Foreign Policy Essay

President Trump’s Anti-Secular Foreign Policy?

By Jacques Berlinerblau
Sunday, February 26, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Trump administration is turning many things on their heads, not least the role religion is playing in society. But what is happening is also shaping U.S. policy overseas. Jacques Berlinerblau, my colleague at Georgetown, argues that the Trump administration's foreign policy represents a dramatic shift for the United States and one that may prove disastrous.


In a landmark 1960 speech, John F. Kennedy warned against pointing “a finger of suspicion” at any one religious group. “Today,” intoned the man who would soon be the nation’s first Catholic president, “I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped.” Kennedy’s sentiments express what might be the Golden Rule of modern American secularism: our government cannot discriminate against, nor show preference towards, citizens on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The administration of Donald J. Trump appears eager to turn this secular logic completely upside down. As for preference, the president has made common cause with conservative Christians and their particular policy goals, like the reinstatement of the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which bans federal funding for any NGO providing abortion counseling, often affecting the provision of other forms of birth control. As for discrimination, Trump’s flagging “Muslim Ban” points “the finger of suspicion” at members of one religious group. Just a few weeks past his inauguration, Trump is poised to become the most anti-secular president in recent American history.

The administration of Donald J. Trump appears eager to turn this secular logic completely upside down.

What does that mean in practice? Drawing a distinction between anti-secularism’s domestic and foreign policy applications is a good first step toward understanding its implications. On the domestic front, Trump’s disdain for mid-century secular conventions is evident in everything from the “Merry Christmas” sign ostentatiously glued to his podium at a post-election rally to his Supreme Court and cabinet nominations. At the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump vowed that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prevents pulpits from becoming veritable PACs. Alongside his GOP allies, Trump may try to nationalize countless “religious freedom” bills, like the one Mike Pence signed in Indiana. That legislation, which was framed as a “restoration” of religious freedom, legitimated discrimination in accordance with one’s faith convictions, including denying services to members of the LGBT community.

Implementing an anti-secular agenda in world affairs, however, is a different matter altogether. For starters, the activism that takes place in Republican state houses is usually a pipeline for ideas about national, as opposed to international, policies. Second, the infrastructure for effectuating such policies on an international scale is less built-out; there are far fewer operatives, legal advocates, think tanks, pressure groups, and donors committed to the promulgation of anti-secularism in global relations.

One also wonders if an anti-secular Trump administration would have partners in the State Department and elsewhere as helpful and reliable as the Republican Party. As recently as 2006, The Economist dubbed America’s foreign policy elite “one of the most secular groups in the country.” It is telling that Madeleine Albright describes the study of international relations in the 1980s as “theorized in almost exclusively secular terms.” “I cannot remember,” writes the former secretary of state reflecting on the pre-9/11 period, “any leading American diplomat…speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world.”

From the Kennedy era to 9/11, while experts like Albright were steadfastly avoiding religious questions, a culture war was raging within U.S. politics. In the 1960s a late-blooming variant of secularism known as “separationism” achieved unprecedented judicial victories. Resurrecting a Jeffersonian metaphor, mid-century secularists spoke of a “Wall of Separation.” They proceeded to shunt prayer out of public schools and eliminate religious tests for civil service employment. These separationists challenged the idea that the federal government should be for, or against, any religion.

The activism of the Christian Right has yet to achieve globally what it has achieved nationally. That could now begin to shift.

The backlash, led by conservative Christian activists who first came to national prominence during the Reagan years, was swift and devastatingly effective. In the intervening decades they endeavored to dismantle the Wall brick by brick. They were buoyed by Justice William Rehnquist’s 1985 dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree that the Wall was “a metaphor based on bad history…and should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” The result has been a notable decline in the acceptance of separationism as a judicial or governing ideology on the local, state, and federal levels.

The activism of the Christian Right has yet to achieve globally what it has achieved nationally. That could now begin to shift. The Trump administration has shown itself amenable to implementing radical change that could empower particular religious groups and endanger long-standing norms in U.S. policy. All of which leads us to conduct a brief thought experiment in which the contours of an anti-secular foreign policy are imagined.

First, there are the personnel. It goes without saying that the Evangelical Protestants, Traditionalist Catholics, and Mormons that are a mainstay of the Christian Right will be stakeholders in such a project, and have already been heartened by the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy. Joining their coalition might be those Jewish-Americans who appreciate Trump’s support for religious-nationalist Zionism, and Hindu-Americans who have their own longstanding gripe with secularism in their country of origin. In a surprising twist, all of these groups might link arms with the White nationalists that have lodged themselves in the administration.

Second, traditions of “non-cognizance” (such as those that once prevailed at the State Department) may not be long for this world. An axiom of secular thought going back to James Madison is that the government ought not take religious identity into account. The Muslim Ban glaringly contravenes that principle. The rejection of non-cognizance also raises the possibility that the Trump administration will aggressively combat the persecution of Christians in Muslim lands. This is only problematic if the plight of non-Christian religious minorities is ignored.

Third, anti-secular foreign policy will run roughshod over the notion of government neutrality. It is one thing to say Americans are a “religious people,” as Justice William O. Douglas once did in the era of separationism. It is quite another to say we are a Christian people and a white people to boot. An anti-secular global agenda would align U.S. interests abroad with the interests of (conservative) Christianity stateside. To this end, the president could radically re-purpose existing positions at the State Department (e.g., the international religious freedom ambassador, or the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism) to conform to his policy preferences. More broadly, the cultivation of close alliances with other ethno-nationalist Christian regimes might also be expected.

A Trumpian anti-secular agenda might initially look familiar and could evoke memories of George W. Bush’s presidency. Critics alleged that Bush administration agencies were funneling taxpayer dollars into the coffers of NGOs who sought to inculcate a conservative Christian worldview. Some claimed, less convincingly, that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was motivated by a fealty to dispensational “End Times” theology. If Trump follows his anti-secular impulses, we should expect much worse. Longstanding and crucial alliances with friendly nations would be threatened. New partnerships with anti-democratic regimes would be forged. America’s hard-earned reputation as an oasis of religious pluralism would be irredeemably harmed.

Old habits die hard, especially when those habits conduce to stability and peace. One imagines U.S. policymakers understand why church-state boundaries exist. One hopes that they understand this well enough to keep a Trumpian anti-secular foreign policy firmly in the realm of the hypothetical.