The halls and meeting rooms of the United States Senate are soaked in the oratory of centuries. Henry Clay, John C Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Hubert H Humphrey, John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are among the leaders whose speeches echo in America's history.
Now, among the more recent arrivals to the US Senate, is Hillary Rodham Clinton, a member of the Democratic Party who represents the state of New York, one of America's most populous areas. She is also, of course, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, making her the first American “first lady” to sit in the upper chamber of the US legislature. And, as religious liberty advocate James Standish said recently, Mrs Clinton “may not be finished making history,” since she is widely believed to be a leading candidate for her party's 2008 US presidential nomination.
Learning what a leading American politician says about freedom of religion, then, is more than satisfying one's curiosity. The woman who once lived in the White House may occupy the “Oval Office” seat where her husband sat not so long ago. What Hillary Clinton thinks, then, about freedom of conscience may concern more than just a local audience.
Recently, Mrs Clinton addressed a dinner held in a historic Senate conference room. The occasion was sponsored by Liberty magazine, a 100-year-old religious freedom periodical founded and still published by the Seventh-day Adventist Church (in the US), which also publishes Signs of the Times magazine in Australia and New Zealand.
While about 15 per cent of her talk was comprised of lavish praise for her hosts, whose US membership numbers around one million, she chiefly concentrated on the meaning of religious liberty, both in the US and abroad.
“From my perspective, religious liberty is one of the most important issues on the world's agenda today,” Mrs Clinton declared, adding, “It's our responsibility to think of ways each of us can further religious liberty and freedom. It's up to each of us, in the roles that we individually play, to ensure that our nation, which has been the exemplar of religious freedom and tolerance amongst a diverse population, continues to be so.”
Mrs Clinton included reference to the then-recent death of the pope, John Paul II, whom she called an exemplar of human rights.
“We know that we lost a great force for religious tolerance and understanding with the passing of the pope,” she told her mostly Protestant audience. “I think the outpouring and affection and appreciation for John Paul II is a reflection of the yearning people have to be connected, to believe, to have some greater purpose and meaning in their lives. And I know that one of his most important insights came in his understanding, during his years in Poland, that religious freedom is often the bellwether for respecting human rights.”
She added, “When John Paul II, throughout his entire life as a priest and a servant of the Catholic Church, spoke about religious freedom as a point of reference about fundamental rights—and in some ways as a measure of them—and then worked to try to connect people of all faiths and to promote interfaith tolerance, understanding and respect, he touched many millions of lives.”
Mrs Clinton then moved to a notable example of religious liberty in American history when, shortly after the nation's establishment as a working, independent government, a question arose about protecting the rights of adherents to minority religions.
“It is one of the geniuses of our founders that they understood in our Constitution that we had to simultaneously establish majority rule and protect minority rights, including the right to freedom of religion,” she said.
She went on to relate a story of the early expression of the point, telling how, in 1790, just one year after the US Constitution was ratified, president George Washington received a letter from the members of a Rhode Island synagogue. They were seeking assurance from the highest authority in the country that the Jewish community in America could expect to enjoy religious freedom. “President Washington replied with a guarantee that not only Jews would be protected, but that members of all faiths would be free to worship as they chose, and that the new Government of the United States would—and I quote from President Washington—‘give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.'”
The junior Senator from New York called that “an extraordinary moment in history,” adding, “nothing like that had ever been said by a secular leader, by a leader of any nation. And certainly not by someone who arose from the ferment of the democratic process.”
Turning her focus to overseas locales, Mrs Clinton said, “I've just come back ... from my second trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Kuwait and Pakistan, and India. And I was both heartened by the elections in Iraq [and] the elections in Afghanistan, [by] the progress that is being made, and sobered by the challenges that the people there confront... . We must hope and we must support their efforts to create a democratic government that does protect religious freedom.”
She acknowledged that such tolerance “runs against their traditions in many instances, and they will have to be very statesmanlike in order to create new space for diversity, for pluralism, for tolerance, and we must help them accomplish that.”
At the same time, Mrs Clinton stressed the importance of protecting the conscience rights of those who elect not to follow a given faith.
“As we hold up the importance of religious liberty, we have to take both words in that phrase to heart: religion and liberty,” she declared.
“And it is a powerful ideal that has been given lip service, and certainly the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] is very specific about that, but has not yet been embraced by so many around the world—people who have no faith, and people who hold to their faith with great conviction.”
Mrs Clinton's presentation, although the highest-profile one given to such a Liberty magazine dinner (they're an annual event), followed in the footsteps of other US leaders, including Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican representing Kansas, who may also be a presidential candidate in three years time. In 2003, President George W Bush sent a videotaped message to the dinner, and voiced support for Liberty magazine and the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for the maintenance of religious freedom.
There's no doubt, however, that Hillary Clinton's comments “stole the show,” with intense media interest and a packed audience. Her 25-minutes of observations and remarks drew a standing ovation, following strong declarations about the need for America to promote liberty.
“If religious freedom is to thrive in the 21st century, the United States must be a leader in that effort,” she asserted. “And there is no group that has been more focused on the issue of religious liberty than the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Often during the speech she tied her belief in religious freedom to her own faith walk, crediting parents who prayed with her and for her, as well as a church that promoted prayer. Then again, she also acknowledged that even if she'd not grown up praying, a few years in the White House—“or even a few days!” she joked—would have made her a believer in the power of prayer.
Mrs Clinton also affirmed her belief in the fundamentals of American democracy, noting, “If more nations understand that part of America's strength, its progress and its success is because we've not just a great free-market system, not just a government created by our founders who understood as much about human nature as they did about setting up governments (which is why they put in checks and balances) but because we've always cherished that space between economic activity, public governmental activity—that space where most of life takes place, the space of family, the space of faith, the space of associations, the space of religion and speech. The space where each of us can become all we were meant to be to live up to our God-given potential.”
Those sentences were as twisting as a road through the nearby Adirondack Mountains, but the destination was clear: Senator Hillary Clinton, perhaps the next “President Clinton” America will know, affirms religious freedom, and willingly and openly promotes and endorses it, both at home and abroad.