WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitt Romney received a personal invitation last week to attend next month's State Department gathering here on religious freedom — along with a talking point to convey to the foreign officials he would meet:
"They may be the majority in one place, but they're the minority somewhere else. And it's in their interest in both places to encourage religious liberty and religious tolerance because almost everybody is a minority somewhere," Romney said.
The invitation to the July 16 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom came during a meeting Wednesday with Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Romney, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested the meeting with Brownback, a former GOP senator from Kansas, for a personal briefing on the status of religious liberty around the world.
Romney characterized some of the information as "alarming." In particular, he cited the statistic from the Pew Research Center that 80% of the world's population lives in countries where their freedom to believe and practice their faith is restricted to some degree.
The restrictions and persecution are particularly acute under populist political leaders who exploit tensions between the adherents of the dominant faith and the minorities who belong to other religions. Romney said they talked about the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India and the tensions between Muslims and Christians in African nations, where political leaders either use minority believers as scapegoats for the country's problems or do nothing to quell violence between religious factions.
Religious practice is also restricted under authoritarian regimes that don't want people to be loyal to something other than the state, Romney said, citing China's ability to monitor and track suspected churchgoers' whereabouts and punish them through taking away jobs or other economic opportunities provided by the state.
"The persecution of religious minorities continues to be a feature of authoritarianism and a feature of populism," Romney said.
Faith traditions particularly prone to incite conflict were also discussed, although the senator declined to identify them.
While Brownback travels the world meeting with foreign government officials, religious leaders and victims of religious persecution, he also speaks with U.S. policymakers to ensure religious freedom is considered in the work of Congress and the administration.
"It is a priority for members in the Senate and in Congress to see human rights promoted throughout the world," Romney said, explaining his interest in meeting with Brownback.
In the aftermath of World War II, American foreign policy has moved away from isolationism to building international alliances to wield more influence, the freshman senator explained, and to promote American values of democracy and freedom.
"And religious freedom is one of the primary freedoms that a society like ours wants to promote around the world," said Romney.
He noted that few countries monitor and promote religious freedom like the United States. In addition to religious freedom embedded into the U.S. Constitution, Congress has also passed laws that protect believers to practice their faith at home and abroad. Among those laws is the International Religious Freedom Act, which created an International Religious Freedom Office in the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Brownback heads the State Department office, which began hosting the ministerial last year. Romney hasn't yet committed to attend this year's event, a spokeswoman said.
Despite the State Department's efforts to promote religious freedom, President Donald Trump and members of his administration have countered those efforts by fostering religious intolerance, critics say. Observers of last year's ministerial said the sense of unity created by the event won't last if members of the administration condemn the Muslim community and praise international leaders responsible for human rights abuses, the Deseret News reported.
Religious liberty can also be a contentious issue domestically when legislation surfaces that raises questions about its impact on religion, Romney said.
That's happening this year with the Equality Act, which would amend federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The law would also prevent religious objectors from using the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense against violations of the nondiscrimination laws. The bill has passed the House, but its prospects are dim in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Romney has said he opposes the Equality Act because of its lack of religious liberty protections.
"The question is always what impact will (legislation) have on the rights of religious institutions? And how is this being considered in other nations of the world?" he said.