‘Freedom Of Religion,’ ‘Freedom Of Worship’ And Religious Right Calumny

Religious Right leaders, ever on the lookout for more reasons to attack President Barack Obama, will grasp at any straw. Lately, they have been blasting the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for occasionally using the term “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.”

According to the paranoid legions of the Religious Right, this purported shift in language somehow means that our nation is lessening its commitment to religious liberty.

Talk about nit-picking! Historically, the two terms have been used interchangeably in the United States. In fact, other presidents have used the term “freedom of worship,” some quite eloquently.

Remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech? The second was “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.”

President Ronald W. Reagan, a hero to the Religious Right, used the term too. Speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1988, Reagan waxed eloquent about the things that make America special, singling out “freedom of worship, freedom of hope and opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The real threat to religious freedom doesn’t come from the terminology employed by top government officials. It comes from bigoted Religious Right leaders (and their followers) who say they support religious freedom but want it only for themselves.

Consider the ongoing flap over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” For months, Religious Right operatives like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have been fulminating about an Islamic group’s plans to erect a facility in Manhattan.

Even TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which claims to support religious liberty for all groups, is trying to block construction of this building.

Gingrich said recently that the Islamic center must be stopped because Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow construction of Christian churches. How incredibly wrong-headed! Gingrich would have us descend to the level of tyranny rather than show Saudi Arabia a better way by lifting up religious liberty.

The Cordoba House is actually a community center more than a mosque. It will include a fitness center and meeting rooms open to all – and it’s two blocks away from Ground Zero. 

More to the point is this simple fact: As long as they abide by applicable laws, religious groups are allowed to open facilities where they see fit. All must be treated equally by the government. That’s real religious liberty.

The irony is, a variety of denominations from across the political spectrum joined forces a few years ago to persuade Congress to pass a special law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to make it easier for religious groups to build where they wanted. The Religious Right seems to believe Christian groups have every right to take advantage of that law, but Muslims don’t.

It doesn’t work that way. Government must never play favorites when it comes to religion. The state is required to be neutral, neither advocating nor inhibiting any faith.

Some political leaders have lost sight of this fact. In Oklahoma, Rex Duncan, a member of the state House of Representatives, has engineered a ballot question this fall on a proposal to ban sharia (Islamic law) in the state.

Is there an effort under way to impose Islamic law in Oklahoma? Of course not.

Duncan calls the measure a “preemptive strike.” But the only thing it strikes against is common sense. Our First Amendment already protects us from Islamic law and indeed all mergers of religion and government.

Ironically, what Oklahoma really needs is protection from fundamentalist Christian theocrats. The state has been plagued by reckless attempts to mix religion and government. Bills promoting government display of the Ten Commandments, advocating creationism in public schools and so on are a constant there.

In addition, a band of far-right pastors calling themselves “Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ” runs amok in the Sooner State, seeking laws that would require all residents to live under their narrow vision of the Christian faith. It’s a version so extreme even most Christians would find it an ill fit.

A commitment to real religious liberty (or freedom of worship, if you prefer) isn’t always easy. It can mean tolerating some groups you don’t care for. It can mean feeling uncomfortable when religious proselytizers come to your door. It can mean turning on the television and seeing a money-grubbing TV preacher raving at you.

You can avoid groups you dislike, tell the door-to-door proselytizers you’re not interested and change the TV channel. Expecting the government to curb groups because you don’t like them is never the solution.

All religious groups must abide by the law. All must refrain from engaging in acts of violence or sponsoring terror. As long as they are willing to live within these rules, all religions are free to build facilities and spread their theology in this country.

This has been a core principle of American life for more than 200 years – yet Religious Right leaders and their followers still haven’t grasped it.

They probably never will. It’s why they have no right to lecture the rest of us on the real meaning of “freedom of religion.”