Meet the Democrat who may be America’s fiercest advocate for religious freedom
Katrina Lantos Swett, a Jewish child of Holocaust survivors, human rights advocate, Democrat and Latter-day Saint, invites everyone to make more seats at the table
When then-Vice President Joe Biden mounted the dais at Yale’s student day in 2015, he offered praise to an old friend. “The granddaughter of one of my dearest friends in life,” he said, “graduates today.”
That dear friend, the late Tom Lantos, was the first Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress and the former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Lantos family is something of a dynasty at Yale: both of Tom’s daughters are graduates and at least 10 direct descendants of Tom Lantos have now attended Yale (there are even more if you count extended family members).
“Not a bad batting average,” Biden quipped at the graduation ceremony in New Haven, Connecticut — eliciting laughter from the audience.
But the Lantos family is more than a Yale staple and close friends with the current president. Since Lantos’ death in 2008, his family has been leading the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice to carry on his legacy.
The current president and CEO is Katrina Lantos Swett, his youngest daughter.
Where her father was a trailblazer, Swett is a bridge builder. She’s every bit the fearless advocate that he was. And she, too, is close to Biden, having served as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was the chairman. But since that early-career stint in Washington, she’s thrived at the intersection of a number of different worlds. She’s a progressive Democrat, and a fierce advocate for religious liberty; a Jew, and a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the wife and daughter of a politician, and a political strategist and former political candidate herself.
This unique makeup has allowed Swett to even more effectively advocate for the things her father dedicated his life to: human rights and global religious liberty. Wherever those battles are being won today, whether domestically or abroad, it’s likely that Swett is somewhere near the front lines.
In late March, I scurried into the BYU Law School for the 2022 Law and Leadership Conference, where Swett was a keynote speaker. This year’s theme was peace-building, and Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine loomed in the back of my mind.
Speaking about peace-building seemed like a tall order. But Swett’s unique religious identity and beliefs compel her to advocate for human rights — especially when those rights, globally, are under assault.
Immediately after a speech addressing the challenges that refugees and asylum-seekers face today, Swett stepped closer to the lectern. She then quoted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
The feeling in the room changed from nostalgia about the past to anxiety about the present and future. Swett was no longer addressing peace-building narratives of the past; it was clear that building peace in the present isn’t a passive enterprise. She described how Zelenskyy has demonstrated to the world what real leadership looks like and what actual courage means. She reminded the audience that democratic governments are the antidote to aggression, and that sometimes only a different kind of peace is possible amid unprovoked conflict.
“We surely are called to be peacemakers,” she concluded, “but the peace we attain may be an inward peace of the spirit.”
This definition is one Swett has come to understand in her work advocating for peace amid conflict. Immediately following her speech, we sat down in a conference room at the BYU Law School. I wanted her to expand on what drove her to this work.
She began talking about her parents. “They are survivors of the Holocaust thanks to the famed and heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who was responsible for saving both of my parents' lives,” she said. She wants to give back and carry forward that same work.
She told me about the Lantos Foundation’s attempts to rescue Paul Rusesabagina, the hero from “Hotel Rwanda.” Rusesabagina had sheltered many individuals from the genocide that the government carried out —“he’s a human rights hero,” Swett said. Rusesabagina was taken back to Rwanda, where he was tried on false charges of terrorism. “Our foundation has been working nonstop to raise the profile of this case, to get the United States to intervene on his behalf,” Swett said.
It wasn’t the first time Swett drew publicity to a human rights violation abroad. In 2015, when a Saudi Arabian blogger was imprisoned for “insulting Islam” and sentenced to 1,000 lashings, Swett volunteered to take whippings on his behalf. The activist was released earlier this year, after a decade in prison. In 2017, Swett awarded her foundation’s highest honor to Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi parliamentarian — and “ISIS’ most wanted woman” — who was barred from entry from the U.S. because of the infamous immigration bans.
Swett’s nephew and a former adviser to two secretaries of state, Tomicah Tillemann, recounted another instance of Swett advocating for someone.
He said that in 2003, when Vladimir Putin imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian businessman who disagreed with the Russian president, Swett immediately began campaigning for his release and continued relentlessly for a decade even when other human rights advocates had given up. Tilllemann reminisced, “In 2013, immediately after he got out of prison, Khodorkovsky flew to Washington to have dinner with Katrina and our family. He said that no matter how dark things got inside, he knew she was still fighting for him.”
In a White House ceremony celebrating Hanukkah last December, Biden again brought up his “dear friend and colleague.” This time, he used an oft-repeated saying coined by Tom Lantos: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”
Biden concurred with Lantos’ assessment of civilization’s fragile state. And then concluded matter-of-factly. “And we are its guardians.”
Few families, if any, are as restless as the Lantos’ descendants, with his two daughters leading the charge. Katrina Lantos Swett’s sister, Annette Lantos Tillemann-Dick, graduated from Yale in 1978 and is the mother of six Yale grads (“A modern-day record,” Biden claimed at that 2015 class day). Tillemann-Dick’s late husband, Timber Dick, was an acclaimed inventor and the son of Colorado’s first female lieutenant governor.
The Tillemann-Dick household in Denver sounds like a Wes Anderson remake of “Cheaper By the Dozen.” And, in fact, a 2008 story from a local magazine dubbed the family “Denver’s Own Royal Tenenbaums.” The family of 11 made a habit of starting college as soon as they got their braces off, and the brood includes company founders and CEOs, Ph.D.s and political operatives.
But Katrina Lantos Swett — the aunt of these talented Tillemann-Dicks — was perhaps the family’s most precocious wunderkind of all.
She skipped high school and entered college at 14. She graduated from Yale at 18 and from law school 21⁄2 years later. By 21, she was on Biden’s staff, her foray into a long career at the center of American politics.
In 1980, Swett married Richard Swett, then an up-and-coming architect. In 1990, he ran for Congress to represent New Hampshire’s 2nd District; he won, serving two terms. Among his campaign supporters was Mitt Romney, who vacationed on the same New England lake as the Swetts (and was later criticized for supporting a Democrat when he ran for president).
While her husband served in Congress, Swett carved out her own political career. When then-president Bill Clinton nominated her husband to serve as ambassador to Denmark, she lectured on U.S. foreign policy at Southern Denmark University and worked with Danish leaders to fight human trafficking, earning a doctorate in history from the University of Southern Denmark along the way. She eventually ran for her husband’s vacated seat in 2002, receiving endorsements from a star-studded group including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Steven Spielberg, but lost a contested race. She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008 and the House in 2010.
Perhaps the pinnacle of her public service came in 2012, when then-president Barack Obama appointed her to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where she served for four years.
Faith is central to Swett’s life, but it wasn’t always that way.
Swett’s parents did not raise her in a faith tradition. After surviving the Holocaust, her father questioned how there could be a God and was more or less agnostic. But, as Swett explains it, “one day when I was 3 or 4, I started wishing my parents a Happy New Year, but it was in the fall. There was no discussion about it being the New Year, but it turns out that it was Rosh Hashana.”
Swett speaks fondly about her Jewish identity, which she says is central to who she is. Her mother eventually joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While Swett did not go to church much as a child, she remembers the Bible stories her mom shared with her and the wonderful example she was to her children.
I asked Swett how she became a Latter-day Saint.
With a smile, she told me she transferred to Yale her sophomore year where her sister attended. Her sister converted to the church and wanted to convince her to join. They agreed Swett would attend one church-related activity each week, so she went to institute, where Latter-day Saint instructors teach college-level religious courses.
“And the institute teacher happened to be Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland,” she said. Elder Holland went on to serve as president of Brigham Young University and is now a member of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the church. “If someone set out not to be persuaded of the truthfulness of the gospel, one of the worst decisions you could possibly make would be to attend a class taught by Elder Holland.”
Katrina’s sister Annette recounted Elder Holland’s impact on Katrina, too. Annette had a spiritual awakening on a trip to Israel before she attended Yale. While at Yale, she began to explore her spirituality and “went to Hillel, evangelical groups, Catholic groups, trying to figure out what I thought was true.” She then joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after missionary lessons. While she worked on the Yale Daily News, a story broke about how Yale would accept transfer students.
Right then and there Annette knew that she had to get Katrina to Yale. Katrina soon was accepted and Annette told her that she had to go to institute. Katrina started attending institute taught by Elder Holland. Annette went to Elder Holland and his wife Pat and asked them to pray and fast for Katrina.
Annette said she did this, “Because I felt if it didn’t happen then, it wouldn’t happen.” About six weeks later, Katrina said that she felt like she needed to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she was baptized.
Swett, of course, is unique even in her own faith. Although the political landscape has changed in recent years, Pew research has called Latter-day Saints among the most heavily “Republican-leaning” religious groups in the country. Swett, however, is a lifelong Democrat.
I asked Swett about this intersection of religion and politics, and she told me she believes the Democratic Party tries to “make more seats at the table.” This pluralism is greatly important to her. She says “the call of human rights is to recognize our brothers and sisters in everybody.” This is a defining factor of a healthy democracy, she told me, and she remains a Democrat because she believes the party is more committed to those values.
But Swett does not see human rights as a partisan issue. “There’s no Republican position and there is no Democratic position on international religious freedom,” Swett told a reporter in 2017. “It absolutely transcends party lines.”
To those seeking to make a difference and are troubled by human rights violations in the world, Swett’s counsel is simple: “Find truth. That is the worthy mission of life, to find truth and live in accordance with it.”
I walked out of the BYU Law School and looked around at the bustling campus. I passed a sign that read: “go forth to serve.”
Samuel Benson contributed to the reporting.