In his Cairo speech in June of 2009, President Obama gave religious freedom a place of heightened importance in his administration’s agenda. His speech both emphasized the importance of religious freedom when considering overall human dignity and human rights, as well as acknowledged the fact that good diplomacy must take religion into consideration as a fundamental component of international engagement. Both were tremendous steps forward in how this nation engages a world facing encroaching religious fundamentalism and ever-receding religious freedom.
Why then, is his administration shrinking from a robust understanding of religious freedom in its rhetoric of late?
Recently, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been caught using the phrase “freedom of worship” in prominent speeches, rather than the “freedom of religion” the President called for in Cairo.
If the swap-out occurred only once or twice, one might appropriately conclude it was merely a rhetorical accident. However, both the President and his Secretary of State have now replaced “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship” too many times to seem inadvertent.
As Tom Farr, Professor of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the former head of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office, stated at a recent congressional hearing forecasting international religious freedom issues to watch in 2010, “Those of us in the business of sniffing out rats know that this is a rhetorical shift to watch.”
“Freedom of worship” first appeared in a high profile speech in Obama’s remarks at the memorial for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting last November, a few months after his Cairo speech. Speaking to the crowd gathered to commemorate the victims, President Obama said, “We're a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses.” Given the religious tension that marked the tragic incident, it was not an insignificant event at which to unveil a new way of referring to our First Freedom.
Shortly after his remarks at Ft. Hood, President Obama left for his trip to Asia, where he repeatedly referred to “freedom of worship,” and not once to “freedom of religion.”
Not long after his return, “freedom of worship” appeared in two prominent speeches delivered by Secretary Clinton. In her address to Georgetown University outlining the Obama Administration’s human rights agenda she used “freedom of worship” three times, “freedom of religion,” not once. About a month later, in an address to Senators on internet freedom at the Newseum, the phrase popped up in her lingo once again.
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.
Those who would limit religious practice to the cathedral and the home are the very same people who would strip the public square of any religious presence. They are working to tear down roadside memorial crosses built to commemorate fallen state troopers in Utah, to strip “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, and they recently stopped a protester from entering an art gallery because she wore a pro-life pin.
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. In Indonesia, the Constitutional Court is reviewing a law that criminalizes speech considered “blasphemous” to other faiths. Efforts to trim religion into something that fits neatly in one’s pocket is the work of dictators, not democratic leaders. So why then have our leaders taken a rhetorical scalpel to the concept of religious freedom?
This shift in semantics could have huge implications for how the United States promotes religious freedom in countries such as these, as well as how we engage in international institutions regarding the ongoing efforts to restrict religious expression around the world.
In just a few weeks, the Human Rights Council will once more review the “defamation of religions” resolution in Geneva. The resolution, passed every year at the United Nations since 1999, claims that speech deemed offensive to another faith is a violation of international law. While the resolution is relatively toothless, it provides cover for domestic blasphemy laws used to restrict proselytism and religious speech around the world. However, the Ad Hoc Committee on Complimentary Standards, a rogue UN body with a nebulous and expansive mandate, is currently reviewing a proposed amendment that would criminalize defamation of religion to the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a treaty to which the United States is a signatory.
Given that a fundamental element of any religion are truth claims that by nature may conflict with or offend those of another faith, the efforts of international institutions to restrict expression of these claims go right for the religious jugular. And in reducing freedom of religion to “freedom of worship” in its political and diplomatic pronouncements, the United States can no longer invoke the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thus weakening its ability to combat the international movement to criminalize religious speech.
This early, one is left only with conjectures as to why “freedom of worship” seems to be the favored phraseology of this administration when discussing religion of late. It could just be sloppy work coming out of someone’s press office. But rhetoric matters—particularly when one is the leader of the free world. In Secretary Clinton’s Georgetown address she said, “Freedom doesn’t come in half measures.” The Obama administration should heed its own words when it comes to religious freedom.
Ashley Samelson works in International Programs for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She blogs about her personal views on faith, feminism, and politics, at www.rogueinrouge.com.