Talk of Many Things

Sometimes things that seem impenetrable are merely wrong. Take the song “I Am the Walrus,” composed by John Lennon and released by the Beatles in 1967. Lennon purposely tried to make the language obscure to pay back a high school English class that he heard was analyzing his lyrics. He was distressed later to realize that the Walrus he was alluding to in the poem by Lewis Carroll is not the hero but the villain.

There is much rumbling of late in both the religious liberty fraternity and in conservative circles that the government has shifted on religious freedom. Rather than using the term “religious freedom,” a term that embraces a wide array of religious rights and behaviors, spokespeople have been noted to use the term “freedom of worship.” The question is whether there is intent to change–and indeed what do they mean by the newly applied term?

In the same Lewis Carroll book that contains the Walrus poem there is a curious exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. They had been discussing birthday presents, and how there is only one day in the year when you might get them.

“There’s glory for you!” says Humpty.

“’I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “‘there’s a nice knock down argument for you!”’

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Perhaps we are guilty of  “misunderestimating” the power of words and too readily accepting that they mean the same things to each of us. Clearly, words have meaning beyond the dictionary definition. In fact, dictionaries since Samuel Johnson’s effort essentially try to report on what the words mean in popular use, not what they ought to mean.

The most casual observer of public affairs must have noticed a growing tendency to wrest language to an end rather than use it as previously understood. Whether it is the “misspoke “ of  Watergate days or the “incentivize” of hopeful bureaucrats or the colorful language of military plans—the intent is more and more to obscure meaning, not to clarify. We seem to have lost sight of the simple reality that words don’t make it so—no matter what they imply or where they may misdirect you. Perhaps that is the fate of public discussion—to be buried in the code of words used, not to inform but to obscure and manipulate.

First: what are the literal differences between the two terms being suddenly noted in official statements?

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the United State’s Constitution. It is spelled out by the two clauses of the First Amendment which,  guarantees free exercise of faith and lack of government “establishment.”  While the guarantee is absolute and people of faith have been granted an extraordinary degree of legal protection to hold and practice any faith they want, in some ways the United Nations statement is even bolder in what it specifies. In Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights I read that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” That is a pretty comprehensive guarantee for an individual to have and to practice a faith. The U.S. Constitution takes the relationship between religion and the state in a radically enabling direction by proscribing what is generally known as a separation of church  and state—but more on that another time.

“Freedom of worship” sounds good but is one of those Humpty Dumpty terms. The Soviet regime post Stalin had no trouble with allowing freedom of worship—times and places as specified by them. It is actually a term that implies limits on religious practice and behavior. It has been used to restrict outreach and conversion activity by faith groups not of the majority in many countries. It probably will be used to enable restrictions on public religious behavior and dress.

Which is about the best reason I can come up with to explain why a shift from “Freedom of Religion” to “Freedom of Worship” might be real and not just a part of the shifting sands of political discourse. The change has been noted after President Obama’s well -received Cairo address. Carl  H. Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri, in a Christianity Today article on the language problem, thinks “the softened message is probably meant for the Muslim world.” Maybe.  There’s a fair number of them that will not easily allow freedom of worship to non-Muslims.  If the change is intended it would seem more compatible with restrictions on public, nonworship religious activity. Things such as  religious dress, public speech from religious organizations,  and even demands for accommodation in the workplace could easily fail inclusion under simple guarantees of worship.

I cruised the Web to find out more about the shift in religious freedom language and certainly found enough to feed a certain paranoia. But any descent into the Web will do that. And the Web is hardly the place to look for purity of expression and accuracy of definitions. Enough to say that one highly placed official charged with protecting religious liberty “sees a change in lingo and that it’s not an accident.” Another official said that “this is a rhetorical shift to watch.”

But is it a proven shift? One blog site did a search of the White House Web site and found 124 mentions of “freedom of religion” and only 9 uses of the term “freedom of worship.” Really mixing it up, they went to the Bush White House archives and found the same 124 uses of “freedom of religion,” and 33 uses of the suspect “freedom of worship.”  Of course, comparing the aggregate use of a term over eight years to its use in less than two is almost certainly misleading. Still, it might give us some pause before certainty.

I would put it this way. The U.S. Constitution stands,  and rhetorical shifts, if they are intended, will not so easily remove protections. But, words do matter, and we should be careful how we project our values to other nations. They might react in very counterproductive ways.

I like this statement from human rights lawyer Nina Shea, a senior scholar at the Hudson Institute. “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.”

There is good reason to think that the perceived terminogy change is nothing more than the shifting language of politics, and a lack of imprecision. But there is absolute certainty that we must insist on what the language does inherently mean, not because we say it is just so, but because the usage through years of battling for true religious freedom has proven it to be so.


Lincoln E. Steed is editor of Liberty magazine.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."