Imperiled Religious Liberty, Abroad and At Home

Religious liberty is America’s “first freedom,” not only because it receives primary listing in the First Amendment, but because our nation’s charter text – the Declaration of Independence – asserts that our rights come from God and that government’s duty is not to create rights but protect those endowed by our Creator.

This is a fundamentally theological assertion, a presupposition so essential that the entire structure of American political life is built upon it.

Yet at a time when worldwide religious persecution – overwhelmingly perpetrated against Christians – is more extensive and pronounced than at any time in history, the current Administration is claiming that, after an inexplicable near-silence about such for more than two years, it now wants to protect religious liberties abroad. Adding to the manifest oddness of this newfound zeal is that it is being asserted while Mr. Obama erodes religious liberties here at home.

In his thoughtful, if unpersuasive, “Call to Renewal” speech in 2006, then-Senator Obama said:

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square … the majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (

He was correct: Christian faith animates political and social convictions. Yet in the conduct of his office as President, he is discontent with respecting those convictions that conflict with his own. This is true especially in the arena of religious liberty.

Religious Liberty as a Foreign Policy Priority

It has long been understood by persons in both parties that to stand with the oppressed is almost always to stand with friends of America. It is also right and reflects our ongoing commitment to the belief that our Creator has endowed every life with inherent dignity and inestimable value. Yet this President seems not to have grasped these things or particularly care about making the fight against religious persecution a significant element of his foreign policy.

When in 2010 President Obama issued his new National Security Strategy paper, its 60 pages omitted any reference to religious liberty. Writing at the time, the distinguished diplomat Dr. Thomas Farr, the first head of the International Religious Freedom office in the State Department and now a professor at Georgetown University, observed:

What does America’s new U.S. National Security Strategy say about the U.S. policy of advancing religious freedom? Nothing. Zero. Nada … The Obama administration has achieved the unimaginable. It turns out that the list of the most important American values includes things like ensuring transparency, refraining from torture, protecting privacy and “promoting the right to access information.” But not religious freedom. (

Only this month, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, a pastor and motivational speaker with limited international experience, was sworn-in by Secretary of State Clinton to be the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Despite the importance of the post, there had been no ambassador for this critical role during the first two years of the current Administration. (

It is noteworthy that at the swearing-in ceremony, not once did Sec. Clinton or Amb. Johnson Cook use the term “religious liberty” in their remarks. Instead, between them they used the term “religious freedom” no less than 11 times.

Why is this significant? Religious liberty is a broader term, inferring not just freedom of belief or such practices as personal devotions or attendance in a confined worship center (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.) but the right to both practice and proclaim one’s faith in the public arena.

Such terms as “religious freedom” and “freedom of worship,” as used by the Obama administration, imply a limitation on faith-based convictions, one that narrows their scope to the life of the mind (that to which one assents) and personal actions like worship attendance, baptism or observance of a holiday. In other words, within the four walls of a building, be it a home or a church, and within your mind, you can believe and say essentially whatever you want. Just don’t articulate it in society or let others know you do what you do because of your religious convictions, especially if they abrade the zeitgeist.

Ultimately, those who would diminish religious liberty cannot avoid the very nature of the right they would shrink. In remarks each made during the oath-taking ceremony, Clinton and Johnson Cook emphasized something of particular importance not just to social conservatives but to everyone who believes in religious liberty (italics mine):

The Obama Administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely.

Johnson Cook:
As the President has said, “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” … today 70 percent of the world’s population – that’s nearly five billion people – lives in countries where there are restrictions on religious practice and belief, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life … Put simply, one cannot coherently speak of religious freedom without also discussing its implications for public practice … (

While superficially reassuring, these remarks do not make up for the Obama Administration’s near complete disinterest in matters of international religious liberty. Thomas Farr earlier this year described the President’s attitude toward religious liberty as one of “utter indifference” ( The appointment of Johnson Cook, whose has no compelling qualifications for this sensitive diplomatic post, seems to confirm this analysis.

Still, “Dr. Sujay” says she will be the “Margaret Thatcher” of religious freedom, apparently a reference to Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” persona. How she fares with the oppressors and persecutors of the world will be interesting, and perhaps painful, to watch.

Eroding Religious Liberty at Home

There is another dimension, an ironic one, to all of this: the Obama administration’s antipathy to religious liberty as practiced and experienced historically here in our own country. Mr. Obama has spoken of the importance of religious persons “living their faith,” yet his policies would constrict this God-endowed right dangerously. Consider the following:

• The President’s health care law funds abortion, something the great majority of Americans find repugnant. As my colleague Cathy Ruse said in testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution in February of this year, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “ObamaCare”) “subsidizes abortion in private health plans and can pay directly for abortion in new health programs. The funds under ‘ObamaCare’ are directly appropriated, not subject to further appropriation through the LHHS appropriations bill, and are therefore not subject to the Hyde Amendment abortion funding restriction.” In requiring citizens to provide funding for abortion, the President is showing contempt for the deeply-held convictions of most of his countrymen.

• One of the President’s first appointments was that of Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum as a commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. An open lesbian, Feldblum said once, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win” in a contest about homosexual rights. “There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.” The troubling implications are legion: Feldblum joins with the President in supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would require religious institutions to hire practicing homosexuals in non-clerical positions.

• The lifting of the ban on homosexuality in the military posits serious issues of conscience violation and moral compromise for myriad members of the Armed Forces. For example, last month, “Twenty-one agencies including representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Anglican Church in North America, and the National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter … urging branch chief chaplains to protect the free speech and religion rights of serving chaplains. They want to ensure that chaplains and service members won’t be punished if they preach on or discuss homosexuality as a sin” (

• To the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Mr. Obama has appointed University of Richmond law professor Azizah Y. al-Hibri, who claims that the Koran influenced Thomas Jefferson ( and that payment of money as a means of restitution for murder is a God-ordained option (

• To the federal bench, Mr. Obama has appointed the likes of David Hamilton, who in 2005 ruled in Hinrichs v. Bosma that “If the Speaker [of the Indiana legislature] chooses to continue any form of legislative prayer, he shall advise persons offering such a prayer … that they should refrain from using Christ’s name or title or any other denominational appeal.” Evidently the First Amendment is missing from Judge Hamilton’s version of the Constitution.

• President Obama has also placed the conscience rights of health care employees at grave risk. Under his new regulations, insurance firms which object to covering contraception would nonetheless have to include them in their portfolios. Providers and pharamacists who object to dispensing contraceptives could be removed from insurance networks which comply with the new mandate. And in February, the Obama Administration issued a rule stating that health care personnel who object to participating in abortion cannot receive federal funds.

So, to summarize: The President has appointed an unqualified person to head one of the most confrontational and demanding diplomatic posts in the federal government in order to safeguard liberties abroad to which he has shown antipathy here at home.

Michael W. McConnell, formerly a federal judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and now director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, in 2000 wrote a brilliant article in the Cardozo Law Review, “Why is Religious Liberty the ‘First Freedom?’.” In it, he said, “The suggestion that religious – as opposed to secular philosophies or ideologies – might be entitled to special protection in our legal system is foreign to many modern secular liberals.” Might it not be safe to assume that Barack Obama is one of them?

McConnell continues, “Modern liberalism tends to protect religious freedom only when it does not matter – when it is private and inconsequential. Religious freedom may be our ‘first freedom,’ but it is also our most embattled.” (Source: 21 Cardozo Law Review, 1243, February 2000)

Under President Obama, the battle is continuing. He is sympathetic to religious motivation only insofar as it coincides with his own. When it does not, it becomes a mere political obstacle to be overcome, in part through rendering it “private and inconsequential” as McConnell rightly asserts.

Historian Mark David Hall, Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University, wrote recently,

[W]e ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility. (

We are beginning to witness such hostility in our time. Are we ready to defend our religious and thus all of our other liberties? And, more poignantly, to obey God rather than men should it come to this? These are questions to which answers can no longer be postponed.