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It’s a small thing, really”the shift of a word, the coining of a new phrase. But the consequences are going to be bad, and the signal it sends of American retreat on human rights comes at a terrible moment.

Think of it this way: If you have “freedom of religion,” you can bring up your children in your faith, hold public processions, and print books. If you have only “freedom of worship” you can pray quietly in your home, as long as it remains out of public sight.

“Freedom of religion” means you can stand on a street corner and proselytize everything from Catholicism to Mormonism to the cult of the sun god Ra. “Freedom of worship” means you can be executed for public conversion away from Islam. Worship is part of religion, but it is one of the least public parts”and thus one of the least involved in actual freedom.

The first signs of national withdrawal from concern about religious liberty came in November, at a memorial service for those slain at Ft. Hood, when President Obama used the phrase “freedom of worship” where more common American political language has always used the phrase “freedom of religion.”

It seemed incidental at the time”certainly hardly anyone remarked on it”but he used the phrase again in Japan a few days later. And then again in China. It quickly became the administration’s favored formula for speaking about religious liberty. In her major foreign-policy address at Georgetown in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the phrase repeatedly, announcing that the change in language was deliberate.

President Obama has now nominated an ambassador at large for international religious freedom”eighteen months after the position should have been filled. The nominee is Suzan Johnson Cook; she is little known, but most accounts describe her as a concerned and qualified person. But her nomination finally comes just as the human-rights components of American foreign policy have clearly shifted away from religious liberty.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post , Thomas Farr argued forcefully both that all this is a retreat and that pursuit of religious liberty is vital to the security interests of the United States.

If we give in on religious liberty, we will lose credibility with oppressed peoples around the world. We give a license to the states that violate human rights. We fail to assist totalitarian states in their movement toward freedom. And, most of all, we cease to be true to ourselves”cease to be a nation that, more than any other, testifies to the compatibility of modernity and religion.

We cannot run a foreign policy on the view that the United States alone can make a success of modern religion. It’s historically inaccurate, viciously arrogant, and fundamentally immoral.

So why is the Obama administration retreating on religious liberty? The answer seems to lie in the realism that sometimes overtakes this administration”or, at least, a kind of realism in which, without being systematic, the administration makes certain small gestures that, it flatters itself, are the result of seeing of the world as it really is.

Call it gestural realism: the gestures without the content. Across the board on foreign policy”from the White House to the State Department to the UN delegation to the military”this administration believes that interaction with Muslim populations means that we cannot insist on religious freedom. Similarly, with the watering down to “freedom of worship,” this administration has signaled that we will not complain while China goes through its periodic moments of religious oppression as it panics about the massive growth of religion, particularly Christianity, within its borders.

The reason that this isn’t genuine realism about foreign policy”the reason it’s only gestural realism”is that it fails to address the terrorism that is the fundamental foreign-policy problem we face. A genuine realism would understand that the best way to deal with religious radicalism is to promote counter-currents of religious moderation. For that matter, a truly brutal and hard-headed realism would want the introduction of rival religions into closed religious societies, as a way of turning the attention of religious radicals away from the Western democracies and back toward their own cultures.

My distaste for that kind of cold-bloodedness is one reason I remain an idealist, and not a realist, in foreign policy. But this is a case where true idealism and true realism curve toward each other. The United States must push the world toward religious freedom”because it’s the moral thing to do, and also because it’s the smart thing to do.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .

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