Freedom of religion vs. freedom of worship

By Michelle Boorstein Is there a difference between “freedom of religion” and “freedom of worship”? Some advocates for international religious … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

Is there a difference between “freedom of religion” and “freedom of worship”?

Some advocates for international religious freedom are monitoring what they fear is a change in the language being used by Obama administration officials – that the broad emphasis on spreading “freedom of religion” that the president used when he spoke in Cairo last June is being subtly replaced by the more limited concept of “freedom of worship.”

I’ve not seen a formal study done of all the references by Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration, but there’s a movement growing among anxious advocates who say a trend is underway.

To insiders in this small but intense community, “freedom of worship” implies something overseas dictators view as controllable, manageable – the right to gather, pray, sing. “Freedom of religion” encompasses much more – the freedom to publicly display, advocate for, protest, and most notably: proselytize. This is the most controversial subject as the United States is still seen by some overseas as trying to foist Christianity and Judeo-Christian culture. Many advocates believe the right to evangelize freely is a basic part of their faith.

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. Well-known religious freedom advocate and Georgetown University professor Thomas Farr reportedly agreed.

The whole subject of what the United States means by the term “religious freedom” may be up for a more full public debate soon, with the new administration and USCIRF scheduled to go out of business next year. Folks like Thames and Farr say limits on religious liberty are often indicators of human rights problems in countries generally, and that health of religious freedom correlates with economic growth. But some American advocates say the United States needs to clarify what it means by “religious freedom” in a post-9/11 world, and what are its priorities? A decade ago the term implied fighting limits on persecuted communities, often Christian, but today religion is discussed differently in foreign policy, with a special emphasis on violence by Muslim extremists.


Here is the full quote of Knox Thames, the USCIRF director. It’s what he said at the Feb. 3 public staff briefing about the future of U.S. religious freedom policy sponsored by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on International Operations, Human Rights and Oversight:

“I have noticed a change in terminology by President Obama and Secretary Clinton over the past months. Starting during the President’s trip to Asia, he referred to ‘freedom of worship’ on several occasions, but never once mentioned ‘freedom of religion.’ This trend has continued with Secretary Clinton. In her speech at Georgetown University and her more recent Internet freedom speech, both times she only referred to ‘freedom of worship.'”

“Religious freedom is one of those unique rights that, to be fully enjoyed, other rights like association and speech must also be protected. Words matter, and so it’s unclear whether this new phraseology represents a change in policy. Hopefully this language only reflects speech writers trying to create good prose and not a shift in policy, as it would mean a much narrower view of the right. It will be interesting to hear what language the President uses at the Prayer Breakfast, if he talks about religious freedom issues.”

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