With primaries already under way, the future of religious freedom is one of many significant issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election. This week Cornerstone asks contributors to comment on how our new president could shape religious freedom policy by reflecting on the following questions: What are the various candidates’ records on religious freedom within the United States and around the world? What domestic and international religious freedom issues are candidates likely to prioritize, and how important are these issues to voters?
By: M. Zuhdi Jasser
In laying out the foundational values of the United States, our founding fathers prioritized religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression with the explicit understanding that without them, no man or woman is truly free—regardless of any other protections they may be afforded.
When a president takes office, he or she is required to swear or affirm that he or she will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States—the document in which religious liberty and freedom of conscience are not only affirmed but considered the “First Liberty.”
Thus, in considering candidates for arguably the most powerful position in the world, it is crucial to consider their positions on religious liberty and freedom of conscience well before they are in a position to take this solemn oath.
With every election cycle, it seems that discussions of religion and freedom of expression are wrought with more tension and drama. This season, however, has been marked by rhetoric so vulgar, so alarming, and so beneath the office of the presidency that all Americans—conservative or liberal, religious or atheist—would be wise to pay special attention to the candidates’ comments on faith and freedom.
Cornerstone has done an excellent job of addressing religious liberty in this election cycle, and I am grateful for this opportunity to comment on the topic of religious liberty in the 2016 election.In evaluating each candidate’s stance on religious liberty, I’ve decided to “grade” them. We are about eight months from Election Day; candidates have the opportunity to change course but not their records thus far. This is how I view the candidates on the issue of religious liberty.
* * *
Donald Trump: “F”
For all of the obvious reasons—be it his sloppy anthropomorphizing of Islam (“Islam hates us”); his conflation of Islamists with all Muslims; his support for religious registries, the deportation of Muslims, and the closure of “hate-filled mosques”; his calls to block immigration based on a faith test rather than an ideological security threat; and his general willingness to sacrifice genuine conservatism, the Republican party, America, and all manner of reason on the altar of his ego.
Dr. Ben Carson, one of the ostensible torch bearers of religious freedom in the campaign, oddly in his recent endorsement asked the American people to have faith that there are two Donald Trumps. Since I am unable to find a single speech, publication, or otherwise documenting Mr. Trump’s advocacy for religious liberty, I am not able in good conscience to take his positions or grade on religious freedom just on faith.
Make no mistake: It is well within the realm of reason and possibility for a presidential candidate to articulate a strong national security policy against jihadism, Islamism, and their attendant massive global Islamist movements without the strategically blind inaccuracies which have come to define Mr. Trump’s positions. Many of us are equally angry with the status quo’s submission to Islamists, but a scorched-earth strategy will surely fail. It is also possible for a candidate to articulate a strong position against blind immigration policies for refugees while still standing by the words on our Statue of Liberty. We may, for example, pause all immigration until we are able to vet those Syrians seeking refuge from the threats of jihadism, as well as the equal, if not greater, threat of Syrian government, Russian, or Iranian intelligence and thugs.
But Mr. Trump's inability or unwillingness to articulate any of these important nuances make his indifference toxic to Muslim reformers leading the fight against Islamists. As I discuss here, Mr. Trump’s silence and positions in defense of an admiration for tyrannical regimes like Putin’s Russia or China should also beg concern for his leadership in advocacy of religious freedom.
Ted Cruz: “B+”
Cruz also gives the United States a role and unapologetically calls for the nation to lead the effort to protect persecuted minorities. He is not intimidated by Islamists who refuse to allow the West to identify Islamists as the problem. Unfortunately, his repeated calls for “carpet bombing” ISIS smacks of pandering at best and violations of Geneva Convention at worst. His desire to challenge ISIS swiftly and with strength is refreshing, but the details are important. Reports from our families in Syria indicate that Russia is, in fact, carpet bombing Syria (neighborhoods in Aleppo, for example) and decimating the revolution, not ISIS. It’ll be important to learn whether Mr. Cruz’s potent defense of minorities and religious liberty abroad will be in defense of their peoples and their efforts to be free or will take the form of the now archaic twentieth century paradigm of choosing the lesser of two evil tyrannies. His continued defense of General Al-Sisi as a reformer belies an understanding of how quasi-Islamist strongmen play a direct role in fueling viral Islamist movements. True reformers use words like “liberty,” “democracy,” and “freedom”—words the general never uses while he tortures and imprisons his political opponents.
Mr. Cruz’s strict constitutionalism domestically is reassuring, indicating that he understands the check and balance of presidential power when it comes to honoring religious liberty.
To his credit, when asked, Senator Cruz has also dismissed many of Mr. Trump’s policy suggestions with regards to Muslims as unconstitutional and irrational. As his national security and foreign policy team is revealed, one hopes his campaign can begin to make the distinction between the threat of Islamists and our reform-minded Muslim allies.
John Kasich: “C+”
Kasich sees a role for the United States in the global order, but he is too weak in his rejection of tyranny. Sadly silent on Assad’s war crimes and complicity with ISIS so far, it is unclear what his doctrine would be. His positions are, at times, all over the map, making his ideological compass too unclear. His compassion is refreshing in this divisive, often skin-deep discourse, but when it comes to foreign policy, it can speak to an overly soft appeasement of tyrants like Assad, Putin, Khamenei, or Salman. For example, his overly complimentary position on Turkey during the last debate should raise concerns about his understanding of the threat of Islamists to religious liberty. To his credit, he is one of the only candidates with the courage to raise during the debates the issue of American hypocrisy with the ideology of our allies in Saudi Arabia.
Hillary Clinton: “C-“
While she may offer up niceties (and infographics, as appropriative and problematic as they have been—see the Kwanzaa logo) to assure Americans that she believes in individual liberty, there is no hiding her hypocrisy. From her foundation’s acceptance of money from Middle Eastern tyrants, to her blanket demonization of conservatives, to flip-flops on core issues related to personal freedom, Ms. Clinton simply cannot be trusted.
Her endorsement and support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demonstrated a distinct ignorance about the theocratic aims of that party and the responsibility of the United States to stand up for secular liberal democratic ideals abroad. This may come from her penchant, like President Obama, to surround herself with Muslim Brotherhood apologists and deniers while marginalizing real anti-Islamist reformers. It is worth noting that her opponent, Bernie Sanders, has shown the same affinity for Islamists in the United States.
Bernie Sanders: “D”
He has little to no respect for the role of the United States abroad. In fact, he seemed to think Putin, Assad, and Khamenei have a chance at listening to their people. All people of conscience realize that they are all war criminals who see no value in human life. The only reason he’s not getting an “F” is that he has recognized the importance of protecting the freedom of domestic religious minorities—but this may have been simple pandering to identity politics rather than actual respect for religious freedom.
* * *
The field this season is bleak, and while the country has faced trials before, there is still time to stem the tide of anti-liberty rhetoric by standing up together, in a bipartisan fashion, to advocate for the same principles of freedom domestically and abroad through our voices and our votes.
What too many candidates and pundits fail to realize is that “smart security” is not synonymous with religious discrimination; in fact, it threatens America’s legacy as the “city on a hill” where the world’s oppressed seek freedom—including Muslims escaping the tyranny of Assad, Khamenei, and radical Islamist groups like ISIS. Suppression of religious liberty is not strategy, but rather the sacrifice of all we are to those we claim to be fighting domestically and abroad.
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving American founding principles by directly countering the ideologies of political Islam.
This piece was originally authored on March 21, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.