This week as Poland hosts the third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—the latest in a series of high-profile summits initiated by the Trump administration—many observers are wondering what a Biden presidency will mean for the United States’ promotion of religious freedom abroad.
For the past four years, religious liberty has enjoyed pride of place in President Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. The president and many senior officials routinely addressed the issue—including before the United Nations—and elevated it within executive agencies. At a November 10 press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “I’m especially proud that we’ve made religious freedom a top priority in US foreign policy, for the first time in our nation’s history.”
But there has also been serious concern that all this attention was driven mostly by domestic partisan agendas and was negated by the president’s perceived hostility toward Muslims and his disregard for the norms of liberal democracy. Whatever the impulse and impact, many critics maintain that the Trump administration’s focus on religious freedom has simply been disproportionate—to the detriment of other human rights.
As the team of President-Elect Joe Biden assumes power, they will enter an ongoing contest between two rival conceptions of how religious freedom relates to other human rights. We can call these views “First Freedom” and “Article 18.”
Those in the First Freedom camp speak of religious freedom as the foundational right, highlighting that it is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment. Their primary reference point is the legal history of the United States.
For those who espouse the Article 18 view, their primary reference point is the United Nations. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrine the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” in their 18th articles. This placement suggests that religious freedom is part of a large web of interconnected, mutually reinforcing rights.
The First Freedom view has been ascendant within the Trump administration and has had a tangible impact. The State Department moved its religious freedom office out of the human rights bureau, its home since 1998, and made it a standalone office reporting to an undersecretary. The administration launched the series of ministerial conferences on religious freedom and a new intergovernmental alliance on religious freedom—not on any other human right or on human rights in general.
Pompeo has routinely declared religious liberty the “first freedom.” The Commission on Unalienable Rights, which Pompeo assembled, added considerable intellectual heft for this view. The commission’s final report argued, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.”
With the transition to the Biden administration, the Article 18 view will become ascendant. In keeping with the rhetoric of previous Democratic administrations, the Biden team is likely to argue that there is no hierarchy of human rights. No first freedom, just many equally important freedoms.
In practice, however, a de facto hierarchy is hard to avoid. Every administration has priorities. And if the vocal rejection of the Commission on Unalienable Rights by a chorus of human rights scholars and organizations is any indication, there will be strong pressure on the Biden administration to downgrade the current focus on religious freedom and to elevate the rights of greatest concern to social progressives.
In May 2020, Amnesty International lamented that Pompeo had “consistently supported the prioritization of freedom of religion or belief over all other rights.” In its 15-page submission to the Commission on Unalienable Rights, Amnesty expressed “concerns that the Department of State is aiming to utilize the advice and recommendations of this Commission to discriminate against, and undermine human rights protections for, women and LGBTI people.”
Like so much else in American public life, the very term religious freedom elicits a sharp partisan reaction. Trump and his administration have intensified that polarization. In light of how important religious freedom is for good governance and human flourishing at home and abroad, I’m hopeful that Biden and his administration will chart a more irenic course.
To foster common ground on religious freedom promotion, the Biden team should move beyond the Commission on Unalienable Rights and the ensuing rebuttals. Instead, they can draw inspiration from an excellent new policy report on religion and governance—A Time to Heal, A Time to Build—from the Brookings Institution.
The Brookings report applauds and critiques elements of both Left and Right and maintains that “a measure of openness on both sides might help us find new ways to respect the rights of all of us.” The report was drafted by two center-left scholars—a Baptist and a Catholic—with input from experts across the religious and ideological spectrum, including many prominent evangelicals such as Galen Carey, Stanley Carlson-Thies, John Inazu, Greg Jao, Russell Moore, Gabriel Salguero, Knox Thames, Michael Wear, Pete Wehner, and Jenny Yang. With this diversity of belief and opinion, the report embodies the sort of fair-minded and capacious approach it recommends to the next administration.
The authors of the Brookings report point to a way forward that addresses the First Freedom camp’s concern for robust religious freedom advocacy and the Article 18 camp’s concern for a more equitable promotion of all human rights. The US’s promotion of religious freedom abroad is more likely to be effective, they posit, if it is integrated into a larger human rights agenda because it will thus be less likely to be dismissed as selective, sectarian, or threatening to other rights.
This pragmatic arrangement won’t resolve underlying philosophical differences. But if the Biden administration embraces this synthesis as a baseline to build upon, it can help to replace polarization with partnership in promoting religious freedom abroad. Doing so would be good for the United States and for the world.
Judd Birdsall is director of the Cambridge Initiative on Religion and International Studies within the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University. He previously served at the US State Department in the Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Policy Planning Staff.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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