On April 7, 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) addressed the Seventh-day Adventist Church and invited guests from a wide range of religious traditions at the denomination’s annual religious liberty dinner. She posted a transcript of her remarks on her Senate website.
Photo Credit: Seventh-day Adventist Church
It’s a special honor for me to have been asked to speak here tonight. I greatly admire the work that so many of you do both as a vocation and an avocation on behalf of religious liberty, and it is a great pleasure to be among you.
I want to thank James for that introduction. He and I met about a year and half or two ago, and we have been working together on behalf religious freedom issues. And I was delighted when I was asked some months ago to speak here this evening. I know that you have a series of speakers, this is the third annual dinner, and it’s also been a great pleasure to welcome a new Senate chaplain, Dr. Barry Black, who is a Seventh Day Adventist, and to have that presence in our midst after his distinguished career in the military. There are so many of you who are from other countries who I have had the opportunity to greet in just the time that I’ve been here, and I think that is a wonderful tribute to this dinner and to the cause that it represents.
To everyone who is responsible for starting this annual event and continuing it, I am very grateful. There are so many people here who I know and some who I have worked with in the past. I particularly want to acknowledge and thank everyone associated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, with the Church’s World, with the Liberty Magazine, the International Religious Liberty Association, and of course the World Headquarters.
And to all of you, it is so appropriate that this event been held under the auspices of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. With 14 million church members worldwide, and 1 million here in the United States, you understand very well the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It is your work often on the front lines of religious liberty that helps to tell the rest of the world the story of those who are oppressed and in so many ways denied their rights to live and believe as they choose. I also want to thank the church for the work you do for people in need here in our country and indeed around the world. Your health care system, something I care deeply about is a great example of living your faith, running more than 600 health care institutions around the world, including 52 hospitals here in the United States. Some of you may remember I had a few things to say about health care about a decade ago, and I still have the scars to show for that, but there isn’t a more important mission than trying to care for the physical and mental needs of those who are often left out of our health care system, who often can not get access to the care that they so deserve. And so for all of the work here and around the world, I thank you.
Now much of that work is very tangible in my life as a senator. I know just a few weeks ago a Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Pearl River, NY, I don’t know if anyone is here from Pearl River, came together to recognize the extraordinary efforts that church members have made on behalf on hunger and the work that had been done to feed the hungry. That particular church’s soup kitchen and food pantry served over 1800 children, more than 2100 adults, and I thought that it was so fitting and appropriate that they would come and give thanks for their ability to provide that necessary service to so many people. The work that is done is often quiet without really drawing attention to one’s self, but believe me it is appreciated and I personally want to thank you.
Now as we look at this important issue of religious liberty, I wanted to put it into a broader context because from my perspective religious liberty is one of the most important issues on the world’s agenda today. James [Standish] was very kind in his introduction to talk about the work that I have tried to do, but it is a small part of the work that goes on every day throughout our country and the world. And of course we know that we lost a great force for religious tolerance and understanding with the passing of the Pope. I just spoke to my husband who is in Rome with President Bush and former President Bush to attend the services that are being held. And I think that the outpouring of affection and appreciation for John Paul II is a reflection of the yearning that 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.
Earlier today I spoke to the Orthodox Union, which is the association of Orthodox Jews in the United States, and we were speaking about the some of the same subjects. As I was leaving, a Rabbi there followed me out and said, “I want to tell you a story. There is a man in my congregation who, as a young baby, was given up by his Jewish parents to Catholics in Poland in order to save him from concentration camps. This child had lived with this family that had taken him in and treated him as one of their own. And some years later after the war, after things had settled down and stabilized in Poland, this family took the young boy to be baptized in the local Catholic Church, and presented the child for baptism and the priest said, ‘Well tell me about this child.’ He was obviously older than a usual baby would be for baptism. And the parents explained the story, and the priest said, ‘But do we know what his parents would have intended for him?’ And the priest was the future Pope.”
I tell that story because I think that when John Paul II throughout his entire life was a priest and servant of the Catholic Church, he spoke about religious freedom as a point of reference for other fundamental rights and in some ways that’s a measure of him, 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. 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, I would argue, has been the exemplar of religious freedom and tolerance amongst a diverse population continues to be so. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] It’s our responsibility to think of ways each of us can further religious liberty and freedom.[/pullquote]
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. In fact, in 1790, just one year after our constitution was ratified, President Washington received letters from the members of a Rhode Island synagogue looking for assurance that Jews in America would enjoy religious freedom. President Washington replied with a guarantee that not only that 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, and I quote from President Washington, “Give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” This was an extraordinary moment in history, wasn’t it? 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.
While our history is not perfect, as no human history can be, we do have a record of consistent progress and a striving to live up to the challenge that our founders presented us. So I think it’s imperative that in the 21st century we continue to search deeply, examine our own consciousness about what religious liberty means today. What does freedom of thought, and belief, and conscience mean? The Workplace Religious Freedom Act which is currently pending in the Senate has been submitted for consideration in the Senate every year since 1997. I have been very proud to co-sponsor it ever since I have been a Senator. You know that this law would protect employees from being penalized by their employers for taking time off from their work to observe religious holidays, or Sabbaths, or being discriminated against in their workplace on account of religiously required clothing. [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The Workplace Religious Freedom Act which is currently pending in the Senate has been submitted for consideration in the Senate every year since 1997. I have been very proud to co-sponsor it ever since I have been a Senator.[/pullquote]
I know that the Seventh Day Adventist Church suffers from this discrimination on a regular basis. I was not aware of the statistic that James presented that 3 members of the church are facing discharge each day, being fired because of their religious beliefs, but we know that there are often many conflicts. You know, back in 1997, in the face of the continuing opposition to this act, my husband as President issued guidelines on religious exercise and religious expression in the federal workplace, which enhanced the protections that were available to those who worked in the federal government. But this legislation would extend those protections to everyone, and that is what we are seeking and we’re going to continue to work on its behalf and I hope that this year will be the year, James, when we are successful in passing this. It is in the mind of the assurance that President Washington gave so many years ago.
There are many challenges to religious freedom around the world. I just came back a few weeks ago from my second trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Pakistan and India. I was both heartened by the elections in Iraq, and the elections in Afghanistan, with the progress being made and sobered with the challenges that the people there confront, and those challenges are extraordinarily difficult. And we must hope and we must support their efforts to create a democratic government that does protect religious freedom. It will be a very important issue in the upcoming constitutional deliberations in Iraq, as they attempt to fashion a constitution, a system of government that provides for their beliefs and their tenets of faith, but does so in a context of respect for others. It 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.
Other places in the world today are so far from the dream of one my predecessors and particular favorites in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s good to be reminded that following the horrors of WWII, Article 18 of that Declaration flatly establishes freedom of religion as a basic inalienable right of all people. It states: “Everyone, everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom also alone or in a community with others, in public or private to manifest religion and belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
Those of us who are people of faith are so aware of what that means in our lives that it is sometimes a challenge for us to understand our obligation to create a space for non-believers. Someone asked me some years ago if I were a praying person, and I said I was fortunate to have be raised by parents who prayed, and grew up in a church that from the earliest years emphasized the importance of prayer. I remember seeing my late father on his knees every night by the side of his bed as well as his watching me by the side of mine.
But that was asked during particular time of our tenure at the White House and so I quickly added that, had I not been a praying person, a few years, maybe a few days, in the White House, maybe a few days in the White House, would have turned me into one. So I think that as we hold up the importance of religious liberty we have to take both words in that phrase to heart, religion and liberty. It is a powerful ideal that has been given lip service and certainly the Universal Declaration 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.
A number of additional agreements guaranteeing religious freedom have been reached, including the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. And amid all these international agreements I think it has been notable that the United States has played a major role in making sure that these agreements, these statements of belief have some meat, have some actionable implementable policies behind them. One of the major accomplishments in the execution of this responsibility occurred in 1998 when the Congress passed and my husband signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act. That Act incorporated, as a foundational element of United States foreign policy, the ideals of religious freedom on which our own nation was founded. And it required our government to designate a nation as a Country of Particular Concern if that nation’s government had either engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom defined as systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion as outlined in international human rights documents. That helped to put the spotlight on countries that were not living up to the ideals or even their stated commitment in their own documents to religious freedom.
I remember when we went on a presidential trip to China; we went to a church for church services and it was, as unfortunately it’s still the case in China, Harry Wu who is here today, a man of great courage in the struggle for human rights in China, it was a church that was state sanctioned but it was still a church for believers. And we were able to make a point about the necessity for the government of China to begin to recognize in any time in history, but particularly now, that one cannot contain, one cannot destroy the spirit inside that yearns for a connection, for a belief, for being a member of a congregation of believers.
We also created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. We have members of that Commission and former members here, and the Commission’s annual report is a powerful instrument, as it surveys the state of religious freedom around the world. And the work of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe known as the Helsinki Commission, which I was honored to be appointed to after my election to the Senate, is an independent US government agency created in 1976, and a major part of its charge is to monitor the state of religious freedom around the world and to advocate for its expansion.
So we are working and we are making progress, and we know that this is an ongoing obligation. There is still much work to be done, and I hope that we will continue to be motivated with the leadership and the inspiration of so many of you, those who stand on the front lines in the struggle for religious freedom.
My work as First Lady and as Senator have given me the privilege to travel to many of the countries that are represented here, and so often the intractable problems that I see are ones between people that divide on religious lines. It is a struggle to have a dialogue with people who see each other so differently.
To choose an example from the Christian community in the work that my husband and I did in Northern Ireland, I remember so well holding a large meeting in Belfast in which we invited Protestant and Catholic leaders. They said that for many of them it was the first time that they had ever been in a room together. As we began to talk, it was awkward at first, but slowly they began to find common ground and the moment that it crystallized for me when one woman, and I didn’t know what tradition she was, said that every time her husband left the house she was afraid he would not return alive. And a woman of the other tradition immediately said, “That’s how I feel too.”
Part of America’s challenge and obligation in the 21st century is to continue to exemplify religious freedom and liberty here at home. To continue to create the necessary framework for respect for diversity, and to hold precious that space in which we are free to believe or not to believe, and to take that message not just through our government but individually the way that so many of you do around the world.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If religious freedom is to thrive in the 21st century, the United States must be a leader in that effort.[/pullquote]If religious freedom is to thrive in the 21st century, the United States must be a leader in that effort. And there is no group that has been more focused on the issue of religious liberty than the Seventh Day Adventist Church. You and the other faiths represented here, the other denominations present, understand something that is still not accepted, that we can thrive as a community of faith and faiths if we are given the opportunity, and if more nations understand that part of America’s strength, its progress, and its success is not just that we have 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 have always cherished that space between economic activity and 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 one of us can become all we were meant to be to live up to our God-given potential. I am honored to be with you tonight, and I am grateful for your leadership in the most important undertaking there is, to free the human spirit and make sure that the religious liberty that we take for granted in our country stays strong and can be shared with so many millions more around the world.
If religious freedom is to thrive in the 21st century, the United States must be a leader in that effort. And there is no group that has been more focused on the issue of religious liberty than the Seventh Day Adventist Church. You and the other faiths represented here, the other denominations present, understand something that is still not accepted, that we can thrive as a community of faith and faiths if we are given the opportunity, and if more nations understand that part of America’s strength, its progress, and its success is not just that we have 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 have always cherished that space between economic activity and 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 one of us can become all we were meant to be to live up to our God-given potential. I am honored to be with you tonight, and I am grateful for your leadership in the most important undertaking there is, to free the human spirit and make sure that the religious liberty that we take for granted in our country stays strong and can be shared with so many millions more around the world.
Thank you very much.