What to expect from President Biden on international religious freedom

People who know President Joe Biden say he cares deeply about helping persecuted people of faith around the world

When Rabbi David Saperstein was appointed as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden was the first person to call and congratulate him on the gig.

In that moment and others that followed, Rabbi Saperstein was struck by Biden’s concern for people of faith around the world.

“I know from our conversations how deeply he feels about this issue,” he said.

As president, Biden will have more opportunities to put his passion into action, but also more obstacles in his path.

Like every president before him, he’ll have to balance addressing religious persecution with competing policy goals and manage complicated relationships with faith groups in the U.S., said Luke Perez, an assistant professor of civic education at Arizona State University who is working on a book about religious freedom policy during the Cold War.

When it comes to promoting international religious freedom, “there will always be missed opportunities,” he said.

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However, there will also be many chances for Biden and his administration to change the lives of vulnerable people of faith. Right now, the world is rife with religious freedom problems in need of solutions, said Rabbi Saperstein, who now serves as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser for policy and strategy.

“There has been growing religious persecution, discrimination and ethnic cleansing,” he said. Research shows that, in some regions, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated these trends.

President Joe Biden departs after attending Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) | Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Limited success

Presidents have a wide variety of tools at their disposal to address religious violence. They can express support for victims in public statements, hand down sanctions against perpetrators and make treaties or trade deals contingent on religious freedom reforms.

But, as Perez noted, each of these actions can hold consequences for other foreign policy goals.

“That’s one of the big things to keep in mind about international religious freedom. It’s not the only thing in foreign policy. It exists within a broader spectrum,” he said.

To know when taking action is worth the potential fallout, presidents rely on input from religion experts both within and outside of their administration. Since 1998, the executive branch has been able to nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to serve in the State Department and make three appointments to the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The people in these roles serve as watchdogs for religious persecution around the world, said Gayle Manchin, who serves as chairwoman of the commission.

“For many countries, the last thing (other governments) want is for people to be showcasing how they treat the religious factions in their country,” she said.

However, tracking religious freedom problems is not the same as solving them, as both conservative and liberal religious freedom advocates are quick to point out.

Ending religious violence requires bold action, and the U.S. government has historically been hesitant to take the leap, as Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told the Deseret News in 2019.

“The job of U.S. foreign policy is not simply to issue reports,” he said. “It is to advance religious freedom, which requires more than identifying the problem.”

Under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, the government appeared ready to be bolder on the religious freedom front. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke regularly about religious persecution, and the State Department hosted two gatherings of high-level officials to address how to better protect people of faith around the world.

“Those were the first ministerials held by anyone on international religious freedom,” Perez said.

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But, Trump, like nearly every president before him, left some stones unturned. For example, he could have pushed China harder to end its repression of Uighur Muslims when the two countries were working on a new trade deal, Perez said.

“A lot more could have been done,” he said.

Even so, the Biden administration can benefit from momentum created over the past four years, Manchin said. Trump and key advisers like Sam Brownback, who served as his religious freedom ambassador, brought a lot of attention to religious persecution.

“There are big shoes to fill,” she said.

Sam Brownback, then the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. speaks about the 2018 International Religious Freedom Annual Report at the State Department in Washington on Friday, June 21, 2019. | Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Early tension

However, rather than pick up right where Trump left off on religious freedom abroad, Biden has already made it clear that he wants to take a different approach.

On his first day in office, he issued executive orders undoing Trump’s ban on travelers from a handful of majority-Muslim countries and altering the government’s approach to ending anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The latter order will likely make it more difficult for some religious organizations to partner with the government to achieve its humanitarian goals.

Although many religious freedom advocates applauded these moves, the order on LGBTQ rights angered some conservative Christians, including Tony Perkins, who serves as vice chairman of the religious freedom commission.

In a Jan. 20 statement, Perkins argued that Biden’s plan to root out anti-LGBTQ discrimination “effectively targets” religious objectors to same-sex marriage.

“If this executive order is able to be fully carried out, it will affect everyday Americans who hold biblical and conservative values,” he said.

Statements like these could interfere with the Biden’s efforts to end religious persecution in other countries, since authoritarian leaders could use them as an excuse to ignore the administration’s advice, Perez said.

“If we come to a country and say, ‘Stop oppressing all these people. They deserve religious protections,’ that country could say, ‘Why are you persecuting these religious people in your own country?’” he said.

Conflict with conservative Christians could also degrade support for the new administration within the U.S., where Biden is already viewed with suspicion by some religious freedom advocates because he’s a Democrat who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

People seem to be forgetting that protecting vulnerable faith communities has long been a bipartisan cause, Manchin said.

“It’s absurd to think that only one political party can support international religious freedom and the other one can’t,” she said. “I hope that chatter goes away.”

Refining Trump’s approach

However, the situation will likely get worse before it gets better, since Biden’s appointees will undoubtedly approach the issue differently than the Trump administration did.

For example, Rabbi Saperstein expects them to promote religious freedom alongside other human rights, like the freedom of speech and association, rather than host ministerials or other events focused solely on religious persecution.

“I’m confident in the Biden administration’s ability to maintain a deep commitment to furthering religious freedom even as it embraces a robust interpretation of human rights,” he said.

In the short term, such an approach may seem detrimental to faith groups, but, over time, it should become clear that protecting religious freedom requires protecting other rights, too, Rabbi Saperstein said.

Human rights “are interconnected,” he said. All of them need to be respected in order to keep any one of them safe.

Even those who celebrated the Trump administration’s approach to religious freedom should recognize that there were missed opportunities, Perez said. No president has yet cracked the code on how to manage situations in which pushing for an end to religious persecution complicates the pursuit of other foreign policy goals.

“I think there’s been a failure of moral imagination or of strategic imagination,” he said.

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Additionally, both conservatives and liberals should acknowledge that religious freedom advocates within the State Department have historically lacked the tools needed to make a significant difference, Perez and others said. The ambassador can “name and shame” problematic countries, but not control what sanctions are handed down.

“You can have Mahatma Gandhi himself as international religious freedom ambassador and, if all he can do is give little talks around the world about how bad the bad guys are, it won’t do much. Sadly, bad guys don’t respond to sermons saying they’re bad people,” said a former State Department official who asked not to be named since he’s working to influence the Biden administration’s religious freedom strategy.

The bottom line is that it makes sense for Biden to continue to refine the the government’s international religious freedom strategy. But he won’t be able to do that until he fills the ambassador-at-large position and other, related posts, Manchin said.

“The sooner these appointments are made, the sooner that work can continue without losing any ground,” she said.

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