Wrapping up 2017: The Atlantic looks at big religion themes in Trump's foreign policy

Goodbye 2017 Welcome 2018 Wallpapers.jpg

As always, the GetReligion team slows down a bit during the Holiday season (broadly defined).

We don't vanish. We don't stop reading or paying attention to our email. But we do have other things to do, like travel and welcoming guests (and in my case, celebrating a 40th wedding anniversary).

One thing we will be doing in the next week or so is noting some of the interesting 2017 yearender features focusing on religion-news events and trends. I don't know if we will do another "Parade of Yearenders" like last year, but we'll give you a few things to read.

We have already started in recent weeks. If you haven't tried one of our "Crossroads" podcasts, click here and give this one a try -- "Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything." That post includes this years Top 10 stories from the Religion News Association, as well as my own take on the year's events in an "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate. Bobby Ross, Jr., also pointed to the RNA poll here.

It has, so far, been easy to spot a trend among the yearenders. Rather than doing lists of the major events, more and more journalists are producing lists of the top stories at their own websites (the kind of thing GetReligion does on this website's anniversary every year). That's interesting, and valid, but I always enjoyed contrasting the Top 10 news lists.

In other words: Hint, hint. Please send us URLS you spot for yearender pieces and the newsier the better. Top 10 lists? Yes, please.

It would be impossible to sum up the religion-news coverage in the year without mentioning the work of Emma Green at The Atlantic. While her work is written in an analysis style suited to magazine features, during 2017 she often focused on important religion-news topics -- especially church-state conflicts -- before hard-news operations took them on. Here's how I described that process back in September:

Stage 1: Something happens in the public square that combines clear religious content and politics (if possible linked to You Know Who in the White House). Take, for example, a U.S. Senate hearing in which a Notre Dame University law professor who is a traditional Catholic and the mother of seven children is -- since she is being considered for a federal appeals court slot – bluntly asked: "Are you an orthodox Catholic?" Another senator warns her that Catholic "dogma lives loudly within you."
Stage 2: Conservative and religious news websites, fired by Twitter storms, cover the story. Meanwhile, major news outlets -- starting with The New York Times (still) -- ignore this interesting drama linked to the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing religious tests for public servants. Click here for my first post on this issue.
Stage 3: The Atlantic then runs an online story which puts the key facts into play, while offering what amounts to a second-day feature analysis story about an event that -- in terms of first-day, hard-news coverage -- doesn't exist in the mainstream press.

At that point, other journalists often followed Green's thread into these stories.

In other words, we kept seeing analysis coverage that led to hard-news coverage, instead of the other way around. That's strange, but I was still thankful for Green's work, even in cases where I disagreed a bit with her take. The key: She was putting events, sources and factual information into play. Bravo!

Now it's the end of the year, and Green has published an Atlantic essay with this headline: "How Religion Made a Global Comeback in 2017." This piece focuses on how nationalism -- often stated in religious terms -- has driven the foreign policy of President Donald Trump's White House.

One of the great paradoxes of Donald Trump is that, for a president who is among the least overtly pious in recent memory, he often presents the world through a religious lens. ...
Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests that nationalism is the dominant organizing principle in his understanding of global affairs -- and it’s often washed in religious identity. This is a significant break from the Obama administration, which tended to view other factors as more significant drivers of foreign policy. But it’s still not clear what kind of strategy and tangible policies will result from Trump’s worldview, and even the religious groups he intends to benefit may end up worse off as a result.

As you would expect, The Atlantic pays very close attention to the views of Trump critics, but places that content in tension with the administration's own policies. From time to time, there are experts defending the White House, to one degree or another.

Here is the big theme -- words instead of concrete actions. (I appreciate the frequent use of hyperlinks to let readers see the context of specific quotations.)

The strongest evidence of Trump’s focus on religion is his language. “There are certainly … shades of political discourse around this administration that have caused some people to remember Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 article and subsequent book on ‘The Clash of Civilizations,’” said Peter Mandaville, a professor at George Mason University who served on Hillary Clinton’s policy-planning staff when she was secretary of state. Over and over, the president comes back to religion to explain big events and America’s role in the world. These speeches tend to have dark, dramatic overtones: Terrorism is “a battle between good and evil,” the country’s enemies “drown people in steel cages,” Islam “hates us.” His administration sees religion as “a more significant contributing factor to violent extremism than, say, structural causes such as politics, economics, corruption, or localized conflict,” said Mandaville, “which tended to be the emphasis of the Obama administration.”

As you would expect, lots of this Trump language is delivered in forums and publications that reach out to religious conservatives. This leads to the crucial section of the article, which contrasts the style, substance and actions of the Barack Obama administration and the Trump team.

This is long, but essential:

“There has been a treatment of religious freedom in this administration as an indivisible, universal, and interdependent human right,” said Kristina Arriaga, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and former executive director of Becket, a D.C. law firm that advocates for religious freedom. “That was not present in the Obama administration. ..."
Religious-freedom advocates may have another reason to be pleased under Trump: As the focus on global religion has increased in Washington, so has their influence. In particular, the president’s evangelical advisers successfully pushed for a number of Trump’s significant foreign-policy moves, including the Jerusalem embassy move and a redirection of aid for Middle East Christians through USAID rather than the United Nations. Domestic politics may motivate these decisions just as much as foreign-policy strategy. “He’s trying to make good on policy promises he made during the campaign to evangelical Christians,” said Shaun Casey, the director of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and former head of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department.
Under Obama, conservative religious-freedom advocates bristled at what they saw as a reluctance to prioritize religious persecution around the world. Critics were outraged that the administration left the position of U.S. ambassador for global religious freedom unstaffed for long stretches, and they slammed Secretary of State John Kerry for dragging his feet on declaring that ISIS had led a genocide against Christians and other religious minorities. 

But here is the bottom line: Are words enough?

This is the fundamental tension in Trump’s foreign policy, religion-focused or otherwise: Strong rhetoric hasn’t necessarily been matched with the resources, staffing or structure to support major initiatives. Even on the topic of Christians in the Middle East, which evangelicals and Republican legislators care about passionately, the policy strategy is not yet clear. “Rhetorically, he’s throwing them sweet morsels in some of his speeches, but if you’re a persecuted Christian family in Nineveh, you can’t eat that rhetoric,” said Casey.

Read it all. And please let us know if you see other 2017 yearenders, at The Atlantic or anywhere else. I will be somewhere in THE Atlantic  -- but I hope the WIFI works.

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