The U.S. Department of State and the Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) recently released its annual International Religious Freedom Report. Since 1998, the Department of State has submitted a report about religious freedom globally to Congress and the public. The report investigates religious persecution, limits on religious practice and societal actions concerning religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories.
In the introduction to the report, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that across the world, “individuals continue to be killed, tortured, jailed, harassed, and threatened on account of their religious identity or beliefs. Left unaddressed, such abuses threaten societal cohesion and political stability, undermine economic development, and can foster radicalization and violent extremism.” That final line is relevant to politics at home, where religious extremists play the victim to avoid anti-discrimination laws and stir partisanship.
The report puts a lot in perspective. Around the globe, there has been a rise in violence related to religion. Iran has cracked down on non-Islamic religions, arresting and harassing religious minorities that the government refuses to recognize. In Nigeria, courts continue to condemn people to the death penalty or life in prison for blasphemy. The military coup in Myanmar further catalyzed ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, something that the military previously endorsed. Worldwide, we’ve seen a spike in anti-Semitism.
For many people, the right to religious freedom is not guaranteed, as the above examples soberly demonstrate. Indeed, 56 countries still have high or severe restrictions on individual religious freedom. For the Biden administration, that is unacceptable. When introducing the report at a press conference, Blinken noted that “Religious freedom is a human right … it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to think freely, follow our conscience, change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private.”
But just because the Biden administration respects religious freedom as a fundamental right, that doesn’t mean it elevates it above other rights. In the press conference about the report’s release, Daniel Nadel, the head of the OIRF since 2015, noted that the Biden administration’s posture regarding religious freedom differed from the Trump administration. Nadel remarked that Blinken made clear that religious freedom is “a human right that exists in codependence with other human rights … Secretary Pompeo expressed his view that there was a hierarchy of rights, and that’s a view that this administration departs from.” Unlike in Donald Trump’s world, religious freedom is one of many human rights; it is equally as important, but should not abridge, other fundamental rights.
Religious minorities in countries like China, Iran and Russia face continuous oppression and are persecuted for simply expressing their faith. For them, religious freedom is a right their life depends on. This is nothing like the whining done by religious extremists in the United States, who cry out about alleged bigotry when they themselves frequently use religion to unfairly discriminate against others. The religious in foreign countries are beaten, imprisoned, and harassed. Christian nationalists here complain when they must allow gay people into their stores.
The preface to the OIRF report includes a quotation from Biden, which reads, “[T]he work of protecting religious freedom, for people of all faiths and none, is never finished. … We must be vigilant against the rising tide of targeted violence and hate at home and abroad, and work to ensure that no one feels afraid to attend a religious service, school, or community center, or walk down the street wearing the symbols of their faith.”
To do this, religious extremists in the nation should quit complaining about having to respect anti-discrimination laws. They should instead help the many religious minorities, at home and around the world, feel safe living and believing as they choose.