Dinner Highlights - 2005

< Dinner Highlights

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton

On January 21, 2009, Hillary Clinton was sworn in as the 67th Secretary of State of the United States of America. She previously made history as the first First Lady elected to the United States Senate, to which she was elected in 2000, and the first woman elected statewide in New York. During her tenure in the Senate, Hillary Clinton served on the Armed Services Committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Budget Committee and the Select Committee on Aging. In 2007 she ran an historic campaign for President.

Secretary Clinton made a case for both freedom of religion and the right not to choose religion at the 2005 Religious Liberty Dinner. Calling the Seventh-day Adventist Church a “vital force” for religious freedom at home and abroad, Clinton pointed out that “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 obligations to make space for nonbelievers.”


An address given by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 3rd annual Liberty Awards Banquet.

Thank you and good evening and welcome to those who have not been here before to this beautiful room in the Russell Senate Office Building, which is part of the Capitol complex. It is 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 (Standish) for that introduction. He and I met about a year and half or two (years) ago now, and we have been working together on behalf of religious freedom issues and I was delighted when I was asked, some months ago, to speak here this evening. I know that you’ve had 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’s a wonderful tribute to this dinner and to the cause that it represents. So, to everyone who is responsible for starting this annual event and continuing it, I am very grateful.

There are so many people here whom I have known, that I have worked with in the past. I particularly want to 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.

To all of you, it is so appropriate that this dinner be held under the auspices of the SDA Church. With 14 million church members worldwide and one million here in the United States, you understand very well the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. And it is you 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 world you do for people in need, for people here in this country and indeed around the world. Your health care system, something that 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 that I had a few things to say about health care about a decade ago – and I still have the scars to show 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, often cannot get access to the care that they so deserve. 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. SDA in Pearl River, …

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 was very kind in his introduction to talk about the work that I’ve 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’s in Rome with President [George W.] Bush and former President [George H.W.] Bush to attend the services being held, and 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.

Earlier today I spoke to the Orthodox Union, which is the association of Orthodox Jews in the United States. And we were speaking actually about some of these same subjects. And as I was leaving, a rabbi there followed me out and said I wanted to tell you a story: There’s 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 the concentration camps. And this child then 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 stabilised in Poland, this family took the young boy to be baptised in the local Catholic Church. And presented this child for baptism, and the priest said, well tell me about this child; he was obviously older than the usual baby would be for baptism. And the parents explained his story, and the priest said, but do we know what his parents would have intended for him? And the priest was the future pope.

And I tell that story because I think that 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.

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. 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 a letter from the members of a Rhode Island synagogue, looking for assurance that Jews in America would enjoy religious freedom. And 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."

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. So 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.

And so I think it’s imperative that in the twenty-first century, we continue to search deeply, examine our own consciences 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 to 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 penalised 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. 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 (Standish) presented, that three members of the church are facing discharge, being fired because of their religious beliefs (daily), 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 line 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 and Afghanistan, Kuwait and Pakistan and India, and I was both heartened by the elections in Iraq, the elections in Afghanistan, the progress that is being made, and sobered by the challenges that the people there confront. And, those challenges there 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 of my predecessors and particular favorites in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped to draft the UN UDHR. It’s good to be reminded that following the horrors of World War II, Art. 18 of that Declaration flatly establishes freedom of religion as a basic, inalienable right of all people. It states: "Everyone – everyone – has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, also alone or in company with others, in public or private, to manifest religion or 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 space for non-believers. You know someone asked me some years ago if I were a praying person, and I said I was fortunate in having been raised by parents who prayed and grew up in a church that from the earliest years emphasised 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 the particular time of our tenure in the White House, so I quickly added that had I not been a praying person, then a few years 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. 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.

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 of 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, some, you know 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. Now 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 designation 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 commitments 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 still is the case in China … it was a church that was state sanctioned, but it was a church for believers. And we were able to make a point about the necessity for the government of China to recognise that at any time in history but particularly now, 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 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom [and] 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 world of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, [to] which I was honored to be appointed upon my election to the Senate, is an independent U.S. 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 and those who stand on the front lines of 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. And 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 have tried to do in Northern Ireland, I remember so well holding a large meeting in Belfast to which we invited Protestant and Catholic leaders. And they said that for many of them it was the first time that they had ever been in a room together.

And as we began to talk, it was awkward at first, but slowly they began to find common ground. And the moment it crystallised for me was when one woman, and I didn’t know what tradition she was (from) said 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.

So part of America’s challenge and obligation in the 21st is to continue to exemplify religious freedom and liberty here at home. To continue to create the necessary framework of respect for our 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 as a government, but individually, as so many of you do, 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 that are here, 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 because we have 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 have 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.

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 the religious liberty we take for granted in our country stays strong and can be shared with so many millions more around the world.