Evangelicals voice support after Biden nominates first Muslim to top religious freedom post

President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by a snowstorm in the Midwest and southwest Feb. 16, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by a snowstorm in the Midwest and southwest Feb. 16, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. | White House/Lawrence Jackson

The public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and an evangelical leader have expressed their support for President Joe Biden’s nomination to fill the State Department's top international religious freedom post.

Last week, the White House announced the nomination of diplomat and former law professor Rashad Hussain to serve as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a post previously held by former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Hussain is the first Muslim ever to be nominated for the position since it was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act.  

Hussain, 41, presently serves as director for Partnerships and Global Engagement at the National Security Council. He served in the Obama administration as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the U.S. Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

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Brent Leatherwood, vice president of external affairs and chief of Staff for SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement that he has “long called for America to be a bold voice for liberty against these oppressive regimes.”

“Similarly, naming a U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom helps us to consistently use that voice,” stated Leatherwood, as reported by Baptist Press on Tuesday.

“We appreciate the Biden administration prioritizing this appointment, and we stand ready to work with Mr. Hussain upon his confirmation to advance the fundamental human right of religious freedom internationally.”

Biden also nominated people to fill other critical human rights posts.

Deborah Lipstadt, a scholar of the Holocaust, was nominated to serve as the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Meanwhile, Khizr Khan, a lawyer and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project, was nominated to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. 

Sharon Kleinbaum, a lesbian rabbi of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City, was nominated as a commissioner for USCIRF, a bipartisan, congressionally mandated panel tasked with advising the federal government on religious freedom issues. 

Johnnie Moore, the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders who informally engaged with the Trump White House, praised the nominations. Moore is a former USCIRF commissioner. 

"I congratulate President Biden's appointees and I'll look forward to collaborating with each of them in order to advance the freedom of religion and belief around the world," Moore said in a statement.

"There will, as always, be divergent points of view on certain ideas, policies and strategies, but international religious freedom continues to be — and must remain — almost entirely bipartisan."

"In fact, it must be nonpartisan," he added. "I intend on doing my part to keep it so and beginning with continuing to build a diverse, great wall of collaboration to confront the unconscionable, genocidal efforts undertaken by the Communist Party of China to crush religious freedom within China while exporting similar tactics and ideas abroad."

Biden's nomination of Hussain also received praise from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a United Kingdom-based persecution watchdog group.

"The announcement is an encouraging indicator of the importance the Biden administration places on the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief," CSW Chief Executive Kori Porter said in a statement. "We hope that Mr. Hussain will build on the excellent work of his predecessors, and look forward to working closely with him in pursuit of the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief around the world.”

Michael Wear, a strategist who advised former President Barack Obama on how to engage evangelical voters, called Hussain a "wonderful pick." 

"Perennial complaint from IRF community that administrations delay making an appointment to this position, and so it's [important] Biden Admin receives credit for relatively speedy action here," Wear argued on Twitter. "I mean, they just announced Amb. to the EU, and the IRF announcement comes just days after."

Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., that a nominee for the ambassador-at-large position was forthcoming.

The position had been vacant since Biden took office. Brownback, who left his job as sitting Kansas governor to assume the ambassador-at-large position in 2018 and is credited with elevating the prestige of ambassador role, previously told CP that he wasn't asked to stay on when the Biden administration took office. 

“Under Ambassador Brownback, the IRF movement took a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy than ever before,” Ben Harbaugh, who formerly worked on international religious freedom for the State Department, wrote in a recent piece published by ERLC. 

“The IRF office held the inaugural 2019 Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom — the largest civil society event ever held by the state department — created an IRF alliance with 32 other countries, and played a pivotal role in declaring China’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslims as a genocide in the final days of the Trump administration.”

The ERLC has been critical of past actions by the Biden administration on the issue of religious freedom, releasing a statement in March denouncing the president’s decision to remove the general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Sharon Gustafson was appointed to the general counsel position by former President Donald Trump in 2018 and refused to resign and was fired instead.

“Biden’s decision to fire Gustafson may have significant implications for religious liberty protections, which would be deeply concerning for Christians,” stated the ERLC in response.

“… this action violates the EEOC’s autonomy and may portend further hostility toward Americans who dissent from the radical sexual orthodoxy of the progressive movement. The effort to replace Gustafson sends troubling signs about the future on these issues.”

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