A few months ago, I told you how the Obama administration has started to use the phrase "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion." When secretary of state Clinton, in a speech at Georgetown University, said that "freedom of worship" was a priority, it was not the first time that phrase had been used by an administration official: the president himself had used it several times.
What's at stake here is more than rhetoric: "freedom of worship" and "freedom of religion" are not interchangeable, no matter what the administration or its defenders maintain.
As Tom Farr, the former head of the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department, put it, "those of us in the business of sniffing out rats know that this is a rhetorical shift to watch." "Freedom of worship" does not necessarily include the rights to "raise your own children in your faith . . . elect your religious leaders" or evangelize. It provides no guarantee that you will be able to have "religious education or seminary training."
It simply means that you will be able to attend services, although as Christians in places like Egypt can tell you, it says nothing about being able to build and maintain a place to do so.
Almost as important as the rhetorical shift is the question of why the shift is happening. One very likely answer lies in our relationship to the Muslim world, where a vital principle is being sacrificed on the altar of not giving offense. Is it coincidence that the President last referred to "freedom of religion" in his famous, but coolly received, Cairo speech to the Islamic world?
Missouri law professor Carl Esbeck told Christianity Today that what he calls the "softened message" of freedom of worship was "probably meant for the Muslim world." It was, in his estimation, an attempt to "repair relations fractured by 9/11" by "telling Islamic countries that America is not interfering with their internal matters."
That is, by demanding that they provide freedom of religion, which they do not.
If that's the case, it's a gesture with a long and dubious history in American foreign policy. In 1796, President John Adams concluded a treaty with the ruler of Tripoli. Article 11 stated that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . ." It reassured Tripoli that "no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
All Article 11 accomplished was to give secularists ammunition in their quest to write Christianity out of American history – it certainly didn't stop the Barbary pirates from raiding American ships. That required the U. S. Marines landing on the shores of Tripoli.
Two hundred and fourteen years later, another American president is repeating the same mistake. Sacrificing the principle of religious liberty will not make the Islamic world think better of us or dissuade any would-be jihadist from waging war on American interests.
What it will do is send a terrible signal: at a time when religious freedom, not just in Islamic countries, but around the world, is under assault, the U.S. is backing off its commitment to religious freedom.
Islam will be appeased, or so we think, by the charade of offering a much weaker term like "freedom of worship."
Well, it didn't work in 1796, and it's even less likely to work today.