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: Cynthia Soliman
The 2016 election season is well under way and there can be no doubt that the candidates have given Americans a lot to think about in terms of their future. It’s striking that only the Republican candidates seem to be discussing the role of religious freedom and offering more than mere soundbites. One has to look pretty hard to find a speech or a lengthy statement by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during this campaign on the importance of religious freedom. This state of affairs is rather unfortunate, because religious freedom shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s also a bit surprising because it hasn’t always been this way.
As a United States senator, Hillary Clinton recognized and spoke about the importance of international religious freedom. Likewise, when Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state, she advocated for religious freedom around the world, stating that “the protection of religious freedom is a fundamental concern of the United States going back to the earliest days of our republic, and it remains so today.” Fast forward to the 2016 campaign and Mrs. Clinton barely says a word about religious freedom. This does not mean her beliefs have changed. It just doesn’t seem important enough to discuss in her campaign.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is even less vocal about religious freedom. It is difficult to even find any reference to religious freedom made by Senator Sanders. When the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by Congress, then Congressman Sanders did not vote on the bill. It’s as if when it comes to the issue of religious freedom, there is some sort of invisible barrier that Democratic candidates dare not cross. “Religious freedom” seems to have become a dirty word.
On the other hand, presidential candidates from the Republican party talk about religious freedom all the time. Senator Ted Cruz, in particular, insists that it is threatened in America, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to say so. It is important to note that Mr. Cruz and others remain focused on religious liberty in the United States, and often their message tends to portray an assault on Christians in America. Likewise, frontrunner Donald Trump’s position appears to be more about protecting Christians than religious freedom as a whole. During the March 3, 2016 Republican debate, the issue of religious freedom came up once, but the discussion was about service providers refusing to provide their services to gay couples, because doing so would violate the service providers’ beliefs. When the candidates discussed national security, religious freedom didn’t even come up.
As far as the American voter is concerned, there is no middle ground when it comes to religious freedom. Either it’s an unimportant topic or a really important one, but only for those whose rights the candidates tell us are being taken away. For the Democratic party, the issue of religious freedom has fallen into some kind of black hole, while for Republicans, the issue is one of great importance, especially for U.S. Christians. What neither of the parties’ candidates is discussing is how international religious freedom should be a foreign policy priority or why it should be considered in national security discussions.
The lack of any real discussion on the issue is not just unfortunate; it is dangerous because it signals the possibility that the next president will let the issue fall by the wayside or whittle down the discussion. The American public is ultimately hurt because there is no vigorous discussion on the benefits of religious freedom. The American public doesn’t get to hear how religious freedom can contribute to making the world a safer place without the use of a single weapon. Our candidates can and should do better.
Cynthia Soliman is a 2015 graduate from Georgetown's Master of Science in Foreign Service program, with a concentration in global politics and security.
This piece was originally authored on March 10, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.