International Religious Freedom in the Biden Administration

By: Luke M. Pérez

January 13, 2021

Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

When Joe Biden assumes the presidency later this month, he and his team will decide which domestic and foreign policies of his distant and immediate predecessors to keep and which to change. Such choices accompany any new administration, but they are especially acute for Biden, and not without good reason. Given the tumultuous past four years, we can only imagine how strong the pressure will be for the Biden administration to jettison every policy under the strategy of “not Trump.”

That pressure would have been true even before the outgoing president incited an insurrection on the legislative branch. And it will have certainly increased even more in the last two weeks of Donald Trump’s term. But if there is any area in foreign policy in which the Biden team should strive for continuity, it is international religious freedom. Any reforms and policy shifts should emphasize institution building within the State Department, Department of Defense, and the National Security Council (NSC) so that the long-term project of international religious freedom will be stronger in January 2025, and beyond, than it is today.

But if there is any area in foreign policy in which the Biden team should strive for continuity, it is international religious freedom.

International religious freedom exists within the larger nexus of U.S. foreign and national security policy. And yet, although it is often constrained by power politics, few issues have been consistently the focus and attention in U.S. policy as religious freedom. From Teddy Roosevelt’s defense of Jews against the Russian Pogroms in 1903 to the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998, almost every president has influenced international religious freedom. The largest pattern across this history is that such policies became more institutionalized at every critical juncture, ensconced in U.S. law and in the agencies of U.S. foreign policy.

It must also be stressed that promoting international religious freedom will be an easy area to encourage bipartisanship. For example, each time religious freedom legislation has come through Congress, it has passed with overwhelming margins. IRFA (1998) passed 375–41 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. Its 2016 revision passed with voice votes (and thus, carried no objections). And although new legislation may not be required over the next four to eight years, it is worth remembering that international religious freedom remains one of the few areas where a stable bipartisan consensus can be maintained and nurtured.

With this in mind, there are a few issue areas where the Biden team should focus its attention during the next four years.

First, Biden and his team should look to link religious freedom where possible. Here, I especially mean China and its persecution of the Uighurs. Biden has time to salvage the missed opportunity of linking treatment of the Uighurs to other foreign policy objectives. President Trump acknowledged that he did not when he had the chance because he was in the middle trade talks. And yet, during the Cold War, Sen. Scoop Jackson successfully linked trade with religious freedom over the issue of the Soviet Union’s persecution of Jews behind the Iron Curtain.

Biden has time to salvage the missed opportunity of linking treatment of the Uighurs to other foreign policy objectives.

A more assertive link between international economics and religious freedom is the most logical issue area where Biden can build bridges from Trump’s policies to his own. A renewed Jackson-Vanik strategy, one that curtails access to American markets for countries which are engaged in widespread abuse of religious minorities, not only reaffirms the American commitment to human rights and principled internationalism, it does so in a way that preempts criticism of would-be isolationists, conservatives, and liberals who would prefer a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. Other precedents exist too, such the McBride Principles—which also became law in 1998—a corporate code of conduct for U.S. businesses operating in Northern Ireland.

Second, Biden should not only fill the office for a special advisor for international religious freedom inside the NSC, his administration should make the appointment public knowledge. The original 1998 IRFA created such a position but never mandated it be filled; to date, it is not clear that it has ever been staffed. Biden and his team will not be able to operate carte blanche in world affairs. And there are many issues which will no doubt demand their time and attention which have little or nothing to do with religious freedom. Filling the office of international religious freedom in the NSC would help his team identify the most crucial areas of religious freedom where national security policy should focus. Promoting that he filled the office would strengthen U.S. public diplomacy and help to bolster U.S. credibility on these issues.

Biden should not only fill the office for a special advisor for international religious freedom inside the NSC, his administration should make the appointment public knowledge.

Third, Biden should direct his secretary of state to reform the annual religious freedom reports archive so that researchers can better access the information. As it currently stands, there is no single repository of every annual report from 1999 to present. Nor are those reports in a uniform, searchable, digital format. A streamlined repository with both PDFs and plain-text versions would make it easier for researchers to evaluate whether and to what extent such reports improve international religious freedom.

To be sure, these policy areas are not without their challenges. For instance, there is the risk of falling into what Elizabeth Shakman Hurd identifies as expert and governed religion: that is, when outsiders presuppose they know more about—and thus how to govern—the religious practitioners government is supposedly protecting. Biden must also avoid antagonizing religious freedom issues domestically. Many within the Democratic Party and broader left-wing coalitions would like to see renewed pressure placed on religious conservatives in areas such as health care. If Biden doubles down on these impulses, he will likely lose much of the support he needs in Congress and elsewhere to promote religious freedom abroad. It won’t be easy, and from the perch in the ivory tower, I do not envy the task set before the foreign policy team on these matters. 

Still, there’s certainly a path forward for the administration. Biden championed his Catholic faith as the core of his political ambition. He can and should use this as his starting point to build a bipartisan coalition for international religious freedom. Artful statecraft is, at its core, the use of the moral imagination to find creative solutions to seemingly intractable political problems. If the Biden administration can draw on Trump, Obama, Bush, and other previous administrations creatively, it will be able to strengthen international religious freedom for years after its tenure at the helm ends.

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