What the Brunson affair tells us about the power of the religious freedom lobby in America
Of all the consequences of 2016’s attempted coup in Turkey, the imposition of sanctions on Turkish ministers by the United States would have appeared the least likely. After all, Turkey was – and remains – a NATO ally. Yet the dispute only seems to be escalating.
Of the approximately 77,000 arrests after the coup attempt, that of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US pastor who had been leading a church in Izmir in Turkey for over 20 years, should have been the easiest to resolve. Arrests on that scale are bound to include some innocents, guilty only of having made some enemy who denounced them to the police. A quiet request by the United States, a quiet release, and the whole affair blows over.
Instead this has become a battle of wills between the United States and Turkey; the Turkish lira is in free-fall; a tariff war has started (in which the odds overwhelmingly favor the US); a fighter-jet deal has been postponed; and two senior ministers have been sanctioned.
Not all of this is happening solely because Brunson is a US citizen, either. There were reportedly 12 other US citizens caught up in the post-coup arrests, one of whom was a NASA physicist, but the proclaimed cause of the rising tension is Brunson alone. And this is an example of how powerful the cause of religious freedom has become in US politics.
Many of the charges against Brunson are religious — as well as strange — in tone, and his case was instantly picked up by both evangelical groups and religious freedom lobbies. (The religious freedom lobby overlaps significantly with evangelical Christianity, as well as US Catholics, although other religious groups are also heavily represented.)
This has made his case awkward to resolve. The US government has an obvious interest in securing the release of citizens it believes to be held under political charges. But elected politicians also have an, often-overriding, interest in securing the support of influential lobby groups.
Those two interests rarely coincide. Vocal groups rarely care for the nuanced work of international diplomacy, and if a government does nothing publicly, then as far as such groups are concerned it is doing nothing at all. But foreign governments also have constituent interests — whether democratic or not — which demand that they do not allow their country to be bullied by another. As Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, famously said: “All politics is local.”
In this case, the ‘local’ politics of the US have necessitated a lot of noise and threats against Turkey, while Turkey’s ‘local’ politics have necessitated standing firm against those threats. And in the middle of all this stands Andrew Brunson.
The religious freedom lobby is powerful in many parts of the Western world, but particularly so in the United States, possibly due to the influence of the Constitution on public thought. The State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom, led by an ambassador (who requires confirmation from the senate) was set up by statute in 1998, and issues an annual report on religious freedom around the world. That same legislation also established the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which also issues an annual report on religious freedom around the world.
In America, many evangelical leaders will know that their credibility is on the line for supporting Trump; it is therefore essential for them that he delivers on evangelical priorities.
The purpose of these institutions is to promote the cause of religious freedom as a part of US foreign policy, and they do so with vigor. But they are caught on the horns of the same dilemma as the government as a whole: they must demonstrate that they are achieving their mission, which necessitates speaking publicly about it (and issuing reports that are not always entirely diplomatic), but at the same time they must actually achieve their mission, which requires the quiet, personal, hard work of good diplomacy.
Last month, the State Department hosted its first Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom, bringing in civil and religious experts as well as government officials from around the world.
Attending was Pastor Brunson’s daughter, and his case was discussed in speeches by Vice President Mike Pence (who raised the prospect of sanctions) and Secretary Mike Pompeo. These speeches were intended for domestic audiences, but succeeded in raising the temperature in Anakara too.
In fact, it’s hard to escape the sense that the ratcheting up of tensions and sanctions at this stage (two years after Brunson’s arrest) might have something to do both with President Trump’s personal troubles and the upcoming mid-term elections. In the 2016 election, despite his regular and open violation of principles that evangelical Christians had condemned in other politicians, Trump took 80 percent of the evangelical vote. Vice President Pence and Secretary Pompeo are both personally evangelicals. And some of the most prominent evangelical pastors in the United States are vocal Trump supporters.
That support, though, is conditional. The link between the Republican Party and evangelical Christianity is not pure partisanship. Republican policy over the past few decades has generally been socially conservative on marriage and the family, abortion, euthanasia, drugs, education and a host of other issues — particularly in comparison to the Democratic Party. While the link between evanglicals and the party has long been commented on, it is only really with the open infidelities and social liberalism of President Trump that the contradictions of the relationship have been laid bare.
Many evangelical leaders will know that their credibility is on the line for supporting Trump. It is essential for them that he delivers on evangelical priorities. And it is essential for Trump that he retains their support. Turning what should be a consular case to be resolved in the shadows into a major international incident is a very public way of saying “I’m on your side.” Whether it aids the cause of religious freedom — or the case of Andrew Brunson — is another question entirely.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby.