The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to make religious freedom a factor in future trade agreements and the lead sponsor says it is vital that we make liberty our greatest export once again.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted 92-0 to approve the amendment sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. It is now part of the Senate bill that would grant the president the power to negotiate trade deals and submit them to the Senate for an up-or-down vote. The issue is known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA.
Injecting religious freedom or any human rights consideration into trade policy hasn’t been seen much since the 1990’s. Lankford says with two major trade bills in the pipeline, this was the time to take a stand for a core American value.
“We’re doing a trade agreement and conversations with the Asian Pacific and we have countries like Vietnam in the mix. We cannot, for the sake of a dollar in our trade, turn aside from hundreds of prisoners of conscience that are in Vietnam and a lot of problems that are happening there with human rights and basic religious freedoms,” said Sen. Lankford.
“If we’re going to export something, let’s start by exporting our liberties,” he said.
Lankford says his amendment is structured so that religious freedom and human rights cannot just be checked off the list in future trade negotiations but will be a serious part of the discussions.
“It is part of the normal trade agreement and the negotiating terms of the agreements. They have to bring it up and be part of the conversation, to talk about human rights and religious freedom specifically in this area,” said Lankford.
What would those discussions look like? Lankford says the big issues are obvious.
“Beginning with prisoners of conscience, pastors that are imprisoned, priests that are imprisoned right now simply because of their faith and the practice of their faith. Let’s make a part of our negotiation conversations about those individuals, rather than saying we’ll allow those people to be imprisoned for their faith as long as we can make a dollar in Vietnam. That’s not our value,” he said.
In addition to Trade Promotion Authority, lawmakers are also about to consider advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. That would be a 12-nation partnership. Lankford sees Vietnam as the worst offender on the list of prospective partners. The communist nation claims it allows religious freedom, but only to those who get approval from the government.
Not only does that policy bother Lankford, but he says Vietnam has a slippery history when it comes to honoring its trade deals.
“They were what’s listed as a “country of particular concern”, which is a particular heading dealing with religious liberties. So there’s some restrictions based on that. They had some improvement so they were removed from that list in 2007 and they’ve gone right back to the same issues,” said Lankford, who believes a focus on religious freedom during trade negotiations will make the world a better place.
“We’ll have better trading partners if we have trading partners that have greater freedoms in their location. There’ll be a more stable government, a more open government, better with trade if they have an open, functioning conversation about faith and allow people to be able to live their own faith in their own country rather than being an oppressive dictatorship,” said Lankford.
While repression of religion is much harsher in Vietnam and other parts of the world, it has become a flash point in the U.S. culture battles as well. In March, Indiana and Arkansas were the focus of intense battles over religious freedom legislation. Both passed strong conscience protections for business owners, but vocal protests forced GOP governors in both states to amend the bills.
Lankford says there is a growing number of Americans who badly misunderstand the separation of church and state.
“I understand the separations and protections in government, but that has moved now to actually trying to push people to not be able to practice their faith. The Constitution is very clear. It’s the free exercise of religion,” said Lankford. “To say that you’re free to worship but you’re not free to practice your faith would be to say that you’re free to think something but you’re not free to speak it.”
However, the senator does not see the need for any federal action to shore up religious freedom in the U.S.
“This doesn’t require additional legislation. It requires us to actually follow the Constitution and what’s very blunt and clear there,” said Lankford.
While the religious freedom debate plays out in our own country, the fight over trade in the U.S. Congress is intensifying as well. Last week, the Senate played host to the odd spectacle of Senate Democrats filibustering Trade Promotion Authority while Republicans unanimously sided with President Obama.
Lankford says TPA has very little to do with Obama.
“In all likelihood, this trade agreement wouldn’t be complete until the next president. So we’re lining up at the end of this presidency authority that will extend the majority of it into the next presidency,” said Lankford, who is a proud advocate of free trade.
“You remember that document called the Declaration of Independence? One of the grievances the colonists had with King George is that King George inhibited our ability to trade around the world. We have been free traders as a nation since before we were even a nation. This has always been a big deal to us,” he said.
“I believe the American worker and the American product can solve a lot of the issues and can beat the competition around the world if we get a level playing field,” said Lankford.
As the TPP fight draws near, lawmakers from all points on the political spectrum have expressed great frustration at the secretive process and the great lengths to which members must go to even read the proposal. Reports suggest senators and representatives must go to a specific room with no electronic devices or staffers. They can take notes but give them up before leaving and cannot discuss the details in public.
Lankford is not worried about this. He says there is great misunderstanding about where Congress is in this process and the public will have time to review any final framework.
“The way this is set up is the twelve nations are negotiating. It is a closed process while they negotiate and talk through the different details. Once the twelve nations come to an agreement, based on the requirements that Congress actually sets…then it is a public document before Congress votes on it. So there’ll be a lot of time that it’s a public document before Congress does the final vote,” said Lankford.