The Limits of a Clinton Religious Freedom Agenda

by vaughn_admin  //  

November 7, 2016

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 

The prospect of a Hillary Clinton victory at the polls has international religious freedom advocates scrambling to understand how her presidency will affect their issue. Any assessment is fraught with speculation, but, unlike the Republican candidate, Clinton has a substantial public record upon which one might hazard a guess.

It may be argued that Clinton will be more vocal and enthusiastic about international religious freedom than most presidents to date. She has spoken out on the matter strongly and frequently. But there are three potential problems that, if left unaddressed, will leave international religious freedom just as stalled as when she arrived.   

Over-Prioritizing LGBT Rights

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried to thread the needle between two commendable but competing issues: religious freedom and LGBT rights. As president, she will continue to find them at odds.

On one hand, Clinton believes that international religious freedom is a fundamental human right, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority. She believes in strong and sustainable American engagement abroad – the necessary meta-policy for any promotion of IRF – in contrast to her Republican opponent who seems to favor a general policy of US disengagement punctuated by occasional shows of American power.

On the other hand Clinton, like President Obama, believes that LGBT rights must be at the center of the US foreign policy agenda. She has said, “[W]e must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community.” Yet one of the most challenging issues facing the advancement of LGBT rights, according to her, is “when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens.”

Clinton apparently does not see the paradox. In her mind, freedom to worship and freedom to choose a sexual lifestyle are coherent parts of one whole; but many religious societies disagree. The very countries that Clinton wants to influence on religious freedom will be adamantly opposed to LGBT rights, and will perceive American pressure to conform on both fronts as part of larger strategy to undermine their national life.

So long as Clinton maintains an overt focus on LGBT rights, she is likely to alienate the very countries she aims to woo. Religious freedom affects far more people and logically precedes sexual freedom (countries are more likely to embrace the former before the latter, not vice versa), and should therefore come first in the sequence of American diplomacy.

Focusing on Rhetoric over Strategy

Religious freedom has become an essential component of the US diplomatic discourse. It would be difficult for a president to ignore the subject completely. But rhetorical emphasis is not the same as strategic focus, and anyone who knows the inner workings of the State Department understands that the “religious liberty guys” are mostly ignored in the warp and woof of actual policymaking. The pressing task for any US president is to better weave religious freedom into American global strategy.

It is unlikely that Hillary Clinton will succeed where her predecessors failed. Part of the problem lies in the unique challenge presented by any human rights issue. In a world ruled by hard power, diplomats find it difficult to advance soft causes like religious freedom. Take Saudi Arabia for example. On one hand, it enforces a harsh brand of Sunni Islam and suppresses religious dissent. On the other, it provides an anchor for political stability in an increasingly chaotic region. Should the US spend its relational capital harassing Saudi Arabia about religious freedom, or overlook its sins in the name of a stable order? Hard questions indeed.

But some of the problem also lies with Clinton’s failure to incorporate religious freedom into her overall strategic approach. As Secretary of State, she failed on two key occasions to advance the cause in practice. She resisted the naming of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization for two years, hobbling international efforts to protect victims and punish perpetrators. More significantly, Clinton supported President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran despite that country’s consistent ranking on top-ten lists of religious freedom violators and terrorism exporters worldwide. That Clinton did so without demanding that religious freedom be at the center of those negotiations was a missed opportunity indeed.

Clinton’s religious freedom legacy will depend on how well she leverages US power to gain concessions from repressive regimes when given the chance. Her record indicates some hesitancy and little strategic focus.

Ignoring Root Causes

The enemies of religious freedom often draw their energy from transcendent ideologies rooted in religious sources (like Islam) or anti-religious sources (like communism). In both cases, persecutors cite a superior truth that justifies their actions. Appeals to mere reason are rarely enough to undermine that truth.

The war against religious intolerance requires courage, creativity, and consistency. It takes hard power and soft power. But it also demands an understanding of belief and how to influence it. Proponents of religious freedom must take seriously the transcendent and “irrational” impulses of man. They must employ tactics of the spirit. They must address root causes.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats have fared well in this regard, but Hillary Clinton will likely have special difficulty. Her liberal worldview tends to focus on outward markers of rational progress, arguing for religious freedom on grounds of economic benefit and national security with little reference to the world “up there.” Attempts to address believing people sometimes come off as ignorant, patronizing, or harsh.

A robust strategy for advancing religious freedom cannot rely solely on carrots – sticks are important – but an American president must execute a believable campaign of public diplomacy using the kind of language that speaks to people who obey a higher truth.


It is difficult to discern a future president’s success on any given issue. What is certain in the case of Hillary Clinton is that her foreign policy agenda will include strong language in favor of religious freedom. What is less certain is how successful she will be in balancing competing commitments, crafting a bold strategy, and addressing root causes. No doubt a rhetorical focus on the issue is a good start. But as we enter an intolerant and chaotic era of world history, it is uncertain whether Hillary Clinton is up to the challenge.

Robert Nicholson is the Executive Director of The Philos Project, an American nonprofit that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. Robert is also the co-publisher ofProvidence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and both a JD and MA in Middle Eastern history from Syracuse University. A former U.S. Marine and a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert has published articles in, among other places, The American Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. His work focuses on spreading the vision of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Middle East based on freedom and rule of law.

**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.**