Words matter. Words often hold great meaning. That is especially true when it comes to the words of our founding documents like the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. Those words are especially cherished. Yet in the past year it appears the Obama administration has been changing one key word in that sacred scroll.
Last month the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2010 report revealed grave concern about both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejecting the term “freedom of religion” for the term “freedom of worship” in public pronouncements. Why the change when the First Amendment talks specifically about our freedom of religion and not simply worship?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… – US Constitution
Last November Obama used the term “freedom of worship” at the memorial service for the victims of the Ft. Hood shooting. A few days later he did it again in speeches in both Japan and China. In December Hillary Clinton also used that terminology three times in a speech at Georgetown University and never once used the phrase “freedom of religion”. In January of this year Clinton used the “freedom of worship” term four times while addressing senators.
This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications.” – U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2010 report
The response by many religious freedom advocates is fear of what this all means. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and member of the Religious Freedom commission believes freedom of worship is limited to private beliefs and prayer but not public activity.
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. – Nina Shea
Some Christian based publications are also worried.
That’s not an inconsequential change: Freedom of worship means the ability to have church services, which is crucial, but leaves out protection for Christian schools, publications, and Christian compassionate ministries…’Freedom of religion’ means that ministries designed to help prisoners change their lives, or to help the poor enter the workforce, can teach what the Bible teaches. Under ‘freedom of worship,’ these ministries could become illegal, as they are in many parts of the world. This is a development to watch warily. – World Magazine
Some in the State Department argue the words “religion” and “worship” can be used interchangeably and there is nothing to worry about. Others aren’t so sure and see this change in terminology as a major shift by the Obama administration.
Those of us in the business of sniffing out rats know that this is a rhetorical shift to watch. – Tom Farr, Professor of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the former head of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office
This President clearly sees religion as a key part of foreign affairs when the Muslim world is involved especially. He is ultra-careful to not want to offend followers of Islam. We already know that the administration has rejected the term “radical Islam” or any similar language and refuses to admit religion plays a major roll in terrorism.
This new terminology of “freedom of worship” might be given as a sign to Muslim nations and places with Christian persecution like China that they are not going to crack down on religious persecution for minority religions in those countries. That could explain why Obama first used the term after a radical Muslim killed Americans at Ft. Hood. And it could also explain why he used the term in speeches in China and Japan.
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. – Nina Shea
Shea has it right. I’m not sure who all the Obama administration is trying to build bridges with by a shift in terminology, but it it a dangerous shift. When Obama’s folk shift terminology that always means there has been a shift in policy. They (with the exception of Vice President Biden) choose their words very carefully. The administration needs to publicly proclaim what this new policy means for Americans and for religious freedom around the world.