Hillary Clinton on Religion and Church/State Separation

Whether she is elected president or not, Hillary Clinton is and will remain for some time a leading figure in the Democratic Party. Her views on matters like religion, the role of religion in government and public life, church/state separation, secularism, faith-based initiatives, reproductive choice, atheists and atheism, religion in public school, and related issues should matter to atheists. Secular atheists need to know where she really stands on religious and secular issues before they vote for her so they know exactly whom they are voting for and what long-term policies they are effectively supporting.

Religious Background: What Does Clinton Believe?

Hillary Clinton grew up in a Methodist household; she taught Methodist Sunday school like her mother, is a member of a Senate prayer group and regularly attends the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

On this basis, Hillary Clinton can be placed in the moderate to liberal wing of American Christianity, but she appears to share a number of attitudes with more conservative American Christians. Therefore, we would have to say that Clinton's liberalism is a relative matter: she's more liberal than many in America, and certainly more liberal than the Christian Right, but she has a long way to go to support truly progressive stances when it comes to religious debates.

Does Clinton Support Atheists' Equality?

It's not absolutely necessary for a devoutly religious person to look down upon atheists, but the correlation appears to be strong, and it would be understandable why.

Devoutly religious people regard their faith in their god to be of critical importance, not only to their day-to-day decisions but also in matters of moral stance. So it would be surprising if they did NOT have trouble viewing as equals those people who reject their religion or even the need for religion.

Since how Hillary Clinton consistently insists that her religion is very important to her life, atheists should wonder what she really thinks about atheists and atheism.

Let's look at examples that indicate her true feelings on these matters. 

Hillary Clinton on the Pledge of Allegiance

For atheists, a politician's position on the  Pledge of Allegiance tells us much about if a politician truly believes in political equality for all. While we won't have a  national politician oppose the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance anytime soon, the degree to which a politician defends it says a lot about their biases in this matter.

By this measure, Hillary Clinton might seem to be biased against the atheist point of view. Several times over the years, Clinton has vocally supported the idea of school children reciting the full pledge of allegiance, such as this Jan. 13, 2008 excerpt from a speech in Columbia, SC:  

“Anybody who tells you that children cannot stand up and say the pledge of allegiance in school is not telling you the truth,” she declared. “You got to understand that. It is absolutely legal and right. And I personally believe every American child should start the day saying the pledge of allegiance. I did, and I believe every child should.”

On another, more recent occasion, though, Clinton seemed less than vigorous in this belief. On May 10, 2016, when a speaker introduced her by quoting the pledge of allegiance without the key words "under god," Clinton laughed with clear amusement and did nothing to correct the speaker. 

America for Christians Only?

The idea that America is a "Christian Nation" is important for the Christian Right, who openly wish for their form of Christianity to be a guiding force in setting law, politics and culture. Therefore, it is important to atheists to understand the position of liberal politicians regarding this kind of rhetoric. 

It is obviously important to atheists for liberal Christians to consistently oppose this rhetoric, but not all do. Hillary Clinton, for example, doesn't go quite so far as to use the phrase herself, but she frequently supports the idea that America is a nation for "people of faith."

The implication seems to be that she is excluding people who don't have religious faith in gods at all. And because she has never openly embraced atheists, her position must be regarded as questionable. 

Religion in the Public Square

A popular refrain from the Christian Right is that strict church/state separation prevents religious believers from freely expressing or living out their religion in public. Atheists, of course, regard this as a dangerous position, a threat to the principle of separation of church and state.

In many ways, Hillary Clinton seems to agree with the position of the Christian Right, as when she said in  2005 that room must be made for religious believers to "live out their faith in the public square." 

While it is not exactly clear what Clinton means by this position, what she has thus far put on the public record is not reassuring to atheists. 

On Prayer in Public School

Hillary Clinton opposes state-sponsored or state-written prayers as was common practice in the past, but believes that personal and private prayers should be completely free: 

"Students may participate in individual or group prayer during the school day, as long as they do so in a non-disruptive manner and when they are not engaged in school activities or instruction" 

Hillary Clinton also believes that students should not be prevented from expressing religious beliefs in the course of open-ended school assignments. This has been a touchy issue in church/state separation, as evangelical parents encourage their children to use any opportunity to "witness" and promote their faith.

On Faith-Based Initiatives

Faith-based initiatives were an important aspect of President Bush's efforts to undermine the constitutional separation of church and state.

Hillary Clinton herself has been a strong supporter of faith-based initiatives, denying that providing funds for religious programs and indoctrination is contrary to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Thus far, religious groups have always been able to apply for and receive federal funding, but there have been restrictions on using these funds to promote religious beliefs or discriminate on the basis of religion.

Insofar as Hillary Clinton seeks to remove these hurdles, she threatens the future of church/state separation in America.

On Science and Evolution

The Christian Right attacks many aspects of science at almost every opportunity, but their primary target remains evolutionary theory. The Christian right seeks to prevent evolution from being taught in schools, 

Almost the only political defense of science comes from Democrats like Hillary Clinton. According to Clinton, no form of creationism--not even Intelligent Design creationism--should be taught as if it were science alongside evolution:

"Schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about the Bible or other scripture in the teaching of history or literature, for example."

In other words, there are possible venues for teaching about creationist beliefs, but Hillary Clinton agrees that science class is not one of them. On this issue, Hillary Clinton has been a vocal friend of the atheist position. 

On Flag Burning

In 2005, Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill that to "make it a crime to destroy a flag on federal property, intimidate anyone by burning a flag or burning someone else’s flag."

Because there are already prohibitions against burning flags belonging to other people, or to intimidate them, the real point of this legislation was the ban against burning a flag on federal property. Given that flag-burning would be a very likely form of protest conducted on federal property, it is no small matter for Hillary Clinton to openly want to ban legitimate public protest. 

While Clinton has said that she opposes a constitutional ban against all flag burning, her support of this other piece of questionable   legislation suggests a certain hostility to public speech and/or political opportunism.

On Equality for Gays

Hillary Clinton has shifted her position on gay marriage radically. Originally opposing the legalization of gay marriage in favor of adamant support for civil unions for gay couples, in 2013 Clinton came out vigorously in defense of legal marriage for all. 

Currently, Clinton is a supporter of the atheist's acceptance of gay marriage, but it is rather clear that her positions have shifted based on political winds. 

On Reproductive Rights and Abortion

Sexual liberty and autonomy are targets for the Christian Right in their "culture war" on modernity, and this makes defense of reproductive choice an automatic defense against religious authoritarianism.

Hillary Clinton strongly supports reproductive choice:

"I believe in the freedom of women to make their own decisions about the most personal and significant matters affecting their lives."

Clinton also supports general sex education and opposes abstinence-only education. However, Clinton supports bans on late-term abortions and calls abortion a "sad, tragic choice to many."

Clinton's position here, while mainly adhering to atheist views, she may not go as far as many atheists might wish on this matter. 

On Stem-Cell Research

Efforts to ban stem-cell research have fractured the Republican coalition of religious and social conservatives, but support for stem-cell research remains strong among Democrats generally.

Hillary Clinton supports lifting current bans on stem-cell research. In a 2007 conference, During her first failed campaign, Clinton said: "

When I am president, I will lift the ban on stem cell research. This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science."

On this issue, Clinton does support the general principle that politicians should put science and the well-being of the people ahead of personal ideology, including religious ideology.