As this Lenten season comes to a close, Christians in many parts of the world are bracing themselves for the brutal attacks that will likely occur this weekend. While sacred holidays like Christmas and Easter used to be joyous occasions in Christendom, for many of the faithful, they are now a reason for fear, as violent religious extremists capitalize on these Christian holy days as a way to terrorize Christian minority communities in their countries.
Even in our own country, our Founders who forged these protections for freedom in Philadelphia knew that freedom was not something to take for granted. After all, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to pursue it. Preeminent among the freedoms they sought to acquire, even at such risk, were freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, for they understood full well that it was from these foundational freedoms that so many other freedoms flowed. The free exercise of religion, protected in the First Amendment, is not just freedom to worship but it is also freedom to practice and live out one’s faith in society. Accordingly, freedom of religion necessarily entails freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of the press, and even freedom to petition one’s government for redress of grievances.
One of my heroines, Mother Theresa, was not satisfied to pray and worship only, but she prayed and worshipped also through service and advocacy and washing the feet of “the least of these,” including the unborn. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not satisfied with freedom of worship only; they felt obliged to live out their faith – to exercise it in the pursuit of justice, as well. We are a better country – a more perfect union – because of their faithfulness.
Religion in the Public Square
Of all the great and necessary freedoms listed in the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion (not just to believe, but to live out that belief) is the most important. Our Founders understood this, and that is why James Madison described the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom as “the true remedy.”
The idea of a strict or absolute separation of church and state is not and never was the American model. In fact, this notion found little support in America until it was introduced into the public discourse by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. While much to the surprise of many school children, the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. The concept of protecting religion from the government, though, does. The first part of the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state church, such as existed in England and in some of the states in 1791, and from discriminating for or against particular faiths. The second reference to religion in the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, and in conjunction with the prohibition of established churches, these two concepts were intended to work together to ensure that religion and people of faith had powerful constitutional protections for their right not only to worship as their conscience dictated, but to be free to bring their religiously informed moral convictions into their public discourse.
While the Founding Fathers understood that these religion clauses were vitally important to the preservation of the dignity of each of us as well as for domestic tranquility for all of us, the leftist elites who have infiltrated the institutions that influence the culture fail to appreciate the significance of religious freedom for our ordered liberty. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Nevertheless, whether out of malice or ignorance, they are actively working to execute the legal and cultural repeal of the First Amendment protection through judicial activism in the courts and historical revisionism in the Academy. The strategy is to place this first freedom on the lowest rung of interests to be considered when weighing rights against one another, rather than the preeminent place “inalienable rights” ought to occupy.
The fruits of this misguided idea are increasingly evident in Obama Administration policies that undermine religious freedom domestically and at times internationally. President Obama wholeheartedly embraces the ideology of the left that religion should be swept from the public square and sometimes goes even further by showing contempt for freedom of conscience. He mocked those in our country who cling to “God and Guns,” for example. For the record, in addition to our faith, we also cling to our Constitution.
What is more, this assault is is not limited to mere rhetoric. President Obama’s policies limit the rights of religious people. On February 28, 2009, only about a month into his term, the President announced that his Administration would repeal the freedom of conscience protections put in place at the end of the Bush Administration to protect health care workers who were opposed to such procedures as abortion, sterilization, and embryonic stem cell research from being forced to participate in such activities. Sadly the President made good on that promise early last year.
We have also seen the exclusion of Catholic groups that don’t support abortion from receiving government grants to serve women who are victims of sex trafficking, despite receiving high marks for administering those grants in the past. Is this putting the needs of women first, or a liberal agenda first?
In ObamaCare, we find that religious organizations are being forced to provide services that violate their conscience. The Department of Health and Human Services came up with a list of “essential services” that nearly all employers, including almost all faith-based organizations, would have to provide through the health care plans offered to their employees. The list included coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization. Because of a firestorm of controversy this caused, the President proposed a “compromise” that would shift the burden to provide coverage for these controversial services from employers to the insurance companies. Not only would this not resolve the problem, when the final rule was published, it did not include the President’s compromise. This not only offends the long standing principle that taxpayers should not be required to subsidize abortions with tax dollars, it goes further and requires private entities to do so.
Obama’s Solicitor General argued last fall that churches should not have complete discretion in the hiring of their clergy. In oral arguments before the Supreme Court last fall, the Administration had the temerity to argue for doing away with the “ministerial exception,” which protects the right of religious institutions to define for themselves who their clergy are under the First Amendment.
Last December, the White House issued a statement strongly encouraging government grant recipients to adopt the government’s non-discrimination policies with regard to the hiring of employees. Any such requirement would undermine the beliefs of many faith-based organizations, are contrary to longstanding U.S. law, and has been rejected by the Supreme Court. Yet the Obama Administration continues to advocate for them.
Last spring, the Administration not only decided unilaterally that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, and as a result, would no longer enforce it or defend it in court. This contravenes Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which says the President has a duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Instead, President Obama, sought to be judge, jury and executioner of the foundation of our families and our society. Meanwhile, his favored rhetoric is that his views on marriage are still evolving and his current position is that marriage is limited to a man and woman. But actions speak louder than words.
Religious Freedom Around the World
This ideology and deconstruction of the full meaning of the First Amendment and its protection of the free exercise of religion has influenced our foreign policy, as well. America’s cry for religious freedom around the world is being muted as a result. The saying, “actions speak louder than words” is more than a cliché; it’s a truism. It’s the reason St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” Dissidents and dictators alike are constantly attuned to the messages coming from Washington, both the words and our actions (or lack thereof).
President Obama is a good orator. Unfortunately for him, “Facts are stubborn things,” as John Adams put it. “And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The fact is that President Obama has been a weak defender of religious freedom while claiming to be a champion. Yet, promoting religious freedom and religious pluralism around the world promotes our interests as well. American Presidents and Senior diplomats should understand this- because it is written in America’s DNA.
Back in 2010 there were numerous articles written, and public statements made, about the language used by President Obama and Secretary Clinton when referring to “freedom of religion.” They were consistently using the phrase “freedom of worship” instead. The authors and speakers highlighting this phraseology, including myself, were sounding the alarm that this Administration was trying to narrow the definition of the fundamental, universally recognized right to live one’s life in accordance to the dictates of one’s conscience by relegating it merely to the act of attending a worship service.
Some may defend the Administration’s consistent use of the term “freedom of worship” back in 2009-10 as if it were merely a synonym for “freedom of religion.” Unfortunately, the stubborn facts show otherwise. Whatever statements have come out of the Administration since the speechwriters were informed about the controversy and the difference, the policies this Administration has vigorously pursued from the very beginning are consistent with the narrower “freedom of worship” phraseology than “freedom of religion.” By contrast, when President George W. Bush, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Reagan, and even President Franklin Roosevelt used the phrase, no one was alarmed because everyone knew what these individuals meant by it. In the present case, though, there was and is deep concern that use of the phrase signaled more than just alternate verbiage – that it is in fact an authentic reflection of the Administration’s views.
The real issue, then, is whether this underlying concern is justified, whereas it was not with respect to previous Administrations. So, consider a small sample of the actions this Administration has undertaken (or failed to undertake), the results of which are deleterious to religious freedom:
The Administration took over 2 years to fill the Congressionally created Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom position at the Department of State and it reduced the full-time, permanent employees of that office by about 50 percent. Apparently, only with the promotion of religious freedom and the nation’s defense is the Obama Administration committed to federal spending cuts. In contrast, I supported the creation of this office and led a bicameral working group on religious freedom while serving in Congress.
The Department of State paid the International Development Law Organization to lobby the drafters of the new Kenyan constitution to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right. This is a violation of the Siljander Amendment, which precludes lobbying any foreign government either for or against abortion rights. It now appears the Obama Administration is doing the same thing in Zambia.
Last year the Obama Administration negotiated UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 that unnecessarily resurrected the “Defamation of Religions” initiative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to make it a crime to criticize Islam. It also opens the door to making “incitement to discrimination” a crime, as well as potentially legitimizing laws against blasphemy and apostasy. The Administration claims it does just the opposite, but statements from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation do not back them up.
The Obama Administration is more than willing to make these “compromises” surrounding international religious freedom, even though observers and experts know that some of the core foundational challenges – or the A,B,C, D’s of religious freedom – are the threat of apostasy laws, blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws, and anti-defamation laws. These laws are used aggressively by violent religious zealots, including radical Islamists, to silence both moderating Muslim voices and other minority religious groups, including Christians.
In January 2011, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (President Obama) pulled out all the stops to host a full state dinner for the Paramount Leader of the world’s largest dictatorship (Chinese President Hu Jintao), who at that very moment had imprisoned in China the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (Chinese human rights lawyer Liu Xiaobo). When subsequently asked if President Obama had raised Liu’s case with President Hu, Secretary of State Clinton could not give an answer. Recently, President Hu’s presumed successor, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, also came for a visit. Again, there’s no indication Liu’s case was ever raised.
Moreover, Xi’s visit coincided with a trip our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom wanted to make to China. However, the Chinese government denied her visa request. The Administration did nothing to protest this affront. China is a country with more Christians than Communist Party Members. It’s also home to significant populations of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong members – all of whom are oppressed primarily because the Chinese government views organized religion not controlled by the state as a threat. Has the Administration made any significant effort to speak up for them? Last summer, Vice President Biden refused to criticize China’s one child policy. Do you think this has consequences for Chinese families’ freedom to practice their religion? Secretary Clinton herself stated early in the Obama presidency that pressing the Chinese on human rights would take a back seat to economic, environmental, and security issues. These are signals that the Chinese government understands. The message: limited worship opportunities in government sanctioned churches is sufficient to check the religious liberty box as far as this Administration is concerned. In contrast, Ronald Reagan stood up to the threat of the Soviet Empire and Communism while also standing with Soviet dissidents. America’s leaders, reflecting American interests and values should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time- standing for our security and with standing with advocates for fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.
Perhaps the region of the world with the most, and most severe, violations of religious freedom is the Middle East. Indigenous minority religious communities there, including Christians, are undergoing an existential threat. In Iraq and Egypt, we’ve basically abandoned them through our policies, despite perennial calls by human rights champions in Congress and elsewhere to come up with a comprehensive, integrated strategic foreign policy aimed at preserving them. In fact, throughout the region, groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Islamist views are coming to power. Throughout the majority Muslim countries, religious minorities are being purged from lands they have occupied going back nearly 7,000 years. For these groups – the ones whose values, world view, and inclinations are most aligned with ours and who are our natural allies in the region – the part of the President’s heralded 2009 Cairo speech that extolled the importance of religious freedom to the future of the Middle East rings tragically hollow today for religious minorities.
In contrast, like Ronald Reagan did to the former Soviet Union, I have called upon the majority Muslim countries to tear down the walls of oppression against freedom of conscience and religion, of religiously motivated violent jihadism, and of the subjugation of women. My positions are clear; like most Americans I am on the side of freedom, because, like the Founders, I believe that freedom of religion is an inalienable right endowed by our Creator, and it gives us the passion for the human dignity of all people.
In a vacuum, an inadvertent reference to “freedom of worship” rather than “freedom of religion” might be overlooked, but the Obama Administration’s actual record is crystal clear. Seen in this context, not only are warnings about President Obama’s terminology and poor record on religious freedom completely legitimate, but a clarion call for the protection of religious liberty at all levels.
Our Founders understood it was relatively easy to establish freedom in our Constitution, the harder task was to create a system that would maintain it against the corrosive force of time. The combination of “religious free exercise” and no state supported religious monopoly has created a vibrant marketplace of religions in America. Our Founders’ inspired brilliance and acknowledgment in the Declaration of Independence of inalienable rights that come from our Creator not government, created a paradigm that has given America the best chance of any civilization in the history of man to endure the test of time. It is time to return to the wisdom of that constitutional protection and prescription and resurrect our country’s respect for freedom, including religious freedom, both here and around the world.