Each new administration brings with it challenges and opportunities for upholding America’s First Freedom. The Biden Administration is already taking actions that will shape religious liberty in America for years to come, and this article is the third in a series intended to assess these efforts. Written by scholars and experts affiliated with the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), articles in this series will highlight key executive orders, proposed regulations, dear colleague letters, and similar policy statements and provide insight into their implications for religious freedom. Sometimes they will be written for a general audience and other times for a particular religious community—public discourse in a pluralistic society takes both forms, and RFI intentionally brings them together here.
On February 6 President Biden released a Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World. In it, he directs the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government to “promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons” globally.
What does it mean? That question is not easy to answer. Even more so than the 2011 Obama order on international LGBT rights, this memorandum is a veritable model of studied ambiguity.
The few statements that are clear are those that would meet with broad agreement of almost all Americans, such as the idea that all human beings should be treated with respect and dignity, and the fact that all human beings, including LGBTQI persons, enjoy fundamental human rights and deserve equal protection under the law and freedom from violence.
Unfortunately, the clarity stops with those sweeping assertions. In very general language, the memorandum goes on to call upon all U.S. government agencies engaged abroad “to combat discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and intolerance on the basis of LGBTQI+ status or conduct.” If this terminology refers to actual invidious discrimination or intolerance, or to prejudice against and hatred of LGBTQI+ people, then those things are in fact condemnable and ought not to be supported by the U.S. government.
But to judge from how these words are used, not only by most LGBT rights advocates but also in academia, in the world of arts and entertainment, in the media, and among business leaders, government workers, and many Democrat voters and politicians, they now express a profound intolerance of orthodox religious faith and its traditionalist views of human sexuality: to believe that only heterosexual marriage can actually be called marriage is to discriminate against LGBT people; to believe, with all orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the ages that heterosexuality, within the bonds of marriage, is the only God-pleasing expression of human sexuality, is to be homophobic and intolerant; to believe that people are created male or female and that one’s gender is inextricably linked to one’s biological sex is to be transphobic and bigoted; and to express such views publicly, even during a religious worship service, is to engage in hate speech and foment hatred of LGBTQI+ people. In this context, note also the condemnatory reference to discrimination on the basis of “LGBTQI+ status or conduct.” The overt inclusion of conduct-based “discrimination” here is startling given that it could be interpreted to implicate the moral teachings of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious communities.
It is noteworthy that the entire memorandum is founded upon a formulation that is fraught with all kinds of unspecified implications: “the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.” This phrase appears in the title and is repeated several times at key junctures in the text. It should raise alarm bells in all those who care about religious freedom. Why? Well, what exactly are the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons? As I mentioned earlier, we all agree that every human being, LGBTQI+ or not, possesses fundamental human rights. All people possess the same fundamental human rights. There are not some human rights that apply to all people, and some human rights that apply just to certain groups of people and not to others. All human beings possess the same human rights.
So, what is different, then, about the human rights of LGBTQI+ people? Why did the president issue an executive memorandum ordering the U.S. government to promote the human rights of one particular group of people, rather than one reiterating the U.S. commitment to the human rights of all people? One cannot but suspect that the traditional perspective on human sexuality, common to most of the world’s religions and traditional societies, is a large part of what constitutes the discrimination and intolerance that the president has ordered the foreign policy apparatus of the United States to combat with all its energy and resources. The inclusion of “LGBTQI+ status or conduct” may reveal the deeper motives at play.
Perhaps the most worrisome thing of all is that the document exudes, from beginning to end, the post-religious worldview that was born on the progressive left but is now moving to occupy the political center. In our increasingly militant and self-assured post-religious culture, traditional religion is not harmless. It is anathema. Traditional faith maintains that God has revealed to us the truth about the world and about human beings, and that that truth is not subject to an individual’s preferences. That flies in the face of the idea that the individual has the right to choose everything—his own gender, his own sexuality, his own truth—without outside restraints. As more and more opinion-makers on the progressive left and in the Democratic party claim normativity for this unlimited “right to choose,” traditionalists, including religious people, who disagree are often defamed as bigots who must be banished from the public square. Against that background, Biden may have been on to something when he characterized his election campaign as a battle for the soul of the nation.
But let’s give Biden a chance. Let’s hope that, as the Biden administration settles in, it will continue the time-honored American commitment to human rights for all people. And let’s hope that the president and his top policymakers recognize the preeminent place of religious freedom as the first freedom, without which all other freedoms and rights will surely crumble. And let’s also do what we can to urge Biden not to follow in Obama’s footsteps in pressuring traditional societies throughout the world—countries that rely on American assistance and good will—to knuckle under to the new cultural imperialism of the post-religious West.
Other Articles in This Series:
White House Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Persons Around the World (issued Feb. 4, 2021)
Todd Huizinga is RFI’s Senior Fellow for Europe. He is a former U.S. diplomat who has served in multiple positions in Europe and in the State Department’s European Bureau. Huizinga is also the President and Executive Director of the Center for Transatlantic Renewal.