‘Urgency,” “deepening crisis.” These were words used at a conference on international religious liberty at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., on September 12. The timing of the gathering — which brought together activists, diplomats, and prominent religious leaders — took on a heightened significance as it occurred hours after our ambassador to Libya was killed, along with three other Americans, in attacks that were ostensibly about religion.
In the midst of the September 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. embassies in the Arab world, the mindset of the Obama administration was more fully revealed. The initial reaction from an official U.S. source came in the form of a statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. . . . Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
This would later be walked back by the administration, which was not consulted on the release; but in the clarification, we actually saw reinforcement. Secretary of State Clinton would go on to say: “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. . . . Even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law. And we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be.”
The current administration simply doesn’t value our freedoms in quite the same way Americans used to do. We’ve seen it domestically, in the case of the Department of Health and Human Services’ abortion-drug, sterilization, contraception mandate, a regulatory emanation of the president’s misnamed Affordable Care Act, which has Catholics and Protestants suing the federal government for their religious liberty. And we’re seeing the beginning of a slip showing on freedom of speech too. This is no surprise; without our “first freedom,” the others lose grounding. Without a robust sense that religious freedom is granted by the Creator, not the state, it becomes just another matter for political debate.
“The evidence points to a crisis — one that is not simply ‘out there’ in the Third World, but one whose symptoms are appearing close to home,” Thomas F. Farr, a diplomat by training, and director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, said at the CUA conference. “Seventy percent of the world lives in countries that have severe restrictions on religious freedom,” Farr noted. This is a problem that is “particularly acute in Muslim-majority countries” but also countries such as China, India, and Russia. It is “getting worse,” he added, and that is “having an impact on Western countries, including the United States; worldwide, Christians are the most vulnerable to persecution.”