Some good news came out of Washington, D.C., in early June.
We can all be forgiven for missing it in light of the global pandemic and amid the intense social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.
And I hope you’re sitting down because this good news came from the White House – the day after the famed “Bible photo op” in front of St. John’s church.
President Trump signed the Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom on June 2.
The substance of this order requires the Secretary of State to consult with the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to develop a plan to prioritize international religious freedom. The order requires this to affect both policy and foreign assistance.
The objective is to better integrate the goals of religious freedom into diplomacy and to connect them to U.S. aid.
It also adds an annual $50 million for programs that advance international religious freedom.
I recently attended a meeting with three members of the United States Commission on International Freedom. USCIRF was established by Congress a few years ago to better address the global needs of religious minorities.
The meeting was on June 3, and the bipartisan group of commissioners were elated by this order.
There is hope that what will come from the order will provide both a carrot and a stick to encourage countries to better embrace the freedom of all people to worship who, when and where they want or to choose no religion at all.
In a statement on the order, USCRIF writes that the programs provided by the budget increase will “assist religious minority communities, promote accountability of the perpetrators for attacks, guarantee equal rights and legal protections for individuals and groups regardless of belief, improve the safety and security of houses of worship and public spaces for all faiths and protect cultural heritages of religious communities.”
There is no question about the need.
China has locked up hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, a northwest province of China, in concentration camps.
The government of Myanmar is clearly guilty of genocide against the Rohingya minority (Muslim) in that Buddhist majority country.
A year ago, I was part of a delegation that spent time with the Yazidi leadership of Iraq.
While visiting a Yazidi festival in Tbilisi, Georgia, I heard firsthand accounts of the ethnic cleansing of this very pastoral, peaceful, monotheistic people by the ISIS fighters of Iraq.
There are still thousands of missing young women and girls taken as sex slaves and “wives.”
As I wrote a year ago, religious liberty in many parts of the world is a life-and-death issue.
The good news is this executive order, if appropriately administrated, will be a great help in the international encouragement of this fundamental human right.
And now for the bad news. You are likely ahead of me here.
You know while structurally and strategically it is good for the United States to align our foreign policy with the goal of advancing religious liberty, the fact is that we have lost a good deal of standing to promote human rights.
A country that consistently treats its people of color as second-class citizens and has until now refused to address substantially the systemic police brutality toward blacks looks a bit hypocritical when speaking about the rights of minorities.
A country that has addressed an immigration crisis by separating children from their parents and putting the former in cages has little place to preach about “advancing human rights.”
The vastly disproportionate number of minorities who have died from COVID-19 reveals our claim to have “the greatest health care system in the world” is a mass delusion.
And finally, for the mixed news: Many of us who have not found a lot to celebrate with the Trump administration are in an unusual situation.
We have an order, which could clearly be a great help to countless vulnerable minorities all over the globe, advanced by an administration we don’t like.
We live in a country we love that is not providing the example that would make the order most effective.
It seems to me our calling is clear. We must all take up our part in moving human rights forward.
Some of us are now doing so on the streets, some in pulpits, some behind the keyboard.
However we move our culture and country forward, let us pray we prove worthy of an order by a very imperfect president in a very imperfect world.
Editor’s note: This article is part of the Faith Freedom 2020 collaboration. See other resources at FaithFreedom2020.org.
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.