While most of us are aware of the importance of religious freedom here in the United States, some may be unaware that the promotion of religious freedom and freedom of conscience informs a large segment of U.S. foreign policy. The Daily Citizen had an opportunity to talk with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about two recent initiatives at the Department of State that focus on the global importance of those freedoms: the Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, being held this week in Washington, D.C., and the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

DC: This week the State Department is hosting a very special event regarding freedom of religion and conscience on an international scale. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

MP: These three days are really special. This is the second time we’ve had the opportunity to host what’ll be more than a thousand civil society, religious leaders, and government officials from more than 100 delegations all coming together around a singular purpose of this deep recognition of the importance of religious freedom to autonomy and human rights. The State Department has an important role in that and it’s always special to see people from lots of different countries, many different faiths coming together with this fundamental understanding about humanity and the dignity that comes from each human being having the right to practice his or her religious beliefs and exercise acts of conscience free from government interference. It’s a really special few days here. 

DC: For those who might not understand, why is it important for the U.S. government to be concerned about religious freedom abroad?

MP: A couple of reasons. It starts with: The United States has religious freedom as its first freedom. Without religious freedom, many of the other things that we take for granted here in America wouldn’t exist, so we like to see that not only here in the United States but for every human being all around the world. But a second item that I think too little attention is paid to is that nations are freer that allow their citizens to practice their faith; where minority religions practice their faith in ways that are free from government interference. Those nations are stronger, they’re more resilient, and they’re more likely to be economically successful. And so the United States has a task to make sure that every nation understands that their country will not be weaker but in fact stronger if they permit this exercise of religious freedom.

DC: Now the first Ministerial that was held last year produced a significant statement – the Potomac Declaration. Can you tell us what that was and why it’s so important?

MP: It was centered on the ideas that I’ve just been talking about, this idea about  human rights and the fact that this set of rights can’t be taken away by governments. That the centrality of success for individuals and their well-being is because they are in fact permitted to practice their faith, or if they choose not to, practice no faith. So it was great to kick off the very first religious freedom gathering here at the State Department with that Potomac statement and I know this time—the second time—patterns are more deeply ingrained. We’ve got folks who were here before. We made a lot of progress during this past year and I’m confident we’ll come out of this second gathering even stronger and with many more nations focused on religious freedom.

DC: I wanted to follow up on that, the successes that you’ve seen since the first Ministerial. What would you say are the highlights of things you seen from other countries in signing on and joining in with the intent and the wording of the Declaration?

MP: Where to begin? You know, a good example is back in February of this year when the United Arab Emirates hosted a conference where they talked about interfaith understanding and diversity and how you foster religious freedom and combat violent extremism. Those are important things. And to have that in the heart of the Middle East was powerful and important. Taiwan, a little bit after that in March, hosted an event to talk about how civil society actors and religious leaders can use their unique leadership responsibilities to engage government and advance the cause of religious freedom. The list is long but I must say it is heartening and encouraging to watch folks leave this several day gathering in Washington to go back to their home countries and then begin to deliver for their people on this important fundamental right.

DC: In watching some of the proceedings this week I noticed bipartisan participation from American politicians; there was one panel hosted by Ambassador Samuel Brownback with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on it and former Congressman Frank Wolf. You had Democrats and Republicans. Why is that important to the success of the ministerial and to our foreign policy on this issue in general?

MP: Religious freedom doesn’t belong to any political party. It belongs to each individual and so it has been encouraging. It was great; I was thrilled that Speaker Pelosi was able to be here, and of course I’ve known Congressman Wolf since my time in Congress. It was great to see them together speaking about this in a way that showed that this is an American value, a tradition that is passed down to us from our Founding Fathers. It’s something that continues today and will continue whether the Republicans are in charge or the Democrats are in charge. That’s important for our nation, but it’s equally important for other countries to see, who are going through political challenges. Who are moving from a government of the left to a government of the right, or back the other way to see that whoever is in charge, whatever that power structure, this obligation to permit your citizens to advance their own religious freedom is an imperative and good for your nation. 

DC: I’d like to turn the corner here and turn to a subject that’s related but different and that’s the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Earlier this month you announced the formation of that advisory body, chaired by Professor Glendon of Harvard Law School and joined by other scholars and legal experts. What’s the purpose of that commission?

MP: It had been decades since there had been an internal State Department review, a re-grounding if you will, of those things that are central to the unalienable rights that that Founders talked about in our founding documents. And I wanted to take a focused effort and to bring in experts from a number of faiths and different backgrounds and professions and skills to re-focus, to re-ground America’s understanding of human rights. I’ve followed this since I was a young soldier and I’ve been places where everything was a right, when nations talked about these rights and what happens is you see nations begin to use the rights “language” in ways that you and I would find abhorrent. They talk about rights that we’d understand to be not central to humanity. So I wanted to go re-ground it. We’ll get a full commission evaluation, we’ll get public participation we’ll get lots of different voices heard and I hope that we can put together an important document that will provide the basis for America’s understanding of those fundamental rights so that we can do them well and as close to perfectly as possible. 

DC: I understand that the Commission’s work is tied to the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and perhaps the failings that we’ve seen over the years because of that. Can you talk a little bit about that and how this Commission is kind of an outgrowth of that? 

MP: So in fact one of the cornerstone documents that they’ll review will be that 1948 Declaration. They’ll go back and look at America’s founding documents as well, our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and I’m sure they’ll turn to a number of other sources, not only American sources but international sources as well. The idea is this, that over time if one doesn’t go back to first principles and evaluate these things that we all come to know and value as our fundamental rights, then there’s a risk that they will be diminished. And that is not good for America, it’s not good for American democracy, and certainly not good for the American people.

DC: I noticed something in one of the documents that I read; a very sound statement from your office that “principle should drive policy and not the other way around” and that was one of the crucial reasons why this Commission was needed. Can you speak to that particular issue and how such a seeming truism doesn’t really get followed a lot in politics?

MP: It’s easy to become unmoored in politics. I’ve seen it too many times. And so what this Commission, what I chartered this Commission to do was to take us back to that bedrock, take us back to these core principles. Once those are set, once those core principles are well established, then we’ve we got a great team here at the State Department that can go about identifying the policies that illuminate and empower those principles. But if you start with policy and then back into what principle it must have been derived from, you’re going to end up in a difficult place. And so this Commission will focus exclusively on those principles that I think there will be a common American understanding around, and will provide the foundation for the United States government’s work for years to come. 

DC: Do you think that Americans have a proper understanding of what unalienable rights are, and I notice you said the Commission will produce a document that will help clarify. Is that something that is needed at this point in our history? 

MP:  I think so. I think many Americans have a sense of it. Some have spent some time thinking about it; others may not have had the chance to do that. I hope this will provide an opportunity for every American whether they’re young or old, or whether they live in the Midwest or on one of the coasts here in America. I hope they’ll all take a look at the work as it’s ongoing, and then our product too when we’re finished: what it is we do to share the understandings that come out of this Commission. I think if we do that, thinking about these things in a concrete, focused way puts America on a better course.

DC: I’ve noticed that there is some criticism from the Left about the formation of the Commission that centers around issues like abortion and LGBT issues, but that’s really missing the point of an unalienable right isn’t it?

MP: We’ll see what the commission comes up with but I have heard and I’ve spoken to some on the Left who expressed their concerns. The focus of what this Commission is doing is about these principles, about these underlying things that no government has the right to take away. That they are inherent in our humanness. And so I asked them to watch us, to observe how this Commission behaves and I am confident when we get to the end there will still be a handful of critics who will disagree with the conclusions that are drawn by this Commission, but I think big parts of America will recognize what we were trying to do here. We’re trying to put forth those principles on which our nation was founded which are still applicable for today and these rights that no government, whether it’s Democrat leaders or socialist leaders, or Republican leaders, conservative leaders. No government has the right to take away from any of America’s citizens. 

DC:  So again, answering the critics: human rights, are they tied to any particular political viewpoint or religion?

MP: Not at all but they’re tied to a set of fundamental understandings about what it means to be human.

DC: In your experience, how well do other nations buy into the principles of freedom and individual liberty and constitutional government that you’re hoping to promote?

MP: That’s why we’re having this gathering and why I hope we’ll do it again in a year from now as well. I think the number now is in excess of 3/4 of the people all around the world are living in places where religious freedoms are in some important way restricted. And we want to reduce that. We want governments to understand that that’s not right; it’s not the right way to treat the individuals within your country. It’s also not good for your nation. And so that’s the purpose. We hope that next year that number will be smaller and in the years ahead there will be even greater religious freedom all around the world.

You can view any of the sessions of the Ministerial either live streamed as they occur or afterwards.


Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr