The Freedom of Worship?

by Derrick G. Jeter

Religion is the most powerful force in the world. More powerful than philosophy; more powerful than money; more powerful than politics; more powerful than sex; even more powerful than love. Nothing can match the passion and devotion of what one believes about the nature of God. And the most powerful aspect of religion is its use of language. It is through language, written and spoken, that the adherers of religion discover the character of the deity, learning doctrine and practice, and seek to convert others into followers.
The eminent wordsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson said of language: “We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument, to which each forcible individual in a course of many hundred years has contributed a stone.” [1] Since the beginning of our country, religion in America was inferred from the language of the the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Every forcible individual since 1791 has contributed the same stone: Americans have inherent freedom of religion. That was until now.
In June 2009 Barack Obama was in Cairo. In his speech he said, “Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion.” Four months later, however, in November, speaking at the memorial service for the Fort Hood shooting victims Obama altered his language: “We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom of worship as one chooses.” And then later that month, in Tokyo, he said, “The longing for liberty and dignity is a part of the story of all people. 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.” Later, while in China, Obama remarked, “These freedoms of expression and worship—of access to information and political participation—we believe are universal rights.” [2]
Not only did Obama inexplicable drop the historical and Constitutional language “freedom of religion,” but so did Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In December 2009, at Georgetown University, Mrs. Clinton outlined the United States agenda for human rights for the 21st century. In this speech Mrs. Clinton used “freedom of worship” type language three times but “freedom of religion” not at all. And then in January 2010, while addressing Senators she referred to “freedom of worship” four times and “freedom of religion” once when quote Obama from an earlier speech.
What’s the point of this linguistic study? Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal sums it up well:
It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. . . . The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines. [3]
“Religion” is a broad idea and implies worship, but includes the practice of faith in the public square, evangelizing and preaching in public, wearing sacred clothing or jewelry in public, and carrying and/or reading sacred texts in public. “Worship,” on the other hand, is narrowly understood and consigns religion to the particular and private. In other words, I might practice my religion in the privacy of my home or in a building with like-minded individuals, but not in public. This is no small matter, especially for an American understanding of religious liberty as spelled out in the Bill of Rights. With usual clarity and insight, Os Guinness takes up this issue:
The First Amendment’s ordering of religion and public life may reasonable be called “the true remedy” because it does justice to the founders’ understanding of religious liberty as “the first liberty.” Today, religious liberty is often reduced to “liberty for the religious” and treated as a nonissue or a nuisance. At best it is considered a second-class right, inferior to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. At worst it is treated as a constitutional redundancy, the removable appendix of the Bill of Rights, and the ugly stepsister to the more fashionable civil liberty. Like Victorian children who were to be seen but not heard, religious liberty today is to be private but never public. [4]
Others who have written about the shift from “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship” worry about the affect it might have on our commitment to human rights in other countries. Will we refuse or fail to hold other countries accountable for religious (public) violations as long as the freedom of (private) worship is respected in law? This is a ligament concern, but my worry is what this linguistic shift could mean for America: the broadening of the secular in public and the narrowing of the sacred in public.
In other words, as our culture grows more secular, our culture demands religion grow more private.
Are Christians and others making too much of the shift between two “sacred” words in these politicians’ speeches? Isn’t it possible that Obama and Clinton mean “freedom of religion” whey they say “freedom of worship” and they just are being careful with their language? Yes; it’s possible, but not probable.
Speeches for presidents and secretaries of state don’t just happen. Today, political speeches at the highest levels are not written Lincoln-like, who composed the Gettsyburg Address and the Second Inaugural by himself. Modern political speeches don’t even come together like John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen co-authoring Kennedy’s First Inaugural. Today, words are scrutinized by what Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, called the “meat grinder.” [5] Every department that does, or may, have an interest in advancing a particular policy has a hand in crafting a speech. Noonan writes, “Government is words on paper—the communiqué after the summit, the top-secret cable to the embassy, the memo to the secretary outlining a strategy, the president’s speech—it’s all words on paper. Government draws aggressive people who feel that if government is words on paper then they will damn well affect the words. After all, this is why they came to Washington: to change things, to make a difference.” [6]
Obama is aggressive and came to Washington to change things—to transform things—just as he campaigned. And he, as a man known for his use of words, will damn well affect the words he uses, even if it means using unconstitutional words like “freedom of worship” as if they were constitutional.
[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nominalist and Realist, “ in Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), 578.
[2] Barack Obama, as quoted in Randy Sly, “Obama Moves away from ‘Freedom of Religion’ toward ‘Freedom of Worship’?”, Catholic Online, July 19, 2010,, accessed July 19, 2010 (emphasis mine).
[3] Daniel Henninger, “Mad Max and the Meltdown,” November 20, 2008, The Wall Street Journal,, accessed July 21, 2010.
[4] Os Guinness, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 43.
[5]Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era (New York: Ivy Books, 1990), 74.
[6] Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution, 79.