An Opportunity for Change: A Hillary Clinton Presidency and International Religious Freedom

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 

In February of 2009, newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted her first official visit to Beijing. Hoping to lay the groundwork for the future of the U.S-Sino relationship under the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton quickly managed to shock and dismay human rights observers the world over by stating in no uncertain terms that “those issues [Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights] can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” Perhaps dismayed most of all by this clear de-prioritization of human rights were the numerous activists and dissidents currently imprisoned in China, including those put under house arrest during Clinton’s visit.  

While Clinton’s comments may have only publicly confirmed a phenomenon that is accepted as a given by many practitioners of foreign policy, namely that human rights issues always play second or third fiddle to economic and security concerns, her statement was a rare public affirmation of the realpolitik approach which has defined much of Clinton’s career. It also helps us understand to a great degree Clinton’s likely approach to human rights generally, and issues of international religious freedom (IRF) more specifically, as president.

If anything, international religious freedom has long been lightly esteemed within the already ill-favored human rights family. It was only through tremendous outside efforts that the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was initially passed, legislatively enshrining religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Long-suffering attempts over the ensuing sixteen years, and especially after 2008, to ensure the spirit and letter of the Act were fully implemented were frequently stymied. Under Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom remained empty for more than two years. After President Obama’s first appointment to the position resigned in 2013, a new nomination wasn’t made for another eight months.  

This bewildering level of disinterest belies the enormous and rapidly growing amount of evidence demonstrating the need for a robust approach to addressing religious freedom concerns around the world. According to the Pew Forum’s latest global survey, “harassment or intimidation of specific religious groups occurred in 159 countries” and 74% of the world’s population live in countries with “high” or “very high” government restrictions or social hostility towards religion. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary Kerry declared that ISIS actions against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constituted genocide, the first such declaration in over a decade. This alarming level of religious persecution and instability is not only a humanitarian concern; it likely has significant implications for social stability and economic growth worldwide. 

Unlike domestic religious freedom issues in the United States, which tend to sharply divide much of the country along political lines, there is far less contention over the major issues of religious freedom internationally. No one in the U.S., including Secretary Clinton, is going to argue that anyone found to insult a religion, even inadvertently, should be sentenced to death or murdered by an angry mob.  Nor would they argue for the creation of state-sanctioned religious associations and the arrest of religious leaders who refuse to participate.  

If fact, Secretary Clinton’s remarks during the release of the U.S. State Department’s 2011 international religious freedom report indicated whole-hearted support for promoting religious freedom internationally. A few minutes into her speech, Secretary Clinton stressed that “I have seen firsthand how religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies.” She went on to say that “I personally have discussed religious freedom in every part of the world” before listing several initiatives to promote dialogue on the subject.   

While statements such as these are encouraging and seem to stand in stark contrast to Secretary Clinton’s remarks on human rights in China only a few years earlier, the true test of any policy is in its application. Arguably the most powerful tool for this comes in the form of the “Country of Particular Concern” designation. IRFA requires that the president annually designate any country that has engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as a country of particular concern. Countries designated as a CPC must face some form of sanction, unless a waiver is granted by the president “in the important national interest of the United States.”

Despite Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric, this tool never came close to being used to its fullest extent during her four years as America’s chief foreign affairs adviser. Several countries that clearly should have been designated, such as Vietnam and Pakistan, never even made the list. Those that did, such as Burma or Saudi Arabia, either already had existing sanctions in place or were granted a waiver. 

To be fair, previous Secretaries and Administrations also made only limited use of the CPC mechanism, but Secretary Clinton’s continued neglect of this powerful instrument of foreign policy demonstrated just how much of a priority international religious freedom really was once all of the political calculus had been completed.

Sadly, there has been almost no public discussion of IRF issues by either major presidential contender during the campaign season. Secretary Clinton’s intervening years between Secretary of State and candidate also give us little reason to believe that as president she would do much to shake up the long running status quo, something that would require applying serious consequences for nations that refuse to adequately address religious freedom concerns. 

Having personally interviewed scores of victims of religious freedom violations around the world, I can attest to the critical role the United States plays in helping to secure this fundamental right for so many. Confronted with such a vast array of threats to religious freedom globally, the next president will have an opportunity like never before to make this issue a major foreign policy priority. One can only hope that another President Clinton will choose to move beyond rhetoric and take concrete action, thereby succeeding where a Secretary Clinton too often fell short.


Isaac Six is the Advocacy Director for International Christian Concern and routinely works with Members of Congress and the U.S. State Department to advance religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Isaac has worked with victims of religious freedom violations in China, Vietnam, India, Iraq and many other countries. He has also served as a Fellow with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and his work has been featured in Foreign Policy, Fox News, and World Magazine, among others.


**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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