Judd Birdsall on Will Biden Demote Religious Freedom in US Foreign Policy?

Judd Birdsall on Will Biden Demote Religious Freedom in US Foreign Policy?
Image: Ron Przysucha / US State Department | President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a US event on religious freedom at the United Nations in September 2019.

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.


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.

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Source: Christianity Today

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