At the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C., last month, summit co-chairs Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett addressed a joint session. Noting the summit’s theme, “Religious Freedom for Everybody, Everywhere, All the Time,” Brownback characterized his idea of religious freedom as societies allowing “freedom for the soul and respect for each other.” But the rhetoric of individuals and groups present at the summit shows how extremists wield the language of religious freedom in a very different way: to oppress others.
Numerous respected experts, advocates and politicians across the political spectrum attended the summit. The IRF’s speaker and sponsor roster also featured more than a dozen individuals or groups with ties to anti-LGBTQ hate and extremism. For Family Research Council (FRC) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – both of which were involved in the summit – the event was another tool to mainstream and legitimize anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate.
Right-wing extremism is metastasizing in the United States, as Brookings fellow J.M. Berger has noted. As disinformation and hateful rhetoric is amplified, a significant minority of the population receives extremist messages through social media. That increasingly includes an anti-LGBTQ focus, and Berger has suggested the rise in online rhetoric and in-person violent anti-LGBTQ extremism is tied to the ability of anti-LGBTQ groups to spread their messages unchallenged, especially in spaces that lend them legitimacy or portray their views as representative of the general public.
Religious privilege: How anti-LGBTQ extremists wield the rhetoric of ‘religious freedom’
Though Brownback professed universal respect for religious freedom at the IRF Summit, he has a history of anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim activism. In an op-ed written last year with FRC president Tony Perkins, who also spoke at the summit, the two took aim at the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people. They claimed that “Western culture is growing increasingly hostile to foundational Christian beliefs about marriage, sexuality and ethical behavior.”
The summit’s opening plenary – featuring a representative of the Family Research Council, one of the most influential anti-LGBTQ hate groups in the United States – demonstrates how the group’s presence and message was amplified but not challenged. With Perkins and Simran Jeet Singh of the Aspen Institute seated behind them, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, took the stage to discuss international religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.
When prompted by Singh to reflect on religious persecution and how religious freedom can be used to oppress minority groups, McGovern suggested the U.S. should provide a consistent model of human rights, which includes respect for religious freedom and the rights of minority groups. Specifically, McGovern warned against using religious freedom to “deny the rights of entire populations,” referencing the experiences of religious minorities, women and the LGBTQ community.
When asked by Perkins to reflect on threats to religious freedom, McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, promoted religious freedom as a component of American national security, citing religious persecution in China, Afghanistan and Iran as examples of governments threatening religious freedom. The belief that Christians, specifically, are persecuted in the U.S. is a consistent theme of FRC rhetoric, which motivates the group’s pursuit of public policies that would allow Christians to discriminate against others, such as Muslims or LGBTQ people, when providing public services.
Although the panel discussed human rights and McGovern called out anti-LGBTQ discrimination, the panel ignored the extremist anti-LGBTQ activities of Perkins’ own organization.
This failure to confront the FRC’s virulently anti-LGBTQ bigotry and that of other groups represents a dangerous contradiction. On the one hand, summit attendees gathered to assert a moderate vision of “religious freedom” with a live-and-let-live air. On the other hand, some in their ranks blatantly use claims of “religious freedom” to divide and conquer democratic, pluralistic societies and oppress minoritized populations.
FRC frequently attacks LGBTQ people with false and dangerous rhetoric likening them to pedophiles. FRC advocates biblical punishment for LGBTQ people, promotes pseudoscientific and dangerous conversion therapy practices and advances the claim that LGBTQ rights come at the expense of so-called religious freedom.
FRC’s public statements on religious freedom show its intent. Not only does its view of “religious freedom” clash with LGBTQ rights, but the group also promotes the false notion that religious freedom includes a right to discriminate against LGBTQ people or minority religions. In a 2022 World magazine article, Joseph Backholm, FRC senior fellow for biblical worldview and strategic engagement, asked if religious freedom allows discrimination and responded affirmatively: “The things we once celebrated as ‘freedom’ are now ridiculed as ‘discrimination.’”
Other groups, such as ADF, which sponsored this year’s event, hold similar views about the meaning of religious freedom. Hatewatch has previously documented ADF’s advocacy for the criminalization of homosexuality in Central America and the Caribbean. In Europe, ADF has argued for countries to sterilize transgender people as a component of changing their government-issued identification.
The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), which sponsored the summit and had four representatives on various panels at this year’s event, has partnered with ADF to promote legislation in the U.S. that would allow medical providers to opt out of providing care to transgender people or abortion-related care.
Among the multiple RFI representatives at the summit was enior fellow Eugene Yapp, who has argued in favor of criminalizing LGBTQ people. In a 2021 article for the International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education, Yapp wrote that “not prosecuting” LGBTQ people was tantamount to exempting them from the rule of law and that “Real discrimination is upon those who have a very different version and account of sex and gender, such as traditional religion and their respective institutions.”
The IRF itself aired anti-LGBTQ talking points as an example of religious freedom. The official summit Twitter account retweeted an article from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the honorary Senate co-chair of the event, in which he decried the “disregard for religious freedom” shown by the administration of President Joe Biden and state governments that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Wicker’s statement also cited Colorado baker Jack Phillips’ challenge to that state’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and endorsed Phillips’ view that the state’s enforcement of the law is an attempt to “punish me for my faith.”
Religious freedom does not exist in a human-rights vacuum
Religious pluralism, or a respect for a diverse array of religious perspectives, is a sign of a healthy and open democracy. It has been an important component of American foreign policy. Addressing the summit in a recorded video message, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said as much, calling religious freedom both “essential” and “vital” to American diplomacy and national security. Religious freedom is also “inextricably linked” to many other liberties including assembly, expression, speech and participation in public life, Blinken said.
On stage with Tony Perkins, Rep. McGovern detailed this view. In addition to name-checking LGBTQ people, women and religious minorities, the congressman also warned against the exclusionary form of religious freedom that seeks to privilege one religious group and allow them to impose their beliefs on others. McGovern explained such groups attempt to use the “force of law” to create a license for them to discriminate. “That kind of behavior,” McGovern said, “is the very definition of the violation of the right to religious freedom.”
Banner image: Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., speaks at a Jan. 31 meeting of the House Rules Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/ZUMA Press Wire)