What Biden foreign policy picks mean for religious freedom

shutterstock 1786934054 President-elect Joe Biden. | Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock

President-elect Joe Biden announced several foreign policy appointments to his cabinet on Monday, including a nominee for Secretary of State. If confirmed, nominees will shape U.S. foreign policy on a range of subjects, especially religious freedom.

Biden will nominate Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, to be the next Secretary of State. Binken also served as assistant and a national security advisor to Obama, and worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

The appointment of a former Obama official to lead the State Department could signal a shift in U.S. policy on international LGBTQ issues and on promoting religious freedom abroad.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. invested tens of millions of dollars to promote LGBTQ concerns while being criticized by some religious freedom advocates for deemphasizing or taking a softer approach to promoting international religious freedom.

Some advocates pointed out lengthy gaps in time under the Obama administration where a key position at the State Department, the Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, remained vacant. The administration, meanwhile, established and appointed the first-ever Special Envoy for LGBTQ issues at the department in 2015.

Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA that through the special envoy, the U.S. could go further than simply trying to end violence against persons with same-sex attraction; the State Department could actively influence public opinion on the LGBT agenda in developing countries including by pressuring non-governmental organizations to change their beliefs on marriage.

In promoting international religious freedom, the State Department produces an annual report on the matter and lists certain countries in a tier rating system depending upon how poorly they protect religious freedom.

The Trump administration took a strong approach in presenting the report, condemning religious persecution and calling out bad actors by name. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China's abuses of largely-Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang more than two dozen times in less than a year.

The U.S. also formed the International Religious Freedom Alliance, and hosted the first-ever ministerial on religious freedom with religious and civic leaders attending from more than 100 countries.

Blinken, if confirmed, would also have to navigate these and other pressing humanitarian concerns, such as violence in Nigeria that has displaced millions of Muslims and Christians, and a dwindling Christian population in the Middle East.

The Biden administration could take a softer approach to dealing with bad actors, as some advocates, such as former USCIRF commissioner James Zogby, have called for a shift in the strategy of "naming-and-shaming" violators of religious freedom.

When he introduced the State Department's 2015 religious freedom report, Blinken emphasized that "[t]he purpose of this annual report is not to lecture," but rather "is to inform, to encourage, and ultimately to persuade."

In Obama's State Department, Blinken was part of an administration that pursued the nuclear deal with Iran and U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord-agreements that were supported by the U.S. bishops' conference and the Holy See.

While the Trump administration withdrew from both agreements and ratcheted up "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran, Blinken may work to revive U.S. relations with Iran and participation in international climate agreements.

Also on Monday, Biden named Linda Thomas-Greenfield as his pick for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Greenfield served in the Obama administration as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and before that as Ambassador to Liberia. Among other issues, she fought laws that she said discriminated against the LGBT community, including criminalization of same-sex relations in countries like Uganda and Nigeria.

The Obama administration promoted LGBT concerns in Africa, but backlash in African countries reportedly led to some stricter laws against persons with same-sex attraction and violence against them.

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At an April, 2014 congressional hearing, Greenfield spoke out against proposed "anti-LGBT legislation" in Africa that was leading to "renewed violence against the LGBT community." Uganda had just enacted a law criminalizing homosexuality.

"We're in the process of reviewing that relationship and our funding to see where changes can be made and in particular changes that will take funding away from those organizations and entities that discriminate against the LGBT community," Greenfield said.

In 2015, around a visit of the Nigerian president to the U.S., she reportedly said that "As a policy, we will continue to press the government of Nigeria as well as other governments who have provided legislation that discriminate against the LGBT community." 

After President Obama promoted "the rights of gays and lesbians" during a 2015 trip to Kenya, Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja responded that "our Church has always said homosexuality is unnatural and marriage is between a man and a woman."

During the Trump administration, the U.S. also spoke out against abortion as an international human right at the United Nations General Assembly. As Biden has pledged to support legal abortion and overturn a ban on funding of foreign abortion promoters and providers, his administration might also promote legal abortion as part of diplomacy.

When senior advisor to the president Ivanka Trump tweeted that she was "unapologetically pro-life" on Oct. 30, Greenfield replied "Good! Pro life means supporting the lives of children taken from their parents at the border, poor children and people with Covid...".

Biden has also tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve in his cabinet, as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

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Kerry in 2015 praised Pope Francis' ecology encyclical Laudato Si' as "powerful," telling TIME magazine that the pope "thoughtfully applied" the value of environmental stewardship "to the very real threat our planet is facing today."