It’s being passed off as a matter of semantics. That’s what they all say, when ‘they’ have subversive motives. Like changing the way we think about things and eventually the way we behave by simply changing the langauge that describes and defines it.

This is not a conspiracy theory, though proponents of free speech restrictions for religiously informed voices are calling religiously informed people conspiracy theorists for sounding any alarm. It’s another way to control public opinion, as Walter Lippman pointed out so acutely in his book of that name.

So what’s this latest stir about? Signals coming from the Obama administration that freedom of religion is quietly morphing into freedom of worship. Heading into Independence Day weekend, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview sent out an alert about the redefinition of religious freedom that just may be happening in American government right now.

I’ve seen columns and blogs about this in other places, this one about a week earlier, which quotes Chritianity Today’s concerns:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the shift in language. In a December speech at Georgetown University, she used “freedom of worship” three times but “freedom of religion” not at all. While addressing senators in January, she referred to “freedom of worship” four times and “freedom of religion” once when quoting an earlier Obama speech.

The State Department dismisses concerns about the semantics, saying the terms are interchangeable. That plausible deniability is a useful strategy. However…

Reporter Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra also interviewed Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She sees something much more troubling about the “freedom of worship” language…

Freedom of worship means the right to pray within the confines of a place of worship or to privately believe, said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom and member of the commission. “It excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with co-religionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training.”

This is the realism behind the terms.

It’s a small thing, really—the shift of a word, the coining of a new phrase. But the consequences are going to be bad, and the signal it sends of American retreat on human rights comes at a terrible moment.

Think of it this way: If you have “freedom of religion,” you can bring up your children in your faith, hold public processions, and print books. If you have only “freedom of worship” you can pray quietly in your home, as long as it remains out of public sight.

“Freedom of religion” means you can stand on a street corner and proselytize everything from Catholicism to Mormonism to the cult of the sun god Ra. “Freedom of worship” means you can be executed for public conversion away from Islam. Worship is part of religion, but it is one of the least public parts—and thus one of the least involved in actual freedom.

And this transition of officially and legally recognized expressions goes back further than Sec. Clinton’s December remarks.

The first signs of national withdrawal from concern about religious liberty came in November, at a memorial service for those slain at Ft. Hood, when President Obama used the phrase “freedom of worship” where more common American political language has always used the phrase “freedom of religion.”

It seemed incidental at the time—certainly hardly anyone remarked on it—but he used the phrase again in Japan a few days later. And then again in China. It quickly became the administration’s favored formula for speaking about religious liberty.

Because it’s softening up public opinion while transitioning the public toward a new reality in which we really won’t enjoy religious liberty anymore.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Thomas Farr argued forcefully both that all this is a retreat and that pursuit of religious liberty is vital to the security interests of the United States.

If we give in on religious liberty, we will lose credibility with oppressed peoples around the world. We give a license to the states that violate human rights. We fail to assist totalitarian states in their movement toward freedom. And, most of all, we cease to be true to ourselves—cease to be a nation that, more than any other, testifies to the compatibility of modernity and religion.

And we were the ones who discovered that connection in the first place.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....