President Joe Biden faces what may be unprecedented challenges when it comes to asserting the United States as a beacon of hope and a shining example of a democracy that faithfully protects basic rights and liberties. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, reminiscent of coup attempts in Third World countries, sent a loud and troubling message to the world.
His first foreign policy speech at the State Department was a decent first step. Biden sent clear messages to Russia and China that the United States will assert its interests abroad, and that it will object loudly to the blatant disregard for human liberties in foreign lands.
He also signaled to the nation’s allies, particularly in Europe, that America intends to strengthen its relationships as a bulwark against aggression.
But the subject of religious liberty, the first freedom of the First Amendment to the Constitution, was barely mentioned. The president spoke about ending the ban on travelers from Muslim countries, imposed by an executive order by former President Donald Trump, but he never explained why that was important. He spoke about the need to open our borders again to refugees — an important humanitarian act that returns the nation to its historical roots as a refuge for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But he said nothing about why many of those masses are seeking refuge. They aren’t just in search of economic and political freedom. Many have been persecuted for their beliefs.
The list of persecuted believers worldwide includes Uighur Muslims, Pakistani Ahmadis, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and various Christian sects. Russia has been persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses, raiding the homes of several church members.
The United States has led the battle against Islamic extremists groups in various parts of the world, and for obvious and good reasons. But it has not done enough to emphasize the virtues of tolerance for, and protections extended and enforced toward, the free exercise of religion as a defense against extremism. Religious freedom, along with its byproduct of encouraging charitable giving, has a vital role to play in solving social problems.
When this freedom is suppressed, extreme and oppressive ideologies tend to rise under the name of religion, safe from the competing and moderating voices of other belief structures.
Biden had many good things to say about the need to protect women and girls, LGBTQ individuals, indigenous communities and people with disabilities. He gave strong signals that he was empowering Secretary of State Antony Blinken to speak on his behalf — something that wasn’t always clear with secretaries of state during the Trump administration.
But religion deserved more than one mention near the end of the speech.
Among the better things Trump did was to issue an order last year that sought to promote religious liberty as “America’s first freedom” to the world. Its intent was to use the national ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and other U.S. officials to make religious liberty a foreign policy priority, as well as a factor in deciding how to distribute foreign assistance.
It came far too late in Trump’s term to be effective. However, it was an important recognition of how this founding principle has been an important pillar in the success of the United States as a nation, when so many others have turned religion into a stumbling block through repression.
Biden could go a long way toward restoring confidence in America by showing that respect for religious freedom is not just a talking point for conservatives, but a central part of the nation’s united effort toward world cooperation and peace.