Editorial: Religious freedom rhetoric—why it matters
Executive Editor

Article Date: Aug 22, 2012

For several years, religious freedom advocates have expressed concern that a subtle rhetorical change by the Obama Administration may signal a significant policy change that will have consequences for the practice of freedom of conscience around the world. 

President Barack Obama and other members of his administration now routinely use the phrase “freedom of worship” rather than or more frequently than “freedom of religion” when describing liberty of conscience in religious matters. It’s not a distinction without a difference. 

Ironically, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have recently provided the evidence of the impact of the Obama Administration’s rhetorical change. In a July 30 address accompanying release of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, Clinton admitted religious freedom is “slipping backwards,” Baptist Press reported.

“More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom,” Clinton said. “New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom.”

The annual report—which is statutorily required as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998—catalogs the world’s worst violators of religious liberty as “countries of particular concern,” as well as other nations in which freedom of conscience is under threat.

Interestingly, the report itself does not suffer from the rhetorical ambiguity that may have contributed to the outcomes helpfully outlined in the document.

“To think, believe or doubt. To speak or pray; to gather or stand apart. Such are the movements of the mind and heart, infinitives that take us beyond the finite. Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, are inherent,” the report notes.

The report cites Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one rationale for religious freedom: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” 

Article 18 makes clear that fully orbed freedom of religion is necessary—one that is “public or private” and one in which persons are free to “manifest” their religious convictions. In contrast, “freedom of worship” much more restrictive than “freedom of religion,” religious freedom advocates have noted for several years.

In 2010, Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told Christianity Today “freedom of worship” means the right to practice faith in private or within the confines of a place of worship.

“It excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with co-religionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training,” Shea said.

The 2010 annual report of the USCIRF expressed concern about the Obama Administration’s rhetoric: “This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications.”

Some fear the Obama Administration’s change of rhetoric is an attempt to be sensitive to the Muslim world.

Shea told CT: “I’m very fearful that by building bridges, we’re actually stepping away from this fundamental principle of religious freedom. … It is so critical for Western, especially American, leaders to articulate strong defense for religious freedom and explain what that means and how it undergirds our entire civilization.” 

And now, two years after the USCIRF warned about “concrete policy implications” of the rhetorical change, the State Department’s own report makes plain the deterioration in religious freedom around the world.

In addition to the State Department’s latest report on religious freedom, the evidence of the weakening of religious liberty is clear from just a few recent headlines:

► “Can Syria’s Christians Survive,” Aug. 11, The Wall Street Journal

► “19 Killed at Central Nigeria Church,” Aug. 7, The Associated Press

► “Saudis deport Christians caught meeting,” Aug. 8, Baptist Press

► “11-year-old girl arrested in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy,” Aug. 18, The Times of India

► “Iraqi Christian Exodus from Mosul Continues Due to Unabated Violence,” Aug. 16, Open Doors press release

All of these headlines highlight the threats to Christians in the Muslim world.

And then there’s the ongoing case of Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who has lived under a death sentence for “apostasy” for more than a year unless he recants from his Christian conversion. According to International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, new charges were recently brought against Nadarkhani for “banditry and extortion,” with a trial set for Aug. 27.

Ethicist Wesley Smith sees a domestic application of the Obama Administration’s “freedom of worship” rhetoric in the controversy concerning requiring “birth control” coverage in Obamacare. 

While regulations “exempted religious employers that oppose contraception,” Smith said the religious exemptions were “drafted so narrowly that—surprise, surprise—it only protects freedom of worship. … The group health insurance covering nuns in a Catholic religious order would probably not have to cover contraception. But insurance provided by the order’s elementary school employees probably would.”

Needless to say, it would be far too simplistic to suggest that religious freedom violations today are solely or even perhaps primarily the result of a shift in rhetoric by the Obama Administration. Threats to freedom of conscience are an enduring reality of the human experience. Indeed, religious liberty was a primary rationale for those who came to America and founded our nation.

Still, rhetoric has consequences.

America’s Founding Fathers understood that the Creator gives “unalienable rights” that are “secured”—recognized and protected—by properly ordered governments. The first of these rights elaborated in our Constitution is freedom of religion. The First Amendment succinctly gets at the role of government in protecting religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted recently, “The words ‘freedom of belief’ do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words ‘freedom of worship.’ Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something its authors called ‘the free exercise’ of religion. It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair.”

Precisely correct. The rhetoric of our Founding Fathers mattered. So does the rhetoric of our current leaders. Let’s pray the Obama Administration will see in its latest religious freedom report the consequences of its poor rhetoric and recommit itself to vigorously defending freedom of religion around the world.

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