White HouseWritten by Don Byrd

Over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden received the Greek Orthodox Church’s Athenagoras Human Rights Award for his commitment to religious freedom. In his remarks, which you can watch here, Biden emphasized that governments must respect everyone’s God-given religious freedom and pointed to those regions of the world in which religious freedom is denied as “ripe ground for extremists.”

Here is my transcript of a portion of his remarks.

Freedom of religion in America is called the “first freedom.” It’s not just codified in our constitution as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. We were the first nation to do it that way. But freedom of religion is the freedom to believe or not believe, the freedom of conscience that is so cherished, I would argue the fundamental cherished root of the United States of America.

Justice Brandeis once said that the framers of the Constitution “sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, their sensations.” In other words, governments gave us no right. They did not bestow on us freedom of religion. That is something we possess simply because we exist, simply because we are children of God. Period. No one has a right to confer it or take it away.

The duty of government is not to bestow it; the duty of government is to protect those inalienable rights that belong to all humans, to defend them against infringement. That’s true in the United States and it should be true around the world, and that’s why I believe so firmly, that the Greek Orthodox Church, and this is not hyperbole, they must have the right to control their own destiny, free of the influence of any government at all.

As the Archbishop knows, I’ve made that clear to leaders of Turkey for some time. I know no one ever doubts that I mean what I say, but sometimes I say all that I mean. And I’ve said all that I mean to Mr. Erdogan and to any other leader in Turkey. And here’s the deal. The protection of holy places and heritage sites in Turkey is absolutely necessary. . . . 

But at the same time, it goes both ways. This part you may not want to hear. Muslims deserve protection and respect in Greece as well. Christian minorities in the Middle East, all of whom I have met with, should not be targeted for their faith. Freedom of religion is essential and should be protected everywhere.

And around the world, the regions where we see the most strife and the most conflict almost always are those that are divided among ethnic and religious lines. And where there’s division, too often there is a ripe ground for extremists to sow havoc. We see it for example in terrorists like al qaeda, perverting Islam, one of the great confessional faiths, to justify heinous acts against humanity. We see the barbarous murderers like ISIL twist the peaceful teachings of the Quran to justify slavery, and if you’ve read recently, justify rape as a religiously justified tactic of war – rape of 10, 12, 13-year-old girls in the name of the Quran.

So we defend religious liberty, not just because it’s a moral imperative, because it improves and will improve the security of people everywhere against violent extremists. It only grows in those regions and countries . . . that are divided along religious and ethnic grounds.

We have to remain vigilant here at home as well. Fighting the insidious forces we still struggle against. We have to call out anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric wherever we see it, when it seeps into our day-to-day discourse. We have to guard against hateful mindsets here and abroad that lead someone to shoot up a Sikh temple, a Jewish Community Center, a prayer group in Charleston, South Carolina, the evil that leads someone to torch a Greek Orthodox Seminary in Jerusalem.

The ultimate strength of America does not lie in the example of our power; it lies in the power of our example. We are the most powerful nation in the world. . . The reason people repair the standard of the United States is the power of our example. That’s what makes us different than every other country in the world.

Biden’s message is a claim we should make more often, and more forcefully. Religious liberty for all is not essential only for those who care to exercise it. Maintaining religious liberty for everyone promotes peace, co-existence, and community across religious lines.