Congress, a Rabbi, and Vladimir Putin Walk into a Bar: Religious Freedom and the Clinton Presidency

Religious freedom is in crisis around the world. From violent Islamic extremists committing genocide across the Middle East (and inspiring terror attacks globally), to the destruction of crosses by the Chinese government, from blasphemy laws that silence religious debates and incite violence, to the imprisonment of religious leaders in places like Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere, religious freedom seems to be diminishing. 

Yet, the United States continues to consider promoting religious freedom a fundamental foreign policy objective. In fact, there are now more than 50 full-time State Department employees who work on religion related issues, more than ever before. It is clear that understanding religion is critical to foreign affairs. 

Contributors were asked to consider how a candidate might handle issues of international religious freedom as the next president of the United States.

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

With the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul well under way, the topic of religious freedom in the Middle East and around the world has captured the general public’s attention in a way we haven’t seen in modern history. The Genocide of a previously unknown people called Yezidis is a known quantity, while the Genocide against Christians such as Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac communities in Iraq and Syria, captured in the now infamous “N” for “Nazarene” (a derogatory way of referring to Christians) is recalled by even casual observers of foreign affairs.

But not all religious persecution is created equal and, more often than not, the response of an administration comes down to a matter of reconciling American foreign policy interests with the humanitarian interests of a just and decent country. Sadly, there’s a calculus, one that dictates we look the other way at religious persecution when the perpetrator is an American ally, and unfortunately for religious freedom activists, some of the worst global actors happen to be allies of the United States. If there’s one word to describe Hillary Clinton that would be met with near unanimous agreement it’s that she is calculating, some would say to a fault, and she has given no indication that is going change anytime soon. Still, what tips the scale in the reconciliation process in a Clinton White House will likely come down to a trio of influences: personnel, global affairs, and exertion of Congressional authority:

Personnel: In a humble and unassuming office on the second floor of the State Department sits an equally humble and unassuming man who is, for all intents and purposes, the United States defender of religious freedom around the world. Most Americans have never heard of Rabbi David Saperstein, but he serves as Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. His job, in effect, is to serve as an advocate for a fundamental American ideal, the principle that all people are free to practice any religion of their choosing, or no religion at all, without interference or persecution from their government or fellow citizens. Ambassador Saperstein was recently joined by a Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South Asia, Knox Thames, who focuses on geographical areas where there is a special need, as is the case for victims of ISIS Genocide in Iraq and Syria. Both Thames and Saperstein have proven to be top notch diplomats who have served this administration well, and Clinton will likely not want to repeat Obama’s mistake of leaving these key positions vacant for as long as he did (a combined 3 years), especially at this moment in history when action, or inaction, in response to religious persecution may very well be a defining legacy of American foreign policy. If Clinton has any desire to show her administration takes religious freedoms seriously she should make reappointing both of them one of her early key personnel decisions.

Global Affairs: When confronting issues of religious freedoms, expect Clinton to stay true to her instinct, one which wields righteous indignation in a similarly calculated way as every other facet of how she governs. When speaking of adversaries (Putin, Assad, Gaddafi, etc.) she sees the world in staunchly diametrical terms: It’s good vs. bad, east vs. west, democracy vs. dictators. These are bad actors, they violently oppress their own citizens, and they must reform or be removed if there is ever to be peace and stability. Yet when speaking of allies she exhibits a capacity for nuance which belies her otherwise hawkish defense of democracy and individual liberty. To Clinton, Saudi Arabia is a complicated yet important ally despite their funding of terrorism, [Egyptian President] Sisi is an asset despite his crackdown on his own citizens, and King Abdullah of Jordan is a critical leader for stabilizing young democracies in the Middle East despite having never received a single vote himself. Clinton is not alone in her selective outrage. This is a reality of governing and maintaining allies in a dangerous and difficult world, so Clinton is likely going to be predictable in how she engages or parries incidents of religious persecution globally.

Congressional Authority: There is no better way to encourage an administration than by using Congressional authority as a check on Presidential power. The system, as we know, works this way by design, and Republican leaders in Congress are salivating at the prospect of obstructing a Clinton presidency. While perhaps not always best intentioned, an opening salvo of being a check on religious freedoms is one of the few places where Congress may be able to seize the moral high ground from the administration. Americans have shown little interest in more witch hunts like we’ve seen with the Select Committee on Bengazi, or Jason Chaffetz overtly political attempts at “oversight.” But taking the administration to task on their duty to protect religious freedom is something that will help heal their image after this monstrously negative election. Congressional resolutions, spending bills, and hearings have the opportunity to be ground zero for protecting vulnerable communities around the world. Clinton is of course aware of this, so don’t be surprised if she preempts this attempt to undercut her presidency with early efforts to buttress religious freedom abroad.

One final point that is important to mention is that of awareness. Believe it or not, government officials don’t know everything. So it is important for civil society to stay engaged in the process. While most of what happens around the world is out of our control, much of what happens within the government is within our sphere of influence, and it is as important as ever that those of us who care about these issues, particularly those who are personally affected by them, have a seat at the table and continue making our voices heard in the Clinton administration.


Steve Oshana is a political consultant in Washington, DC and serves as the Executive Director of A Demand For Action, a global grassroots campaign which advocates for ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria such as Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians. He serves as an active member of the NDECC, the ethnic coordinating committee of the Democratic National Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @politicoshana


**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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