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By Randy Sly

3/21/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Words matter - listen carefully to our current administration

This article first appeared in July, 2010. We've come a long way since then regarding President Obama's Cairo speech and other presidential modifications for the term "religious freedom." It seems that the concerns expressed two years ago have borne fruit. Are we now discovering that this change of language does indeed mean there is a change of policy? As Catholics, this is an area where we must remain vigilant. These small changes can be used to change our understanding of fundmantal rights and freedoms.


By Randy Sly

Catholic Online (

3/21/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Politics & Policy

Keywords: words, religious liberty, religious freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of worship, Obama, public policy, rhetoric

UPDATE - In July 2010 I sounded a warning regarding the change in rhetoric in America. Now, almost two years later, we are living out the consequences of what I have previously termed the "war of words."

The words "religious freedom" have been batted about and re-defined in many ways, even by those who are classified as Christian clergy. Rev. G. Jude Geiger, Unitarian Universalist Minister, wrote a piece on the Huffington Post blogsite where he turned these two words on their ear.

"We continue to hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom," he wrote. "When I think of religious freedom, I think of the freedom to worship God (or not to worship God) as I see fit. It includes the freedom to hold one's own personal beliefs or to congregate where, when and how one sees fit.

"I see this as a clear attack by religious conservatives on the American institution of religious freedom. By requiring citizens to follow the religious teachings of certain faith traditions, we in essence are asking our country to follow and abide by those particular traditions."

Here we see two major violations. First he narrows freedom of religion to only include freedom of worship. He then forms a hasty generalization, saying that the position of the Catholic Church would be imposed on all. This is simply not the case.

In a recent story on LifeSiteNews about the closure of Catholic hospitals due to the HHS mandate, writer Ben Johnson cites Cardinal George about this intentional shift.

"The Obama administration's rhetorical shift from supporting 'freedom of religion' to 'freedom of worship' paralleled an earlier shift in Russia," he said.

"'Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union,' Cardinal George said. 'You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship-no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long Cold War to defeat that vision of society.'

"'The State is making itself into a church,' he stated."

The Cardinal's point answers the indictment of Rev. Geiger, who claims Catholics are trying to make themselves into a state church. Just the opposite; we see the government becoming the voice of moral and spiritual doctrine.

Make no mistake, the war of words extends far beyond coopting the term "religious freedom."

The age of relativism - in its many forms including those who are pro-abortion or a part of the homosexual equivalency movement against true marriage - wants to silence all opposition. While it is OK for those who embrace those agendas to condemn any disagreement and call people names, they angrily denounce any slips from their opponents. There is no longer any room for difference of opinion or conviction.

We recently watched this in the onslaught against Rush Limbaugh for his comment regarding Fluke, while mainstream media pundits lobbed multiple slurs toward Kirk Cameron using vile words in response to his views on gay marriage.

The war of words has so many battlefronts that we have to be ever vigilant. We have to weigh words very carefully and make sure we really understand what people are saying and what we mean.

It wasn't that many years ago that radio, television and newsprint formed the golden triangle of communication. Today we have the virtual world, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and the myriad of blogsites that inhabit the Internet.

On the World Wide Web, anyone can build a kingdom. As Catholics, we will need to learn well how to stand up for the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, depending on the power of the Holy Spirit. Many, I believe, will need to be called as the "pen of a ready writer." This is our battlefield today.

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - The change in language was barely noticeable to the average citizen but political observers are raising red flags at the use of a new term "freedom of worship" by President Obama and Secretary Clinton as a replacement for the term freedom of religion. This shift happened between the President's speech in Cairo where he showcased America's freedom of religion and his appearance in November at a memorial for the victims of Fort Hood, where he specifically used the term "freedom of worship." From that point on, it has become the term of choice for the president and Clinton.

In her article for "First Things" magazine, Ashley Samelson, International Programs Director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated, "To anyone who closely follows prominent discussion of religious freedom in the diplomatic and political arena, this linguistic shift is troubling: "The reason is simple. Any person of faith knows that religious exercise is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It's about the right to dress according to one's religious dictates, to preach openly, to evangelize, to engage in the public square. Everyone knows that religious Jews keep kosher, religious Quakers don't go to war, and religious Muslim women wear headscarves-yet "freedom of worship" would protect none of these acts of faith."

In the administration's defense, Carl Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri, is quoted by Christianity Today as saying, "The softened message is probably meant for the Muslim world, said. Obama, seeking to repair relations fractured by 9/11, is telling Islamic countries that America is not interfering with their internal matters."

Let's be clear, however; language matters when it comes to defining freedoms and limits. A shift from freedom of religion to freedom of worship moves the dialog from the world stage into the physical confines of a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. Such limitations can unleash an unbridled initiative that we have only experienced in a mild way through actions determined to remove of roadside crosses, wearing of religious t-shirts and pro-life pins as well as any initiatives of evangelization. It also could exclude our right to raise our children in our faith, the right to religious education, literature or media, the right to raise funds or organize charitable activities and the right to express religious beliefs in the normal discourse of life.

In the Second Vatican Council's Declaration of Religious Freedom entitled "Dignitatis Humanae", the Church summarizes this right: "Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

As we can see, the practice of religion permeates the very fabric of our lives. It cannot and should not be separated into approved and non-approved expressions. Unfortunately, such limits are being instituted across the globe. Samelson writes, "The effort to squash religion into the private sphere is on the rise around the world. "And it's not just confined to totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia. In France, students at public schools cannot wear headscarves, yarmulkes, or large crucifixes. The European Court of Human Rights has banned crucifixes from the walls of Italian schools."

The list of countries and limits is growing constantly.

Michelle Boorstein, religion reporter for the Washington Post, notes that "Knox Thames, director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- a Congress-controlled body tasked with monitoring religious freedom abroad - spoke at a recent briefing about the worry, reportedly saying he sees a change in lingo and that it's not an accident."

In presenting a forecast of religious freedom for 2010 to the House Subcommittee on International Religions, Human Rights and Oversight, Georgetown professor Thomas Farr stated, "Those of us in the business of sniffing out rats know that this is a rhetorical shift to watch." Farr was the former head of the State Department's International Religious Freedom Office.

Human rights lawyer Nina Shea, who is a Senior Scholar at the Hudson Institute, is also concerned. "I'm very fearful that by building bridges, we're actually stepping away from this fundamental principle of religious freedom. It is so critical for Western, especially American, leaders to articulate strong defense for religious freedom and explain what that means and how it undergirds our entire civilization."

Leonardo Leo, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom made these remarks in the presentation of their 2010 Annual Report in April: "in the world of foreign policy and diplomacy, where every word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and interest, there is an even more important situation that could be taken by some in the world community as a signal that freedom of religion or belief is not a priority for the administration.

"USCIRF notes that since the initially strong language on religious freedom used in President Obama's Cairo speech, presidential references to religious freedom have become rare, often replaced, at most, with references to freedom of worship. The same holds true for many of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speeches.

"This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and by officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications. Freedom of worship is only one aspect of religious freedom and a purposeful change in language could mean a much narrower view of the right, ignoring such components as religiously motivated expression and religious education as well as ignoring incursions such as discrimination in government benefits and privileges or the creation of climates of impunity, where private religiously-motivated violence isn't prevented and punished."

Mark Twain used to say, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." As Catholics, this is an area where we must remain vigilant. These small changes can be used to change our perception of rights and freedoms. In retrosprect, the past hundred years gives us a number of significant issues in which this has already happened to one degree or another. Abortion, contraception, marriage, the family, and gender have all been re-engineered to fashion a new worldview.

What may seem an innocent shift in language now could possibly end up as a "tipping point" for our religious freedom. Make no mistake; this is the goal and desire of the many inside and outside our current administration.


Here is the shift to which we've referred:

In June 2009, the president highlighted religious freedom in his Cairo speech saying, "Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."

A few months later, in November, he was delivering remarks to the crowd gathered to remember the victims of the Fort Hood shooing when he said, "We're a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses."

On the heels of that speech, he then delivered another in Tokyo that same month stating, "The longing for liberty and dignity is a part of the story of all peoples. For there are certain aspirations that human beings hold in common: the freedom to speak your mind, and choose your leaders; the ability to access information, and worship how you please."

He traveled on to China, where in speaking at a "Town Hall" with future Chinese leaders he stated, "These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights."

This abrupt shift with reference to the constitutional freedom of religion was also noticed in the public discourse of Secretary Hillary Clinton. At Georgetown University in December 2009, she used the phrase three times.

"To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate. They must be free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose. In China, we call for protection of rights of minorities in Tibet and Xinxiang; for the rights to express oneself and worship freely.  And when a person is too hungry or sick to work or vote or worship, she is denied a life she deserves. Freedom doesn't come in half measures, and partial remedies cannot redress the whole problem."

In January 2010, Clinton delivered a speech about Internet freedom at the Newseum in which she used the "freedom of worship" theme several times: "Franklin Roosevelt built on these ideas when he delivered his Four Freedoms speech in 1941. Now, at the time, Americans faced a cavalcade of crises and a crisis of confidence. But the vision of a world in which all people enjoyed freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear transcended the troubles of his day."

[Editor's Note: In Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms" speech to congress on January 6, 1941, he did include term religion not worship in his list and then used "worship" later as a description - "No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion-- or even good business."]

"The freedom of worship usually involves the rights of individuals to commune or not commune with their Creator. And that's one channel of communication that does not rely on technology. But the freedom of worship also speaks to the universal right to come together with those who share your values and vision for humanity. In our history, those gatherings often took place in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Today, they may also take place on line.

"But connection technologies like the internet and social networking sites should enhance individuals' ability to worship as they see fit, come together with people of their own faith, and learn more about the beliefs of others. We must work to advance the freedom of worship online just as we do in other areas of life."


Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and the CEO/Associate Publisher for the Northern Virginia Local Edition of Catholic Online ( He is a former Archbishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who laid aside that ministry to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.


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