Critics have pointed to the increasing use of the phrase “freedom of worship” by the President and the Secretary of State, in lieu of the more traditional “freedom of religion.” Taken by itself, the former usage might seem innocuous—simply a different choice of words. But combined with the other signals coming from the administration, references to “freedom of worship” could suggest a diminution of the broadly construed right of religious freedom as articulated by Obama in his “Call to Renewal” speech. If religious freedom means only the freedom to worship, and not, as Obama put it, the right of people to make explicitly religious arguments in the public square, it is an anemic right indeed. Quite aside from its abandonment of a traditional American view of religious liberty, the “worship” approach would have little promise in enticing otherwise illiberal Muslim communities to enter the democratic public square and to accept its limits (especially the religious freedom of others).
If this is where the State Department is heading, it would constitute a blatant circumvention of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and a dereliction of our duty to advance religious freedom as a matter of justice and human dignity. But there is a potentially more damaging problem suggested by State’s actions thus far.
They signal that this administration is not prepared to defend the United States against the false charge of “cultural imperialism,” the idea that our religious freedom policy is a front for American missionaries. Incredibly, this canard has apparently been accepted by some at Foggy Bottom and the White House.
They suggest that the State Department remains clueless on the advantages a wise and effective international religious freedom policy could bring to the defense of vital American interests. Without religious liberty the achievement of stable, lasting democratic governance will be impossible in struggling, highly religious nascent democracies like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia. Without religious liberty countries that now nurture and export religion-based extremism—including to American shores—will continue to do so.
Earlier this week, Farr spoke with PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on the need for Obama to appoint an International Religious Freedom Ambassador-at-Large. Read the entire Georgetown/On Faith article here.