Christianity Today: New religious freedom rhetoric within the Obama administration draws concern

Posted by Kendall Harmon

"Freedom of worship" has recently replaced the phrase "freedom of religion" in public pronouncements from the Obama administration. Experts are concerned that the new rhetoric may signal a policy change.

"Freedom of worship" first appeared in President Obama's November remarks at the memorial service for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting. Days later, he referred to worship rather than religion in speeches in Japan and China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the shift in language. In a December speech at Georgetown University, she used "freedom of worship" three times but "freedom of religion" not at all. While addressing senators in January, she referred to "freedom of worship" four times and "freedom of religion" once when quoting an earlier Obama speech.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted the shift in its 2010 annual report. "This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications," the report said.

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Filed under: * Culture-WatchLaw & Legal IssuesReligion & Culture* Economics, PoliticsPolitics in GeneralOffice of the PresidentPresident Barack Obama

12 Comments
Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:40 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Br. Michael wrote:

Freedom of worship means the right to pray within the confines of a place of worship or to privately believe, said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and member of the commission. “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.”

Just like “freedom of speech”.  You have great freedom when speech is likely to be ineffective (in the park, for example), but effective speech (by people with the means to make sure their message is really heard) must be limited, if not prohibited, by government.

June 24, 6:31 am | [comment link]
2. j.m.c. wrote:

This would be like dropping the word “freedom of speech” in favor of “freedom to talk” - “freedom to talk” emphasizing that no one should ever be asked simply to “shut up,” and that one should be permitted to talk to anyone one wants to; but then censoring media and all non-private speech.

June 24, 7:17 am | [comment link]
3. LumenChristie wrote:

Obama promised change.  Well, the change is coming at us.

The highly circumscribed “freedom to worship” was perfectly displayed in the Soviet Union and East Germany.  Do we want to live in their kind of world?

The thing is, that such a “Change” does not happen over night; it happens incrementally, slowly, an inch at a time.  Almost imperceptibly. And, at each step people are told that there is nothing to worry about.  Those who protest are told that they are alarmist, over-reacting or blocking Progress.  By the time the water has heated up enough to boil the frog, it is way too late.

People who look far down the road and say, “The train is coming!” are very often laughed at.

This train is coming unless we take the temperature of the water now, and stand up for what America was founded upon.  We have full freedom to express our Faith in public in any way we choose.  When was the last time your town allowed you to put up a Christmas creche in the park?  Why should it not be ok?  Why were the 10 Commandments taken off that court house wall?  Why should we think of this as being somehow “Fair”?

Wake up.  Stand up.  Now.

June 24, 8:15 am | [comment link]
4. fishsticks wrote:

#3, LumenChristie:
We all have the freedom to express our respective faiths, but one person’s freedom must necessarily yield where it begins to infringe upon someone else’s freedom.  Hyperbolic hyperbole: If my faith instructed me to beat the tar out of short people, I wouldn’t be free to do that because it would infringe upon short people’s right to go about their lives without suffering random, severe beatings.  More realistic hypothetical: I am free to be a Christian, but I am not free to: (a) spend taxpayers’ money on decorations celebrating my faith’s most holy days, or (b) have some of the basic ground-rules of my faith posted on the courthouse wall.

I think, generally speaking, the concerns with things like Christmas decorations on public property are focused more on public money paying for them (labor for setting up and taking down, storage, maintenance, electricity for lights, etc.) and less on the locations (town square, public park, etc.)  That said, there are always exceptions…

Perhaps you will be an exception, but in my experience, people who are all gung-ho for public (and/or publicly-funded) Christmas decorations tend not to be equally in favor of having the town sponsor equivalent, say, Diwali decorations for the local Hindu population.  What about decorations to celebrate an Islamic holiday – think that would go over well?  And then where do you stop?  There are literally thousands of religions in the world; how do you suggest we set about deciding which are legitimate objects of public funding and location, and which aren’t?  More importantly, how do you suggest we do that without endorsing some and not others?

The Ten Commandments were taken down because they were determined to be an example of the government (via the judicial branch) impermissibly endorsing a particular religion, which is no longer acceptable under the Constitution.  (Way, way back in the day, it was ok, but that hasn’t been the case for quite a long time.)

I am a Christian, and a cradle Episcopalian – and quite an orthodox one, if I do say so myself.  But it has honestly never occurred to me to expect that my city should decorate to celebrate certain days simply because I believe them to be holy.  I freely and joyfully decorate my home, and the congregation does the same for our parish, but why on earth should someone else – who may or may not share my faith – have to decorate to celebrate my holiday?  That’s just something I’ve never understood.

June 24, 3:05 pm | [comment link]
5. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Nina Shea is right to sound the alarm here.  I fully agree that this is a serious potential problem and a very troubling and worrisome development.

As one way of waking up to the danger here, as #3 urged us to do, I suggest regular visiting of the IRD website.  The Institute for Religion and Democracy has long been a champion of religous liberty around the world.

David Handy+

June 24, 3:56 pm | [comment link]
6. Jon wrote:

#3 (and possibly David in #5) is misreading the article.  No one interviewed in the article (including Nina Shea, the CT writer, Thomas Farr, etc.) thinks that Obama is implementing a stealth campaign to change the state of religious freedom in America.

The article is about Obama’s foreign policy—does the shift in language signal a shift away from pushing other nations, especially those in the Middle East and the Third World, to adopt our historic commitment to religious freedom, and toward America “not interfering with their internal matters”?

If David finds that troubling, purely because he wants America to push China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. to permit much more religious freedom, I totally understand.  But I just wanted to clarify for the thread that this is what the article is about—nobody in the article thinks America is going to lose its liberties.

June 24, 5:51 pm | [comment link]
7. LumenChristie wrote:

# 6 Jon wrote: 

No one interviewed in the article (including Nina Shea, the CT writer, Thomas Farr, etc.) thinks that Obama is implementing a stealth campaign to change the state of religious freedom in America.

Perhaps the people involved in the article have a different focus for their main interest.  Our relationship with Islamic countries has definitely shifted under Obama.  This is a legitimate concern.

However—the very nub of the problem is that no one thinks any kind of campaign is being implemented.  it is not that Obama or his advisors sat down one morning and said to each other, “Hey! why don’t we start stealthily limiting religious freedom.”  It is rather that minimizing or altogether eliminating religion, and particularly the ability to express their religious commitments has long been a major goal of Progressives and their whole agenda.  I don’t think there is a whole lot of doubt that the Obama administration is pretty clearly Progressivist.

That is something we all need to be careful about.

And yes, checking in with the IRD is certainly a good idea.

June 24, 9:01 pm | [comment link]
8. upnorfjoel wrote:

B.O. has already stated his opinion that we are not a Christian nation.  No one should be surprised about this “freedom of worship” speak that he has obviously dictated to his toadies. 
He means freedom to worship anything….even him!

June 24, 9:28 pm | [comment link]
9. Jon wrote:

#7… I did check in with IRD earlier today.  Under their Issues menu it lists their main concerns.  One of them is “Religious Liberty.”  Under that heading they frame their concerns entirely in terms of how people in countries OUTSIDE the United States have restricted liberties.

Is it really true that progressives in the US wish to “eliminate” the ability of people “to express their religious commitments”?  If true, it means that progressives favor a police state where a Christian or Jew or Muslim would be imprisoned for mentioning to anyone their belief in God. 

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit unfair of an unfair characterization?  And perhaps even a bit crazy—the sort of thing that Grassy Knoll fans and other conspiracy theorists think about?

It might be easier to discuss your worries if you could state them very concretely.  What specifically do you anticipate happening in the next 20 years in the US that would restrict your ability to discuss your religious views, go to church, meet with other Christians, read religious books, etc. etc.

One of the striking things in fact about the last 15 years in the US is how de facto religious freedom has grown—via the web.  T19 is an example of just that!  Religious people have many more opportunities today to freely announce their views to a vastly larger audience, find like minded people, debate with those who differ from them, raise money, distribute literature, and so on then they did in 1995.

June 24, 9:34 pm | [comment link]
10. fishsticks wrote:

#8, upnorfjoel:  I think, for the millions of non-Christians in the US—Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, Muslims, Sikhs, etc., etc.—the president saying that this isn’t a Christian nation is probably a welcome thing.  Because, frankly, him saying that it is would be an attempt to impose our religion on them—which, as it happens, is clearly unconstitutional.  Would you be pleased to hear the US described as a Hindu nation, or a Muslim one, or anything other than a Christian one?  I’m guessing the answer is ‘no,’ and that you would quite rightly chafe at the thought of someone else denigrating your religion and imposing theirs on you instead.  What was it Jesus said?  Ah, yes:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

Speaking only for myself, I prefer it when other people show a modicum of respect for my faith; therefore, I try always to do the same for them, whether or not they actually do so for me.  I fail to see why this simple concept should be at all upsetting to anyone.

June 24, 11:04 pm | [comment link]
11. upnorfjoel wrote:

I hear you #10, but he wasn’t making a pronouncement as you suggest.  Instead he was denouncing, and in doing so convinced none of the Muslims in his audience (that he was trying to impress somehow) and only showed his own lack of respect for the many more millions of Christians in the U.S. that understand the Christian principles under which this country was founded.

June 25, 12:02 am | [comment link]
12. Dilbertnomore wrote:

Election do, indeed, have consequences. (I)Nota bene.(/I)

June 25, 5:26 am | [comment link]
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