America was not founded as a Christian nation. Yet you might think otherwise by listening to the architect of President Trump’s foreign policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
By embracing Christian nationalist rhetoric, Pompeo ignores America’s secular constitutional tradition—and undermines the United States’ ability and credibility to promote human rights, pluralism, and the rule of law around the globe.
Last week, Pompeo vowed to bring the State Department’s understanding of human rights “back to the fundamental moorings of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which this country was founded, to take this idea of rights and human rights back to the foundational ideas that have made this civilization, this country here, so unique and so special.”
His words are troubling. The Constitution, America’s “foundational” document, makes no mention of God, Jesus, Christianity, or the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Article VI, Clause 3 declares that “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding public office. The First Amendment bars the establishment of a state religion.
While the exact words “separation of Church and State” do not appear in the Constitution, it is those values—values often credited to Thomas Jefferson, but with roots back to Martin Luther and John Locke—that undergird the “fundamental moorings” on which the United States was founded.
Ratified at a time of sweeping religious tests for public office, the Constitution’s rejection of a state religion, not its codification of the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” is “so unique and so special” from a comparative and historical perspective.
Pompeo’s exclusionary comments, however, were more than historically inaccurate and revisionist. They were dangerous. They cabin the United States’ ability to build effective transnational alliances and speak credibly about international human rights violations.
At a time when the Trump Administration has perilously strained relationships with Muslim-majority countries and even traditional partners with Islamophobic policies and bigoted language, Pompeo confirms the view that the United States privileges Christian and Jewish citizens over people of other (and no) faiths. While the founding of the United States was as much of an Islamic, Sikh, atheist or Buddhist act as a “Judeo-Christian” one, the world hears a starkly different message from America’s top diplomat.
This, in turn, alienates would-be allies and fuels anti-American sentiment.
Pompeo’s recent comments are not surprising. He has a sordid history of depicting Western Christians and Muslims as adversaries in a monumental, civilizational clash. Four years before his ascension to Secretary of State, he said, “The threat to America is from people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer.” He continued, “they abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure we know that Jesus Christ as our savior is truly the only solution for our world."
Rather than renounce this crusading bombast, Pompeo’s doubled down on it by peddling exclusionary myths about America’s founding.
Pompeo’s rhetoric also gives cover to authoritarian leaders who exploit their own narratives of Christian “national founding” to exclude, discriminate, and repress.
Consider Hungary and Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has weaponized the country’s ostensible “Christian roots” and “Christian nationhood” as justifications for degrading the country’s ailing democracy. Citing the urgency of protecting the besieged “Christian nation,” Orbán has denigrated migrants, restricted immigration, suppressed journalism, and grabbed power for himself.
Similarly, the Russian President has exploited the cover of defending the “Christian nation” to persecute LGBTQ Russians and draw attention away from his kleptocratic governing failures.
Instead of condemning these illiberal rulers, America’s leading emissary echoes them.
Pompeo did not invent the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition.” The term, theologically incoherent, permeated the American political discourse as a political cudgel of the religious right in the mid-20th Century. As noted by Gene Zubovich, evangelical leaders embraced it as they “accepted Catholics and Jews as important allies in the fight against abortion, feminism and gay rights.”
This provenance is fitting. Secretary Pompeo has used his perch as Secretary of State to fight against abortion, feminism, and gay rights. He expanded the so-called Mexico City Policy—referred to as the “global gag rule” by opponents—that restricts foreign funding of reproductive healthcare and stifles the free speech of international nongovernmental organizations. He has denounced abortion and promoted the cause of “unborn life” at the United Nations. And he stacked a new commission on human rights with staunch anti-LGBTQ advocates.
He even took State Department resources to promote, broadcast, and share a speech, entitled “Being a Christian Leader,” which he delivered to a Christian group in October. The ACLU and religious groups condemned Pompeo for using government infrastructure to deliver what amounted to a Christian sermon—a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Pompeo made the recent remarks about America’s “Judeo-Christian tradition” while speaking to pastors assembled by Tony Perkins, a mainstay of the religious right and president of the influential Family Research Council. Perkins, for his part, has argued that the United States is “a nation that was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, that’s the foundation of our nation, not Islam, but the Judeo-Christian God” and warned that Islam has “things” as part of its theology that “tear and destroy the fabric of a democracy.”
In Pompeo, Tony Perkins gets a Secretary of State who champions his cause. But what about the rest of us? America’s top diplomat should speak for Christians and Jews. But he or she should also speak for Jains, agnostics, Hindus, atheists, Taoists, and all others who compose the rich, kaleidoscopic tapestry of faith—and the lack thereof— in the United States.
Secretary Pompeo has demonstrated he is not up to this rudimentary task, and American foreign policy suffers as a result.