RELIGIOUS POLICY OF THE U.S.
PRESIDENT AND CONGRESS, 2000-2003
The following article appeared in Newsroom religious
news service on 2000-DEC-13. It is reprinted by permission.
U.S. political divide confronts next president's religion
Regardless of whether the next president of the United States
is Texas Governor George Bush or Vice President Al Gore,
division among the electorate and in Congress makes it more
difficult for the incoming administration to set an agenda for
religion issues on both national and international fronts,
scholars and activists contend.
"The next administration will have to be able to say to
the nation, ‘We (Americans) are not enemies, we’re
diverse,’ " argued Bill Merrell, vice president for
convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s
executive committee. "This will help the American people
see the unity beneath the surface of diversity."
Elliott Mincberg, vice president
and general counsel for People for the American Way, emphasized
the importance of "common ground" efforts on the part
of the next president as courts and legislatures continue to
coax workable solutions to conflict over domestic religion
policy. He pointed to President Bill Clinton’s record as one a
future administration might do well to emulate.
Clinton "set a model demonstrating that positive things
can be done" in the area of religion, Mincberg remarked,
noting the issuance of presidential guidelines on religious
expression both in public schools and in the federal workplace.
"...What the Clinton administration did ... was use the
bully pulpit, to use the phrase of one (presidential) candidate,
to unite and not divide," to bring people together on the
issue(s). I hope the future administration will proceed along
that kind of line."
Citing among other things the outgoing president’s
"ability to reach across religious lines," Rabbi David
Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed
Judaism, argued that Clinton had proved himself "one of the
finest presidents in terms of expansion of religious protection
and freedom since James Madison."
Others, however, remain unenamored with Clinton’s approach
to religion issues.
"The mood or tone set by the Clinton
administration," contended Merrell of the SBC,
"implies certain kinds of speech are not tolerated if
they’re not supportive of what are considered liberal
issues like same-sex marriage and abortion...Speech
directed at the right wing has resulted in the vilifying of
religious people, and that’s unacceptable...setting one
segment of the population against another is not
honorable." The Southern Baptist Convention does not
consider itself part of the right wing, he said.
Merrell argued that the next president would need to set a
high moral tone for the nation in both speech and behavior, and
promote the value of human life. "Moral influence
accompanied by applications of such laws that are appropriate
can change a place," he said.
Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis and an
informal adviser to Texas Governor George W. Bush on Catholic
issues during the campaign, claimed that while "Clinton has
been willing to admit religion (into public discourse) ... it is
religion …without any moral teeth. It is all about tolerance
and good feeling for diversity." In a new administration,
Hudson posited, "there must be a general reversing of
pressure to eliminate religion from the public square and an
understanding that society profits when religion -- religious
symbols and a religious message -- makes its way" into the
Arguing that efforts to "make the public square
naked" of religious expression to protect religious
minorities are "wrongheaded," University of Richmond
law professor Azizah Al-Hibri pointed out that such an
"approach doesn’t appreciate the pluralistic nature of
American society in which everybody should get to say something.
We should protect minority religions as the majority religion
makes its voice heard, rather than making society so secular
that even the minorities feel uncomfortable."
While Al-Hibri did not comment on Clinton’s record in this
area, she argued that the 2000 presidential election only
magnified the national divide over how faith should figure into
U.S. policy. Americans, she said, have proven to be "on the
one hand staunchly secularist and on the other more willing to
lower the wall of separation between church and state so as to
include faith in the public square." She called on the next
administration to lead the country in a conversation about
religion’s place in public life in light of what she perceives
as America’s increasing spirituality.
Government cooperation with religious charity organizations
looks to be one of the ascendant religious liberty issues in the
coming year regardless of who gets into office, observers on
both sides say. Both presidential candidates have addressed the
issue, referred to as "charitable choice" after a
provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that allows the
government to give money to religious institutions as long as
the resources are not used to force individuals to participate
in religious practices.
Under the banner of "compassionate
Bush aggressively administered charitable choice in Texas; Vice
President Al Gore has vocalized his support for the provision.
Debate centers around whether government funding should go to
what are called "pervasively sectarian" institutions
and what sort of safeguards should be established to ensure
freedom of conscience for individuals receiving charity. The
American Jewish Committee is working with other organizations to
put together a consensus statement on the issue and to delineate
the arguments on both sides.
Looking to other religion issues, AJC legislative director
and counsel Richard Foltin noted a divided Congress would make
it difficult to predict the fate of any one side’s agenda.
"The question will be, how does the new president deal
with a Congress that’s evenly split," Foltin said. He
argued that issues like school voucher programs and education
savings accounts, both of which the AJC opposes, would be
difficult even for a marked majority to pass. "... None of
these (religion) issues breaks down cleanly between Republicans
and Democrats," he said.
Still, a Republican legislative agenda on religion issues
will be of interest should Bush take the White House and give
Republicans control of both it and Congress for the first time
in nearly 50 years, posited the Religious Action Center’s
"We’ll see whether they’ll try to ram through things
of fundamental concern to key constituencies in their party," he said. For instance, the religious right, he
claimed, wants "nothing more" than to see what is
known as the Istook, or Religious Freedom, amendment to the U.S.
Originally introduced in 1997, the RFA would open the door to
greater maneuverability in the area of public school prayer. The
amendment states that while the government may not prescribe
prayers or compel or require people to pray, "the people's
right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs,
heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools,
shall not be infringed."
Christian Legal Society senior legal counsel Kim Colby
speculated that "with margins as close as they are in the
House and Senate," Istook’s amendment, if introduced,
would probably not get very far. "I can’t see it being
given serious attention when there are many other difficult
things for (Congress) to deal with. Why go into a fight you
would be unlikely to win and one that would be messy?"
In the area of foreign policy, many scholars believe the
Clinton administration has done well to integrate religious
freedom concerns in America’s dealings with other nations,
especially in the wake of the International Religious Freedom
Act of 1998, which created the U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom and position of religious freedom
ambassador-at-large, among other structures within the U.S.
State Department meant to track and promote religious freedom
around the world.
In particular, current commission chair Elliott Abrams
praised the two annual reports on religious freedom released to
date by the State Department as required by the 1998 act.
"The report is an authoritative volume of useful
information that bespeaks a lot of activity on the part of our
embassies," he said. "However, we have not as yet been
able to integrate our desire to promote religious freedom into
foreign policy." U.S. policy toward China, for instance,
does not reflect religious freedom concerns at present, he
In order to expand America’s promotion of religious
freedom, Abrams argued, a future administration would need to
bring to the table "a deep personal commitment on the part
of leading officials."
Saperstein, who also serves on the commission, contended that
an expansion of religion’s role in foreign policy would
include priorities such as raising the issue of religious
freedom systematically in U.S. dealings with other nations;
developing a "comprehensive strategy to get other nations
to join us" in our efforts; "getting the (State
Department) report into the hands of foreign service officers in
other nations; and seeking coalitions to deal with issues in
other countries that are problematic."
He said he assumed a Gore administration likely would
continue to promote religious freedom concerns in the direction
set by the previous administration as encouraged by the 1998
act. He added that he was "not at all clear" how a
Bush administration might prioritize religious freedom issues.
University of Richmond’s Al-Hibri, also founder of
Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, urged the incoming
administration to ensure that a multitude of voices are included
in dialogue and fact-finding about international religious
freedom issues and pertinent policy-making decisions.
She observed that the Clinton administration had reached out
to the American Muslim community in symbolic ways, for instance,
initiating some conversation with Muslim leaders. "This is
a modest beginning," she offered. "But an
administration really concerned could follow up these efforts
more substantively, which would be good for America."
American Muslim Dr. Laila Al-Marayati
serves on the five-member U.S. Commission on International
"The way we live together at home will be reflected in
what we do vis a vis other nations," Al-Hibri added.
As the U.S. expands its dealings with other nations over
concerns about religious freedom, it is important to be "as
balanced in our judgments as we can," offered Doug
Johnston, president and founder of the International Center for
Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., even as practices
that demand criticism or condemnation present themselves. An
incoming administration, he said, should strive to recognize any
positive steps countries may be taking.
"Other countries don’t like being beaten over the
head, but it becomes far more palatable if we also recognize any
good things they may be doing."
He added that both presidential candidates had cited as
prospective advisers individuals who "grew up under a
long-standing paradigm of international relations, which has to
do with maximizing power and all but totally ignores the
passions religion generates and the actions that flow from those
"While it is now accepted that religious freedom is a
touchstone of U.S. foreign policy," Johnston argued,
"it is incumbent upon policy makers to incorporate more
fully in their deliberations religious and other cultural
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