Lying to the Choir: Jeb Bush and GOP Distort Hillary on Religion

By Tom Watson

In more than two decades of work fighting for the civil, social and economic rights of women, Hillary Clinton has often faced down religious extremism. So when Republicans seized on a single line of her inspiring speech in April on women’s rights to claim she was demanding they change their religious beliefs – a specious charge – the Clinton campaign hit back, and rightfully so.

“Hillary Clinton has spoken out for decades against extremists who pervert the world’s great religions to justify brutality against women and girls. That is what Republicans are attacking her for,” said campaign chair John Podesta to BuzzFeed (quoted in this excellent article by Rosie Gray).

“ISIS claims their religious faith justifies forcing Yazidi women in Iraq into sexual slavery. Does Gov. Bush think we should respect that practice? The Taliban torture women in Afghanistan in the name of their twisted version of Islam. Does Gov. Jindal think that is acceptable? What about forced marriages or throwing acid in women’s faces?”

“If Republicans think standing up to these atrocities is part of Hillary Clinton’s progressive agenda, we are proud to agree. As a woman of faith herself, she won’t hesitate to condemn those who distort religious beliefs to justify barbaric actions. Such distortions are a grave affront to both the girls and women who are being persecuted, as well as the religions these barbarians attempt to use as cover for these heinous acts.”

As a veteran Hillary watcher – and as a journalist who has covered philanthropy and global causes for 15 years – I’ve seen Hillary many times in situations where religious freedom conflicts with religious customs. No one in recent American history, in my view, has done a better job navigating a course that demands social justice but respects religious views and regional culture. Indeed, Hillary is a master at leveraging change while respecting people of faith, and that includes faiths of all the corners of the planet.

For Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and their cynical right wing echo chamber to use that record of accomplishment – that unparalleled wisdom and hard-earned expertise, frankly – to somehow claim that Hillary doesn’t respect their own American form of Christianity? Well folks, that’s as low as politics gets in the context of religion.

Salon’s Joan Walsh covered this story earlier in the week before anyone else and she was critical of the media’s reaction to Bush’s distorted claim:

“When Jeb Bush claimed Hillary Clinton said that if religious Americans oppose progressive policies, their religious beliefs “have to be changed,” in his campaign kickoff speech Monday, I assumed he was misrepresenting his Democratic rival, and that the media would point it out. But he got in the hilarious juvenile ‘That’s what she said!’ joke, and that’s all reporters talked about.”

Hilarious. Except that millions of women and girls around the world exist in virtual bondage, relegated to the status of human livestock, denied political and economic participation in their societies. Yeah, that’s what she said alright.

That “she” is, of course, Hillary Clinton, and as Joan points out, she was really “talking about countries where girls don’t go to high school, where domestic violence is legal, where high maternal mortality rates are tolerated."

Here is what Hillary really said in that speech on women’s rights, which was one of the most inspiring of this early presidential season so far:

Yes, we’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary school, but secondary school remains out of reach for so many girls around the world.

Yes, we’ve increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence, but still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books, and an estimated one in three women still experience violence.

Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.

All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced.  Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper.  Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will.  And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.

As I have said and as I believe, the advancement of the full participation of women and girls at every aspect of their societies is the great unfinished business of the 21st century, and not just for women but for everyone — and not just in far away countries but right here in the United States.

Let’s see the vast Republican field get behind that kind of freedom agenda.


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.