At first glance, Tony Perkins, who recently complained that the Secretary of State isn’t doing enough to stop “liberal activism around the world,” might seem an odd fit for a committee designed to serve as an American watchdog for international religious freedom violations.
And yet, the president of conservative Christian lobbying organization Family Research Council—and Trump’s newest appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Perkins exactly fits the profile of a commission championed by conservative Christians and largely focused on the rights of Christians abroad.
Perkins is perhaps best known for his vociferous anti-LGBT stances. Designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Family Research Council has gained increasing political clout since Perkins took the helm in 2003. A former Louisiana state senator himself, Perkins has worked to ingratiate himself with holders of the nation’s highest office since the Reagan years. Perkins made a reported 14 visits to the White House during George W. Bush’s first term and was an integral lobbyist in favor of a bill that would have imposed jail time on doctors and other adults that helped abortion-seekers under 18 skirt state parental notification requirements.
For Perkins and many evangelical leaders, though, Donald Trump’s election has led to unprecedented levels of access and influence.
“I’ve been to the White House how many more times in the first six months this year than I was during the entire Bush administration,” Perkins told reporters last August. “There’s not a Sunday that goes by that I don’t have people in the congregation that will grab me and say, ‘How’s the president doing? Did you see him this week? I’m praying for him every day and I’m just so angry at the media and how they’re attacking him.’”
This sense of the president and his evangelical supporters as part of a beleaguered faithful remnant to American values undeniably informs the Family Research Council’s plank on religious freedom, which has focused exclusively on perceived domestic and international violations against Christians’ rights. Perkins has said that evangelical Christians “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.”
“I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully,” Perkins said of Trump and his team in January. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”
While Perkins has expressed interest in using his new position as an opportunity to support “religious freedom and the defense of religious minorities,” he might find that the USCIRF actually doesn’t require a significant change in focus from his own preoccupations with Christians’ rights.
The USCIRF dates back to 1998, when it was instituted as an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission as part of the International Religious Freedom Act. The group’s stated goals include monitoring religious freedom violations around the globe and providing policy recommendations to the president, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
Nevertheless, since the USCIRF’s inception, the commission has largely been populated by conservative Christians and has received significant pushback from advocates of religious pluralism, especially those interested in Muslim citizens’ religious freedom at home and abroad.
In 2010, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad filed suit against the USCIRF, claiming that they hired her as a South Asia policy analyst but quickly reneged on the offer on the grounds of her Muslim faith. Ghori-Ahmad’s suit quoted Nina Shea, a founding USCIRF commissioner, as saying in an email that hiring Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious freedom in Pakistan would be the equivalent of “hiring an IRA activist to research the UK twenty years ago.”
Ghori-Ahmad claimed that her treatment by the USCIRF was part of a broader “pattern of bias against Muslims” on the part of the commission. Indeed, former USCIRF commissioner Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim who teaches at UCLA School of Law, told the Washington Post that “[USCIRF has] a very pronounced view of the world, and it is that victims of religious discrimination are invariably Christian. It was rather suffocating.”
Apart from allegations of anti-Muslim bias, the commission has been charged with claims of bias toward Christians’ rights since its founding in the late 1990s. A consultation on religious persecution as a U.S. policy issue held at Trinity College in 1999 pointed to the USCIRF’s focus on Christians in India—who made up 2.3 percent of the population, as opposed to the more sizable Muslim minority in India—as an example of the commission’s particular concern over anti-Christian propaganda and legislation.
While Obama-era appointees introduced a broader spectrum of ideological stances and religious affiliations to the commission, its membership nevertheless remained largely Christian and conservative enough to maintain the commission’s status quo.
“I think the legislative history [of the USCIRF] will probably reflect that there was a great deal of interest in protecting the rights of Christians,” Human Rights Watch’s Jemera Rone said during the consultation. “I think that the burden is probably on the U.S. government to show that in this [International Religious Freedom] Act they’re not engaging in crusading or proselytization on behalf of the Christian religion.”
In light of the past two decades of critiques of the USCIRF and the current president’s attentiveness to the plight of conservative Christians, those predicting the future of the USCIRF might well conclude it’s destined to continue its legacy of anti-Muslim, Christian-centric analysis. In that sense, it seems Tony Perkins’s appointment to the commission is more of the rule than the exception.
For better or worse, though, the USCIRF has less power than its supporters would like. As a watchdog group charged with giving recommendations to the White House, it doesn’t have the power to create legislation. Moreover, its intervention can be barred by other countries’ own privacy laws (the Indian Embassy in Washington denied visas to the commission in 2009 and 2016 on the grounds that it does not need a foreign entity to pass judgment on its citizens’ rights). Ultimately, although the USCIRF speaks to the White House, it does not speak for the White House.
What Perkins’s appointment indicates, as has so often been the case with the Trump administration, is how blatantly the White House is willing to speak for conservative American Christians’ sense of domestic and global persecution.