The UN, religion and the 2016 race
© Getty

Thanks to presumptive Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE for raising the value of the United Nations and religious freedom as valuable tools for both U.S. foreign policy and this year's Democratic nominee.

There is an opportunity for the United States to engage the U.N. system in a way that advances our core principles and our national security interest, while also opening the door for the Democratic Party to win over some evangelical Christian voters. Trump appears to have secured the Republican nomination partly by writing off Latinos; in this wide-open election cycle, there's no reason why Democrats should write off evangelical voters.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before going further, I should note that I'm a longtime friend and associate of Joseph Grieboski — a fellow contributor to The Hill — who is now a finalist for the position of special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, an unpaid post within the U.N. human rights system.

Too often, the defining criteria for such expert posts include a long record of animus toward Israel. It would be refreshing for an American to be selected on the basis of a different kind of lifelong obsession: A principled commitment to religious liberty, pluralism and the very respect for human dignity to which all religions aspire.

Time for a reality check: Yes, like all U.N. appointments, there are political tradeoffs involved. The United States is the big fish within the U.N. system, and so a big proportion of posts go to U.S. officials and American citizens. But there are limits, and every country wants its "fair share"; as such, when an American gets a rapporteurship, somewhere else a different American is unlikely to head a U.N. branch office in Nairobi or sit on a climate-change committee in Montreal.

But this one is worth whatever tradeoff. Unlike many other positions within the U.N. hierarchy, the unpaid post of special rapporteur carries effectively no real authority. In an institutional culture that generally ignores religion and its adherents, the special rapporteur position is unique. It has a bully pulpit with a U.N. imprimatur. Many autocratic and theocratic governments see such appointments as equivalent to paying "protection money": What can they get in return for turning a blind eye, and what must they pay to protect their own repressive practices from public rebuke?

At a time when the most glaring challenges to global stability are tied to religion, the world needs a U.N.-based champion who takes the issue seriously, and the United States needs to know it has one less ideological turf war to worry about. With the main contenders for the Republican presidential nomination having competed over who can be more offensive to people of faith — especially toward Muslims — we also need an impartial advocate who won't take sides as part of some religious crusade, whether anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic or anti-Israel.

Trump's career of hawking hedonism combined with his newfound appeals to xenophobia will keep many people of faith — especially among millions of American Christians — from voting for the Republican presidential ticket this November. However, although evangelical leader Russell Moore has rejected Trump's values, he has ruled out any candidate who backs abortion rights. But Trump's combative response to Moore — the Southern Baptist Convention's political voice — amounts to a declaration of war on evangelicals. This gives Democrats a rare opportunity.

Given that both Trump and Clinton are socially liberal, what might get some religious Christians to actively vote for Clinton rather than just stay home on Election Day? Beyond the growing religious backlash against gun violence, racism and income inequality, many evangelicals have also been inspired by politicians standing up for religious liberty here and abroad.

Evangelicals care viscerally about the rights of missionaries and congregations overseas. Christians are under threat in much of the developing world, and Russia has a record of pressuring non-Orthodox faiths. Rising to the occasion could be a great way to inspire any number of conservative evangelicals who recoil at the idea of Trump in the Oval Office. Even if the U.N.'s Human Rights Council declines next July to name an American as its expert on religious freedom, having a Democratic administration make a credible effort will at least send a timely message to those voters: Democrats care.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill do care about religious freedom, but no White House or State Department, Democratic or Republican, has ever voluntarily stepped up. Historians and world leaders do not judge presidential legacies based on a commitment to religious freedom, and inside the Beltway this is often seen as the softest element of so-called "soft power" — hardly a job for serious-minded diplomats and policy wonks.

The crackerjack diplomats and national security aides get their best battlefield experience precisely when religious freedom is ignored, and global order breaks down. We cannot counter cynical appeals to religious fears and hatred — in Russia, the Middle East, Europe — when we as a nation are not on the front lines fighting the positive fight to unite rather than divide. Putting an American stamp on universal human rights is the best way to "put America first."

If the U.S. government isn't at least doing its utmost to install a reliable American advocate as the world's central voice on religious freedom, that reinforces the perception that Washington doesn't really care, it makes it harder for us to keep bigotry from feeding dictators and terror movements, and it unnecessarily limits President Obama's capacity to hand over the White House keys to a Democratic successor.

Franklin is CEO of Your Global Strategy, Inc.