In his victory speech on November 7, President-Elect Joe Biden quoted from the book of Ecclesiastes, saying, “The Bible tells us to everything there is a season. A time to build, a time to reap, and a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.”
Biden’s aspiration to bind up our political wounds presents an opportunity to restore credibility to America’s promotion of one of its most deeply cherished values: religious liberty.
For the past four years, President Trump has elevated the cause of religious freedom for some while simultaneously undermining the U.S. government’s global fight against intolerance and persecution. His administration deserves credit for organizing the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, in 2018 and 2019, which generated momentum for a new U.S.-led multilateral alliance on freedom of religion or belief. Concurrently, State Department officials in D.C. and overseas have carried on documenting religious freedom violations, assisting those who have suffered for their beliefs, and articulating principled and pragmatic reasons for protecting religious liberty.
But all this admirable work has been vastly overshadowed by the man who lives just a few blocks from the State Department. Thanks to Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” his fueling of white Christian nationalism, his administration’s decimation of refugee resettlement for people fleeing persecution, and his bizarre fondness for authoritarians who trample on human rights, America’s standing on religious freedom is badly damaged.
But not irrevocably damaged. Biden and his administration can bring healing. A recent report from the Brookings Institution—presciently entitled A Time to Heal, a Time to Build—contains a wide range of policy recommendations on “respecting religious freedom and pluralism, forging civil society partnerships, and navigating faith’s role in foreign policy.” It was co-authored by two Brookings senior fellows: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Melissa Rogers, who led the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration. I had the opportunity to provide some input for the report, and I commend the report as a blueprint for the Biden transition team.
It will be Joe Biden himself that sets the tone for a curative rebuilding process. Throughout his four decades in politics, Biden has not made religious freedom one of his policy priorities, but during the campaign he expressed his commitment to restoring a sense of authenticity to America’s promotion of religious liberty. His selection of Kamala Harris—a mixed-race Baptist woman with Hindu and Jewish family members—further reinforced his embrace of religious pluralism and his ability to promote it.
There are two interrelated ways Biden, together with Harris, can foster restoration. First, they have the opportunity to rebuild coherence between the United States’ domestic and foreign policy with respect to religious freedom. During the campaign, the former vice president’s team released the Biden Plan for Safeguarding America’s Faith-Based Communities. The document proclaims:
America was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance. We haven’t always lived up to these ideals, but we’ve never stopped trying. And today, with communities of faith increasingly being targeted with hate-filled acts of violence and intimidation, we must redouble our efforts to reach our highest values.
In pursuit of those values, Biden has pledged to increase security for vulnerable houses of worship, rescind the “Muslim Ban,” and expand the numbers for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution welcomed into the United States. Writing for The Christian Post about how his faith informs his political vision, Biden argued, “We must again become a nation that defends the inherent dignity of every human, upholds the blessings of liberty, and provides a haven for those fleeing violence or persecution.”
Second, when Biden addresses questions of religious pluralism at home and abroad it matters that his language feels heartfelt rather than instrumental. Prior to his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump showed little interest in faith. As president there has been a transactional and artificial feel to his engagement with faith leaders and to his rhetoric on religious freedom. When Trump met at the White House with survivors of religious persecution in 2019, his ignorance and lack of interest was on painful display.
By contrast, as a lifelong Catholic, Biden has a personal connection to matters of faith. In that same Christian Post op-ed, Biden said, “My Catholic faith drilled into me a core truth—that every person on earth is equal in rights and dignity, because we are all beloved children of God. We are all created ‘imago Dei’—beautifully, uniquely, in the image of God, with inherent worth.” Biden then goes on in the article to unpack how the doctrine of imago Dei inspires him to combat poverty, the pandemic, racial injustice, and other pressing challenges.
The op-ed makes clear that Biden possesses a compelling theological grounding for human rights and an ability to link piety with politics in ways that are inclusive and unthreatening to people who believe differently. These qualities are directly relevant to America’s international religious freedom advocacy. Biden can assure people of all faiths and worldviews that he understands the depth of their commitments—and their longing for freedom to live out those commitments.
That’s the empathetic leadership we need. The Biden campaign pledged that “Biden will lead by example: with tolerance and understanding from the highest levels of our government. He will also restore a national culture of inclusiveness that encourages individuals of all faiths to celebrate their beliefs openly and without fear of harm or reprisal.”
Time will tell whether this rhetoric becomes reality. Biden will face strong headwinds against such inclusiveness from segments of both left and right. It is instructive that Biden created a religiously inclusive campaign, with an impressive faith outreach effort led by a white evangelical—a member of a community maligned by cultural progressives and largely written off by Democrats in recent years.
In his victory speech, Biden emphasized the power of America’s example. When it comes to government policy and practice on religious freedom, the president-elect can make America exemplary again. At a time of deep religious division at home and rising religious persecution abroad, we need a president who restores credibility and authenticity to America’s efforts to promote religious freedom for all people everywhere. Joe Biden is the person, to use another biblical phrase, for such a time as this.
Judd Birdsall is director of the Cambridge Initiative on Religion & International Studies within the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University. He served in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom during the Bush and Obama administrations.