'Freedom to worship' vs. 'freedom of religion'

The first public draft of the Democratic Party Platform declared that "We are horrified by ISIS' genocide of Christians and Yezidis and crimes against humanity against Muslims and others in the Middle East." It went on to affirm, "We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom to worship and believe."

The statement generated little debate within the platform committee, which was busy fighting over minimum wage, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and other issues. One would think such a statement would not be controversial, but in fact, the party almost stepped on a political landmine by using the words "freedom to worship" rather than "freedom of religion."

I am chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), but the views expressed in this column are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the commission.

Although most people would not notice the difference, "freedom of religion" is considered the more expansive term. It includes worship but also the right of believers to evangelize, change their religion, have schools and charitable institutions, and participate in the public square.

The sad truth is that some states and societies tolerate religious minorities as long as they confine themselves to their places of worship and don't go out into society. But if they try to convert someone, if anyone switches from the dominant religion to another, or if they speak out on public issues, they will feel the full force of the government and society down on their heads.

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When the Obama administration used the phrase "freedom to worship," all hell broke loose in the conservative blogosphere. This was seen as an abandonment of the traditional diplomatic struggle for international religious freedom. It was seen as in line with the administration's alleged attacks on domestic religious freedom with its support for the contraceptive mandate and gay rights.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were portrayed as the enemies of religious freedom.

That this was a bogus controversy was clearly exposed in an excellent 2012 article by Paul Moses in Commonweal.

First, Moses points out that the term "freedom of worship" was good enough for President Franklin Roosevelt to include in his Four Freedoms in a speech before Congress on January 6, 1941, when he defended "the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- anywhere in the world."

Moses could have added that Ronald Reagan also spoke of "freedom to worship" and not "freedom of religion" at the Vatican in 1987 after meeting with Pope John Paul II.

"The same term is now Exhibit A for those prosecuting the charge that the Obama administration is set on subverting the freedom of religion," wrote Moses.

Was the use of "freedom to worship" rather than "freedom of religion" a conscious diabolical plan on the part of the administration?

Some alleged this. "If the swap-out occurred only once or twice, one might appropriately conclude it was merely a rhetorical accident," asserted Ashley E. Samelson on the website First Things. "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."

"Too many times?" asked Moses. "How many times?"

Moses checked State Department and White House websites and in fact found that the Obama administration continually used the phrase "freedom of religion."

For example, "Our Nation's enduring commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all who are denied the ability to choose and live their faith," President Obama said in a proclamation. "My Administration will continue to oppose growing trends in many parts of the world to restrict religious expression."

Moses notes, "There are many other examples -- here and here and here and here and here and here and here and others." He reports, "I could find only two references to 'freedom of worship.' Both paired the term with freedom of speech (as FDR also did)."

"The terms 'freedom of worship' and 'freedom of religion' are often used interchangeably," Moses concluded. "There is a difference in meaning, but the effort to take a few remarks out of context and spin them into a massive conspiracy against civil rights--threatening enough to make us 'get very nervous' -- lacks a basis in reality."

Despite this well-researched argument, the myth continues in testimony before Congress and in writers' posts at First Things. Even though partisan differences exist over religious freedom in the United States, one would think we could unite in defending religious freedom abroad where it can be a matter of life or death.

I am not saying that people should not push the administration to do more to promote freedom of religion abroad -- I do that myself -- but conspiracy theories have no place in our discussions of international religious freedom. If conservatives want accusations against the administration to stick, they need to present better evidence than using the word "worship" rather than "religion," unless this conspiracy also included Roosevelt and Reagan.

Just last week, the State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in every country of the world. On the same day, the White House issued a fact sheet delineating the administration's many statements and actions in support of religious freedom.

Anyone who thinks that the White House and the State Department do not care about religious freedom should read these documents. Certainly David Saperstein, the current U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom, is acknowledged by all as a stout defender of religious freedom.

The real discussion should be over how we promote religious freedom. Questioning an individual's commitment to religious freedom does not advance the cause of international religious freedom. We should be building coalitions in support of religious freedom, not trying to make international religious freedom a partisan issue. 

The principal problem with every administration is not that they don't care about religious freedom, it is that national security and trade almost always take priority over religious freedom in negotiations with foreign governments.

That is clearly the case in U.S. relations with China. Every administration since President Richard Nixon's has been unwilling to compromise our national security or economic interests by making religious freedom a higher priority in talks with China. Remember, the Nixon administration defended its opening to China by arguing that capitalism would bring freedom to China. It did not. 

Back to the Democratic National Platform.

When I discovered that the platform draft spoke of freedom to worship rather than freedom of religion, I contacted my friend James Zogby, a Sanders appointee to the drafting committee and a fellow USCIRF commissioner. I explained the issue to him and sent him a copy of Moses' article. He quickly understood and offered an amendment so that the platform now reads, "We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom of religion."

Was there a big fight in the drafting committee over this? "No resistance whatsoever," explains Zogby. "We were unfamiliar with the terminology."

If the original language had remained, the conservative blogosphere would have gone crazy accusing the Democratic Party of abandoning the nation's commitment to international religious freedom. The ease with which Zogby was able to correct the language shows that there is no ideological conspiracy here. In fact, their willingness to change the language shows exactly the opposite -- Democrats are just as committed to religious freedom as their Republican brothers and sisters.

It is time to stop questioning one another’s commitment to religious freedom and get to work promoting it. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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