Criticism of Pompeo’s religious beliefs carry no weight

Criticism of Pompeo’s religious beliefs carry no weight

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) and his wife Susan (C-L) visit the newly inaugurated Cathedral of the Nativity Christ, in Egypt's New Administrative Capital (Mohamed Hossam /AFP)

On his recent visit to a new cathedral in Egypt, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The Lord is at work here in Egypt…. (this is) a stunning testament to the Lord’s hand… a truly remarkable place where you can see religious freedom at work.”

Few countries’ senior representatives frame their nation’s mission in religious terms. Iran is one; perhaps India in less zealous terms; and Russia occasionally. The US doesn’t tend to — although religious imagery has never been far from the surface of American public discourse — which makes Pompeo’s approach noteworthy.

Pompeo, like Vice President Mike Pence, is valued by President Donald Trump in part precisely because he is an evangelical Christian. Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 and that vote means political action is necessary. Pence and Pompeo are part of this political dividend.

Western elites have historically been disdainful about religious fervor. These days, that disdain has extended to religious belief of any sort. “Mike Pompeo’s evangelical zeal could complicate his new diplomatic life,” said The Economist of his appointment, hinting that his faith would impede his interactions with Muslim leaders.

It is perhaps not surprising, though, that the majority of the criticism of his appointment did not substantively rest on international relations, but rather his relations with his fellow Americans. One is that suspicion of overt faith. One prominent foreign policy commentator contrasted him with past secretaries of state, who had been “refreshingly secular” — a values statement if there ever was one. Another critic referred to the problems that he caused for Muslim-Americans in his response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Another magazine wrote an account of Pompeo’s supposed lack of commitment to diversity while head of the CIA — an article apparently premised on the fact that he is an orthodox Christian who attends Bible studies and has previously spoken against gay marriage.

But this entire approach rests on a false assumption: That the wider world is as squeamish about religion as the West. Perhaps, even, that there is wink-wink complicity between leaders in the Muslim world and the West that secularism is the only viable approach to government, and that it is only the backwards people of the Middle East and North Africa that prevent its implementation.

This is, of course, nonsense. There are two great fallacies of Western international theory around religion, present both in the media and in much of politics and foreign aid. The first is that secularism is neutral ground, and therefore to be prioritized. And the second is that religion is on the way out as people become more rational. Neither of those statements are particularly new; but nor is the statement that they are both profoundly wrong.

Pompeo, like Vice President Mike Pence, is valued by President Donald Trump in part precisely because he is an evangelical Christian

Peter Welby

Political neutral ground can only be found between two people with similar belief systems. If you have grown up as an atheist, and I have grown up as an evangelical, it is more natural for you to explain your belief system without reference to God than it is for me. If you insist that only explanations without reference to God are valid, we are no longer on neutral ground — we are on your home turf. Sure, I may be able to defend some of my views from first principles (much as Descartes attempted for the existence of God), but you will be able to defend yours on the same grounds as you formed them.

As for the world becoming less religious, data shows that it isn’t. The Pew Research Center estimates that those of no religion will fall from 16 percent of the world’s population now to 13 percent by 2060. But many in the West seem to believe the opposite without really thinking about it: Because the West is getting less religious, therefore the West’s foreign policy should pretend the world is likewise.

The reality of “neutral ground” is that religious language is more comprehensible to much of the world than secular language. When Pompeo said in a speech in Cairo two weeks ago that on his desk he keeps an open Bible to remind him of “God, his word, and the truth,” most of his audience would have been people who recite verses from the Quran daily.

When Pompeo’s critics suggested that his views on Islam are a danger, they feared that he would not be able to relate to Muslim leaders. But the views on Islam that they referred to were views on Islamist extremism, which the leaders here in the Gulf and elsewhere will largely agree with. Pompeo is not the religious extremist that some in the media made him out to be. He is an orthodox conservative Christian.

In the US in particular, I regard it as a threat to Christianity that evangelicalism has so publicly nailed its colors to the Trump mast, jettisoning all the concerns about presidential morals that led them to reject previous Democrat presidents. It is a quick way to diminish the attractiveness of a faith, and undermine the willingness of potential audiences to hear its central message. But, if anything, it is that conflation of evangelical faith with Trumpian politics that was behind the concern at Pompeo’s appointment. His recent visit to the Middle East may not go down in the history books, but it does reveal his opponents’ concerns about his religious beliefs to be full of hot air.

  • 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 Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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