‘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.”
Farr focused on a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Rimsha Masih, a Christian in Pakistan. Rimsha was reportedly searching through trash for items her poor family could use and happened upon pages of the Koran, which either were already burnt or would be because of where she put them, not understanding the implications. “Then this child, utterly incapable of discerning what she had done, if anything, was arrested, charged with blasphemy, and put in prison,” Farr explained. “In Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, blasphemy is a crime which can bring many years in prison, torture, and even execution.” Rimsha has been released on bail and taken to an undisclosed location, owing to concerns that mobs of the sort we have seen outside U.S. embassies might attack her and her family, given the blasphemer she is believed to be. Her fate is unclear.
This is a “humanitarian outrage,” Farr said, and it is also part of a dangerous trend. “No one should insult the sacred beliefs of another. It is an assault on human dignity and respect for others. But the malevolent idea that the proper response to defamation of religion is criminal prosecution, let alone violence or murder, is a dangerous problem in the Muslim-majority world,” he continued. “My religion is insulted regularly by the New York Times and the Washington Post,” said Farr, a Catholic. “I frequently am outraged. But I try to respond with my voice or my pen. That is the only way people with deep differences can live together in a civilized society.”
Farr believes that it is imperative for the United States to “become more effective at supporting in these countries those Muslims who know that Islam can be defended without violence, and that embracing religious freedom is in their vital interests.” Which brings us back home.
In a speech at Georgetown, the cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl, pointed to a “gathering storm” that “has not been created by religious influence on policy, which has been a part of the American experience since the very beginning,” but by an “increasingly bold ideologically driven and progressively intolerant secular humanism” that insists it is the only legitimate voice in the public square. Religious faith has always been a “conscience” in our nation, Wuerl said. In marginalizing that voice, we lose our grip on traditional norms “that protect the dignity and the rights of every person.”
If we don’t understand this, it will become increasingly difficult for Americans to articulate these values, as we saw in that initial U.S. embassy statement and in Secretary Clinton’s near-apology for the freedom of speech. Each man and woman has a human dignity granted by God, not Caesar. Once we have relegated that to the status of just another opinion, we have lost the civic religion on which we were founded. Once we have surrendered our moral voice, Rimsha’s best advocate will be lost to history.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.