Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to orchestrate a coup, Joe Biden is the new president of the United States. It’s disturbing, however, that Trump was able to generate so much chaos on his way out the door—and equally troubling that most Senate Republicans didn’t bother to denounce his effort to subvert democracy.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris now oversee a country racked with partisan division, a nation where hundreds of thousands have died due to coronavirus, a country whose economy is faltering as we experience a period of more lockdowns and “stay-at-home” orders. It’s also a nation that, like the rest of the world, is reeling from the effects of global climate change.
Biden and Harris have their hands full because there’s much damage to repair. It’s hard to know the intended sequence of their actions, but those of us who have a special interest in questions of church-state relations and religious freedom hope to see a sharp reversal of Trump policies.
Shortly after the election was called for Biden, Americans United for Separation of Church and State released a ten-point agenda to restore and protect religious freedom, which Biden will hopefully adopt. Indeed, he early on vowed to enact one of the planks by repealing Trump’s noxious Muslim Ban.
That’s a good start, but there are several other actions Biden should take early on to begin the difficult task of rebuilding the church-state wall. Here are five of them:
1. Anchor the nation’s response to the coronavirus in science, not wishful thinking, prayer, or conspiracy theories: Trump was prone to disregard the advice of actual scientists in favor of a litany of quacks with questionable ideas. Religious right organizations, which egged Trump on by filing lawsuits arguing that churches should be able to stay open despite bans on mass gatherings, made the situation worse. It’s time for real leadership and a science-based response to the pandemic, and Biden is in a position to provide one.
2. Stop impeding Americans’ access to birth control: The Affordable Care Act mandates that no-cost birth control be made available to American workers in their healthcare plans. There are exceptions for religious organizations, but in the past few years some secular employers have demanded the right to exclude contraceptive coverage as well. Trump’s Justice Department sided with them. It’s remarkable that we’re even having this discussion in the year 2021. The use of safe and effective birth control isn’t just ubiquitous, it’s in the public interest. Biden should reverse course and order the Justice Department to side with American workers seeking access to contraceptives, not bosses who don’t want to provide it.
3. Put the focus back on public schools: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent four years scheming to divert as much taxpayer money as possible away from public schools into the coffers of private (mostly religious) schools. She did this even though public schools serve 90 percent of the nation’s children. The Biden-Harris administration must end all support for voucher plans and get the funding focus back where it belongs: our secular system of public schools that welcome everyone.
4. End government support for religion-based discrimination: Increasingly, some owners of secular businesses are demanding the right to refuse service to anyone they consider morally deficient—members of the LGBTQ community, non-believers, Muslims, single mothers, non-Christians, and so on. This is nothing more than an attempt to reestablish discrimination by cloaking it in the guise of religious freedom. It’s an affront to our nation’s civil rights laws. Trump used the resources of the federal government to boost these forms of discrimination. Biden should change direction and make it clear that discrimination in secular settings (and certainly in government settings) will not be tolerated.
5. Respect and celebrate the true pluralism of America: Although Trump was never known as a man of great personal piety, he won support from Christian nationalist groups and formed an Evangelical Advisory Board stacked with extremists who had great influence over his administration. To appease them, Trump enacted several reckless and hurtful policies, many of which targeted the rights of members of the LGBTQ community. (The ban on transgender troops in the military, which leaders of the armed forces opposed, is just one example.) Right-wing evangelicals are out of step with Americans’ views on social policy. Biden should send the message that he values true religious diversity, including the right to believe or not as the individual sees fit, and endorse a theory of religious freedom that grants no one the right to use their faith as a cudgel to harm others or take away their rights.
The good news is that Biden can do many of these things through executive orders or regulatory changes at the federal level. That’s how Trump enacted most of his policies. Biden can undo some of them with pen strokes and others by rewriting regulations.
Obviously, there are many other church-state issues Biden will have to deal with. Consider our federal courts, which are often the final arbiter of church-state controversies. Trump has stacked the federal judiciary with far-right jurists; it may take years to repair that damage.
As we emerge from this period of darkness, we should take heart in the fact that the work of repairing our nation, as slow and laborious as it is likely to be, is now underway. Four more years of Trump might have left us with a scale of destruction so massive there would have been nothing left to fix.