Obama Moves away from ‘Freedom of Religion’ toward ‘Freedom of Worship’?
In her article for “First Things” magazine, Ashley Samelson, International Programs Director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated, “To anyone who closely follows prominent discussion of religious freedom in the diplomatic and political arena, this linguistic shift is troubling: “The reason is simple. Any person of faith knows that religious exercise is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It’s about the right to dress according to one’s religious dictates, to preach openly, to evangelize, to engage in the public square. Everyone knows that religious Jews keep kosher, religious Quakers don’t go to war, and religious Muslim women wear headscarves-yet “freedom of worship” would protect none of these acts of faith.”
Let’s be clear, however; language matters when it comes to defining freedoms and limits. A shift from freedom of religion to freedom of worship moves the dialog from the world stage into the physical confines of a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. Such limitations can unleash an unbridled initiative that we have only experienced in a mild way through actions determined to remove of roadside crosses, wearing of religious t-shirts and pro-life pins as well as any initiatives of evangelization. It also could exclude our right to raise our children in our faith, the right to religious education, literature or media, the right to raise funds or organize charitable activities and the right to express religious beliefs in the normal discourse of life.
In the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration of Religious Freedom entitled “Dignitatis Humanae“, the Church summarizes this right: “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”
As we can see, the practice of religion permeates the very fabric of our lives. It cannot and should not be separated into approved and non-approved expressions. Unfortunately, such limits are being instituted across the globe. Samelson writes, “The effort to squash religion into the private sphere is on the rise around the world. “And it’s not just confined to totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia. In France, students at public schools cannot wear headscarves, yarmulkes, or large crucifixes. The European Court of Human Rights has banned crucifixes from the walls of Italian schools.”
The list of countries and limits is growing constantly.
Michelle Boorstein, religion reporter for the Washington Post, notes that “Knox Thames, director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — a Congress-controlled body tasked with monitoring religious freedom abroad – spoke at a recent briefing about the worry, reportedly saying he sees a change in lingo and that it’s not an accident.”
Human rights lawyer Nina Shea, who is a Senior Scholar at the Hudson Institute, is also concerned. “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.”
Leonardo Leo, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom made these remarks in the presentation of their 2010 Annual Report in April: “in the world of foreign policy and diplomacy, where every …
word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and interest, there is an even more important situation that could be taken by some in the world community as a signal that freedom of religion or belief is not a priority for the administration.
“USCIRF notes that since the initially strong language on religious freedom used in President Obama’s Cairo speech, presidential references to religious freedom have become rare, often replaced, at most, with references to freedom of worship. The same holds true for many of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speeches.
“This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and by officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications. Freedom of worship is only one aspect of religious freedom and a purposeful change in language could mean a much narrower view of the right, ignoring such components as religiously motivated expression and religious education as well as ignoring incursions such as discrimination in government benefits and privileges or the creation of climates of impunity, where private religiously-motivated violence isn’t prevented and punished.”
Mark Twain used to say, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” As Catholics, this is an area where we must remain vigilant. These small changes can be used to change our perception of rights and freedoms. In retrosprect, the past hundred years gives us a number of significant issues in which this has already happened to one degree or another. Abortion, contraception, marriage, the family, and gender have all been re-engineered to fashion a new worldview.
What may seem an innocent shift in language now could possibly end up as a “tipping point” for our religious freedom. Make no mistake; this is the goal and desire of the many inside and outside our current administration.
Here is the shift to which we’ve referred:
In June 2009, the president highlighted religious freedom in his Cairo speech saying, “Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”
A few months later, in November, he was delivering remarks to the crowd gathered to remember the victims of the Fort Hood shooing when he said, “We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses.”
On the heels of that speech, he then delivered another in Tokyo that same month stating, “The longing for liberty and dignity is a part of the story of all peoples. For there are certain aspirations that human beings hold in common: the freedom to speak your mind, and choose your leaders; the ability to access information, and worship how you please.”
He traveled on to China, where in speaking at a “Town Hall” with future Chinese leaders he stated, “These freedoms of expression and worship — of access to information and political participation — we believe are universal rights.”
This abrupt shift with reference to the constitutional freedom of religion was also noticed in the public discourse of Secretary Hillary Clinton. At Georgetown University in December 2009, she used the phrase three times.
“To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate. They must be free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose. In China, we call for protection of rights of minorities in Tibet and Xinxiang; for the rights to express oneself and worship freely. And when a person is too hungry or sick to work or vote or worship, she is denied a life she deserves. Freedom doesn’t come in half measures, and partial remedies cannot redress the whole problem.”
In January 2010, Clinton delivered a speech about Internet freedom at the Newseum in which she used the “freedom of worship” theme several times: “Franklin Roosevelt built on these ideas when he delivered his Four Freedoms speech in 1941. Now, at the time, Americans faced a cavalcade of crises and a crisis of confidence. But the vision of a world in which all people enjoyed freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear transcended the troubles of his day.”
[Editor’s Note: In Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech to congress on January 6, 1941, he did include term religion not worship in his list and then used “worship” later as a description – “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion– or even good business.”]
“The freedom of worship usually involves the rights of individuals to commune or not commune with their Creator. And that’s one channel of communication that does not rely on technology. But the freedom of worship also speaks to the universal right to come together with those who share your values and vision for humanity. In our history, those gatherings often took place in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Today, they may also take place on line.
“But connection technologies like the internet and social networking sites should enhance individuals’ ability to worship as they see fit, come together with people of their own faith, and learn more about the beliefs of others. We must work to advance the freedom of worship online just as we do in other areas of life.”
Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and the CEO/Associate Publisher for the Northern Virginia Local Edition of Catholic Online (http://virginia.catholic.org). He is a former Archbishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who laid aside that ministry to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.