This opinion piece is by Judd Birdsall, who served in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom under President George W. Bush and President Obama.
This presidential election has been fraught with fights over faith. Donald Trump’s critics have accused him of dabbling in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and pandering to white Christian identity politics. Hillary Clinton and her team have been accused of anti-Catholicism and seeking to silence the conscience of anyone who disagrees with her progressive social agenda.
Many religious voters fear what a Trump or Clinton presidency signals for their freedom of religion — and for people of faith abroad.
Whoever wins the presidency, a religiously polarized America will continue to grapple with contentious political debates and legal battles over the role of religion.
But what about beyond America’s shores? The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, signed by President Bill Clinton, enshrined combating persecution and promoting religious freedom for all people everywhere as core U.S. foreign policy objectives. And the act lists specific responsibilities for the president.
This raises the question: After a campaign full of battles over belief, will the next president be able to liberate our global promotion of religious liberty from our domestic culture wars?
Concerning Trump, the answer is an emphatic no. His extremely negative international reputation is now indelibly tied up with his brazen willingness to fan the flames of domestic Islamophobia. Trump has insinuated that Obama secretly sympathizes with Islamic extremism, initially called for a complete ban on all Muslims entering the United States, rejected Syrian refugees as a “Trojan Horse” for terrorism, and ignorantly insisted that American Muslims aren’t cooperating with law enforcement to identify radicalized individuals within their communities.
Do we really think Trump is going to stand up for persecuted Uighur Muslims in China, Rohingya in Burma, Ahamdis in Pakistan, Shiites in many Sunni-majority countries or refugees desperately fleeing the horrors of Syria? Not likely.
And Trump’s promised advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East will be counterproductive, viewed with great suspicion as an anti-Islamic plot. You can’t successfully promote freedom for one major world religion while actively maligning another. You’re either for freedom for all or not at all. As Conor Friedersdorf recently wrote in the Atlantic, Trump’s mistreatment of Muslims shows he is “openly antagonistic” to the principle of religious freedom, as an “attack on one faith’s religious liberties threatens every faith.”
What about Clinton? Within my own white evangelical community, defending her, especially on the issue of religious freedom, is tantamount to treason. Critics point to her support of the government’s contraceptive mandate and the critical comments she has made regarding traditional religious beliefs. Best-selling evangelical author Eric Metaxas has warned, “if ever there was an enemy of religious liberty in America, it’s Hillary Rodham Clinton and every American should be frightened to death on that issue.”
That’s not the Clinton I know. I served on her Policy Planning Staff in 2009 and then in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom for most of the remainder of her time as secretary. (I also served in that same office under President George W. Bush.) I found her to be an articulate and active defender of human rights, including freedom of religion. Here are three key ways she demonstrated her commitment to the issue.
First, Clinton articulated a robust account of what religious freedom entails. Against the background of the criticism that Clinton and other Obama administration officials were employing the term “freedom of worship” in a not-so-subtle scheme to confine religious freedom within the walls of the church, Clinton used a 2010 speech to clarify what she meant, a lengthy quote worth digesting carefully:
“a broad understanding of religious freedom … begins with private beliefs and communal religious expression, but doesn’t end there. Religious freedom also includes the right to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to change one’s religion — by choice, not coercion, and to practice no religion at all. And it includes the rights of faith communities to come together in social service and public engagement in the broader society.”
That’s about as expansive a definition as we’ve ever heard from a senior American diplomat. It goes far beyond mere “freedom of worship.”
And it is worth noting that Clinton shared her belief that sharing one’s belief is a protected activity. Enemies of missionary religions and of religious freedom find proselytism particularly distasteful. Clinton, however, rightly understands that peaceful, noncoercive faith sharing is simply a dimension of the universal right to manifest one’s belief.
Second, for Clinton, religious freedom is more than a human right, it’s a social good. During her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton regularly reminded us that religious freedom is not just an American value and international norm, but part and parcel of “a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.” In other words, religious freedom is a strategic issue.
Third, Clinton actively engaged with religious leaders around the world, in Nigeria, Egypt, Russia and elsewhere, speaking up for their freedom and encouraging the positive contributions their communities make to society.
She also deepened and expanded America’s religious engagement by establishing a working group on religion and foreign policy, composed of diverse faith-based leaders and experts (including, I might add, several conservative evangelicals and Catholics). That move paved the way for the creation of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs.
I don’t mean to suggest Clinton’s record on religious freedom is flawless. Her nominee for U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was a Baptist pastor and motivational speaker who was widely panned as unqualified and ineffective. There were times when Clinton could have been more vocal in condemning persecution. That said, diplomacy is a constant balancing act between competing priorities, and Clinton did raise the issue with enough frequency and forcefulness to signal her State Department’s commitment to the cause.
Clinton is a person of faith who understands the positive power of faith and has faithfully championed freedom for people of all faiths and persuasions. Trump, on the other hand, has no history of advancing tolerance and inclusion, and a mile-long record of sowing just the opposite.
On the issue of international religious freedom, the contest between Trump and Clinton is really no contest at all.
Judd Birdsall is the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies at Clare College, Cambridge. A former U.S. diplomat, Birdsall served in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. He is an editorial fellow and frequent contributor at “The Review of Faith & International Affairs.”