Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

January 12, 2021

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The Trump administration presented international religious freedom as a key part of its approach to American foreign policy during the past four years. Under Trump, the U.S. State Department convened a number of high-level meetings on challenges to religious freedom worldwide such as the “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” first held in 2018. At the same time, however, the president often contradicted his own rhetoric on international religious freedom when it came to policy action. For example, President Trump chose to avoid sanctioning China for persecuting Uighur Muslims because he hoped to secure a trade deal with the Chinese state. The administration also slashed U.S. refugee admissions, making it impossible for those fleeing religious persecution to find safety in the United States. Rethinking international religious freedom will be a top issue for the Biden administration as it approaches religion and U.S. diplomacy.

Upon entering office in January 2021, the Biden administration will have to confront a number of challenges related to U.S. international religious freedom. For one, there is the complicated history of religious freedom as part and parcel of American imperialism. The new administration will also face the challenge of navigating where freedom of religion or belief fits within the broader U.S. human rights agenda. Finally, Biden will have to navigate a complex landscape of federal institutions charged with promoting religious freedom worldwide, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. The Berkley Forum invites scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to provide guidance for the Biden administration on rethinking U.S. international religious freedom, a priority given the high rate of government restrictions on religion worldwide. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How should the Biden administration approach international religious freedom, especially in light of Trump-era policies? What are some of the key challenges the president-elect will face when it comes to religious freedom in American foreign policy? Is it necessary to reform the architecture of U.S. international religious freedom? If so, how? What lessons are there to be learned from the history of U.S. foreign policy on freedom of religion or belief? Is it desirable or possible to better integrate religious freedom with the broader U.S. human rights agenda? If so, how?

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