Unsurprisingly, at the release of the State Department’s annual report on religion freedom last week, journalists peppered a senior State Department official with questions about how high-minded rhetoric on the importance of religious freedom abroad squares with Trump’s promise to prioritize Christian refugees, his efforts to enact a so-called “Muslim ban,” silence in response to increased attacks against American Muslims, conflicting views on Russia, and enhanced security cooperation with religiously repressive Saudi Arabia.
And yet, despite the president’s many blunders on religion-related issues, there are signs of a more conventional and constructive focus on religious freedom at the State Department. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared at the religious freedom report rollout and gave solid remarks, offering solidarity with a wide range of persecuted groups — notably including Turkish Alevis, Chinese Uighurs, Pakistani Ahmadiyya, Saudi Shia, and other minority Muslim communities. The administration has retained Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in the Middle East and South/Central Asia. And most significantly, the administration has nominated a highly qualified, highly respected religious freedom ambassador.