What Do We Know about Hillary Clinton and Religious Freedom?

As the United States prepares to elect its 45th president, issues surrounding the place of religion in American public life are at the heart of some of the most contentious debates in American culture. There are competing visions of what “religious freedom” means and whether there is any place for religion outside of individual private worship. The implications are numerous, from issues of marriage and abortion, to higher education and business.

Based on the candidates' background, policy statements, and your own analysis, how will they handle issues of domestic religious freedom as the next president of the United States?

To see all posts in this series visit: Election 2016: Domestic Religious Freedom

Is Hillary Clinton a defender of religious freedom—or its greatest threat on November’s ballot? The answer to that stark question has become increasingly important – and contested – in the 2016 campaign.

If you ask Clinton herself, the answer is clear. She insists she’s “been fighting to defend religious freedom for years.” In an op-ep she penned in The Deseret News in August, she made her case to Utah’s Mormon voters: “As secretary of state, I made it a cornerstone of our foreign policy to protect the rights of religious minorities around the world.” After citing her work with Christians in Egypt and China and Buddhists in Tibet, she argued the State Department “stood up for these oppressed communities because Americans know that democracy ceases to exist when a leader or ruling faction can impose a particular faith on everyone else.” And she reminded her readers that just as Donald Trump wants to ban Muslim immigrants, so had President Rutherford B. Hayes attempted to limit Mormon immigration in 1879.

Her detractors, however, see a mismatch between her words and actions.

Some of those critics are longstanding observers of the role of religious freedom in shaping U.S. foreign policy.  Clinton’s op-ed claimed credit for fulfilling a monitoring requirement under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The key problem for her political and academic critics was that her implementation of those legal requirements was often characterized as weak and indifferent, especially towards China, Egypt, and other serial abusers. Religious freedom was far from a “cornerstone” of U.S. foreign policy; it was an afterthought.

The reactions have been even stronger over the domestic politics of religious freedom. While some argue her silence on important religion-state conflicts in the United States is damning enough, others point to what they see as active efforts to undermine religious freedom. One of the tamer responses to Clinton’s Deseret op-ed, for example, came from Alexandra Desanctis, who declared in the National Review that “[Clinton’s] actual record on religious freedom is atrocious, not least because her interpretation of these guaranteed freedoms in unbelievably narrow.” Whatever Clinton’s international efforts, Desanctis argued, “she has made no effort to defend religious freedom here in the U.S.” Instead, she “has actively worked against religious minorities for the sake of her other cherished causes, specifically expansive access to abortion and the supremacy of LGBT rights.”

Critics like Desanctis point to Clinton’s opposition to state level versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which was signed into law by her husband in 1993 and attempted to restore robust religious freedom protections in the wake of a 1990 Supreme Court case), to her advocacy for the federal Equality Act (which would add protections for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, undercutting rights granted under the RFRA), and to her support for the HHS contraceptive mandate and pro-choice interests at the cost of religious liberty and freedom of conscience for both individuals and faith-based organizations.

But it was perhaps Clinton’s keynote address at the Women in the World Summit last year that aroused her critics’ greatest fears, and gave them their most powerful talking point.

In the speech she outlined a number of ways in which women are disadvantaged globally, citing the secondary education gap, a widespread lack of domestic violence laws, and lack of access to reproductive healthcare and safe childbirth. Legislation alone would not bring about the change women needed: “Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper, laws have to be backed up with resources and political will, and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

Clinton’s assertion that “religious beliefs…have to be changed” in order to strengthen, among other things, “access to reproductive healthcare,” was clear proof for many conservatives that she prioritizes abortion rights and other liberal causes over the autonomy of religion. And it only added fuel to the fire when a series of recently Wikileaked emails appeared to suggest that senior aid John Podesta and other Clinton supporters had strategized to trigger a “Catholic Spring” that would shift a major religious tradition toward this kind of progressive social vision.

A backdrop to these tensions is the status of religious liberty as a “first freedom,” a protection, as political scientist Allen Hertzke puts it, of “the freedom of conscience, the freedom to fulfill obligations –especially sacred duties—which flow from an authority higher than the state.”  It’s important to note that Clinton’s rhetoric often suggests she accepts these assumptions. As senator, in a 2005 speech to an audience of Seventh Day Adventists, she declared that “it is one of the geniuses of our founders that they understood in our Constitution that we had to simultaneously establish majority rule and protect minority rights including the right to freedom of religion.” She later expounded on these convictions in 2011 at an international gathering in Istanbul, where she described religion as “a central source of our identity.” She went on to invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which “makes clear [that] each of us is born free to practice any religion, to change our religion, or to have none at all.” That inherent freedom has implications for the state: “No state may grant these freedoms as a privilege or take them way as a punishment if you believe, as I do and as our country does, that they are not rights bestowed by any government. They are rights endowed by our Creator within each of us.”

So far, so good for Clinton’s critics. But the rub, of course, is that there are many sources of identity and meaning. The key question is what the state should do when these varied beliefs and practices come into conflict.  One approach is to say that religious liberty, as a first freedom, occupies a privileged position in our hierarchy of rights protections. The state should therefore accommodate religious expressions even when they push against other important societal values.

Clinton critics, however, fear that she is willing to weigh certain religious expressions as subordinate to the progressive consensus on reproduction, gender, and family.  They worry that Clinton’s desire to counter discrimination threatens traditionalist religious beliefs and practices that may be out of step with emerging norms on marriage and sexuality.  They see a trade-off between religion and other sources of identity that doesn’t necessarily entail a rejection of religious freedom altogether, but a relegation of religion to worship in the private sphere and irrelevance as an integral part of civil society.

Of course, Clinton and her supporters would retort that these fears are wildly overblown.  After all, her commitment to the public relevance of faith, including her own Methodism, is well established. They would also call for a more nuanced and sympathetic treatment of Clinton’s actions on religious freedom while a senator and secretary of state.

But in the final analysis, the question isn’t really about whether Hillary Clinton supports religious freedom per se. It’s about where Clinton stands in the ongoing public debates about the future of traditionalist religion in the changing landscape of American pluralism. 


Kevin den Dulk holds the Paul B. Henry Chair in Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. He has co-authored numerous books on religion and politics, most recently The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Six Democracies (with Stephen Monsma and Chris Soper; Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming). Isaac LaGrand, research fellow at the Henry Institute’s Faith and Citizenship Lab, provided research assistance.  


**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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