-making. He has told interviewers that the Bible “informs everything I do” and has made religion a centerpiece of several of his most prominent speeches, including the address in Cairo in January that served as a rebuke of Obama’s famous 2009 speech on America and the Muslim world.
From a human rights perspective, the evangelical influence in the Trump administration has at times been beneficial. American Christian activists and media highlighted the case of Andrew Brunson, the American pastor arrested on trumped-up charges as part of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown, long before it got much coverage in the mainstream media. And evangelical leaders including Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. James Lankford helped to apply pressure that led to Brunson’s eventual release. And to its credit, the Trump administration’s emphasis on religious liberty has not been solely concerned with persecuted Christians. Pompeo has spoken out strongly and consistently against the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar and the mass detention of China’s Uighurs.
But not all human rights get the same attention. Conveniently for the administration, polls show that white evangelical Protestants are the group least likely to think that the U.S. has a responsibility to welcome refugees. And while Trump did recently refer to a campaign launched by Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell—the highest ranking openly gay person in the administration—to combat the criminalization of homosexuality, the administration also quietly eliminated the position of LGBTQ envoy (created under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and this month denied the requests of embassies to fly rainbow flags for Pride Month. U.S. officials also have been pushing to strike the word gender” from U.N. human rights documents, arguing that it suggests gender is a choice rather than a biological fact. To applause from religious-right leaders, the White House has enthusiastically embraced Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro, a racist, homophobic, right-wing Christian ideologue who casts his enemies as agents of “cultural Marxism.”
Finally, it’s probably not beneficial to the long-term stability of the Middle East to have U.S. foreign policy in the hands of people who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the threat from Iran in apocalyptic, biblical terms.
Likewise, as I wrote recently, it’s not great for the long-term stability of the world to have U.S. foreign policy become an extension of America’s culture wars. But that’s a reality that other governments are going to have to adapt to. For all the apparent chaos of America’s actions around the world these days, and the venality of the man in the Oval Office, it’s still a country that strongly believes it has God on its side.