Extremist feet (size 13) in even more extreme shoes. Photo taken at the Holland display in Royal Park Rajapruek, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2015.
Three years ago, Wesley J. Smith writing for FirstThings.com described the assault on freedom of religion being conducted under the banner of freedom of worship. Aren’t they the same thing? There is an important difference. When governments provide only for “freedom of worship,” they may be willing to allow you to worship as you will in certified houses of worship, but when it comes to how you live your life outside of worship services, practicing your religion becomes more problematic.
Smith warned that in spite of explicit protection for religious freedom in the US Constitution and even in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18), that liberty is being limited and assaulted in many quarters:
Strident secularism is on the march and freedom of religion is the target, with secularist warriors attempting to drive religious practice behind closed doors by redefining religious liberty down to a hyper-restricted, “freedom of worship.”
In his list of specific examples of trouble spots, Smith warned that Obamacare would force those who oppose abortion on moral and religious grounds to provide or facilitate that gruesome service, contrary to their religious beliefs. His concerns have proven to be grounded in reality. As Sarah Torre wrote at Heritage.org in 2014:
Perhaps the most egregious example of this whittling away of religious liberty is Obamacare’s anti-conscience mandate. The legal showdown over the now famous rule entered a new round last week. The federal government continued its fight to force the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity dedicated to caring for the elderly poor, to cover abortion-inducing drugs and contraception in violation of their faith. While the Supreme Court stopped enforcement of the mandate against some family businesses, non-profit religious organizations like the Little Sisters remain in danger of devastating fines for not complying with the coercive rule.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s HHS mandate is hardly the only assault on religious freedom and the right of conscience in the United States.
Obamacare is finding new ways to force individuals and families to pay for health plans that cover elective abortions. The law’s lack of transparency about abortion coverage, coupled with a mandatory abortion surcharge, is so serious an affront to conscience that it has led at least one family to file a federal lawsuit. The health care law also only includes limited protections for medical professionals who decline to participate in, perform, or refer for abortion because of their moral or religious beliefs. Those loose protections, coupled with the administration’s weakened guidance on federal conscience regulations, could endanger the ability of doctors, nurses and hospitals to continue working in accordance with their values.
Outside the doctor’s office and beyond the intricacies of health insurance, Americans are also facing new threats to their freedom to work in accordance with their beliefs about marriage. With the redefinition of marriage in a number of states (more often through the rulings of judges than the votes of citizens) has come increasing intolerance in both culture and law toward those who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
Most recently, a couple who runs a farm in upstate New York was fined $13,000 for declining to rent their family farm for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Others involved in the wedding industry, like photographers, florists and cake makers, have been hauled into court for declining to use their artistic talents to participate in same-sex weddings. Facing coercion by state governments to place children with same-sex couples, some Christian adoption agencies have even been forced to end foster care and adoption services rather than abandon their belief that children do best with a married mother and father.
In July of this year, Little Sisters of the Poor suffered a serious setback when a Federal Court ordered them to comply with the HHS mandate requiring them to subsidize contraceptive and some abortion services for employees or face large fines from the IRS. These Catholic sisters are free to listen to mass in Latin, English, or Vulcan if they wish, but when it comes to living their lives outside of worship services, their freedom of religion is curtailed as the State pressures them to promote something they find evil and reprehensible.
Freedom of worship is not much better than freedom of belief, and both are far less than the fundamental freedom that our Founding Fathers sought to protect. Freedom of religion should be the law of the land in the United States and other nations that have ascribed to that sacred concept, but it is being replaced with the much more limited freedom of worship or belief.
The difference between freedom of religion and freedom of worship came up again recently when a US Senator grilled Homeland Security about a subtle change in wording on the government’s test for immigrants to the US who wish to become citizens:
A Republican senator from Oklahoma pressed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a hearing Wednesday about why the U.S. is “misrepresenting” Americans’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion to immigrants who are applying to become U.S. citizens.
“We in the United States actually have freedom of religion, not freedom of worship,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told Johnson yesterday during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing.
Lankford was referring to the department’s decision to include “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion” as a basic American right listed in the civics test that all immigrants must take to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Again, the difference needs to be understood and attempts to replace the greater freedom with the lesson one should be called out. I don’t think the change in wording is just a careless mistake.
Here in China, where the social, religious, and political situation is much different than in the US, I am happy to report that we at least have freedom of belief. In fact, we foreign LDS members enjoy currently surprisingly generous freedom of worship, provided we carefully respect the law and avoid proselyting among native Chinese. (If you come to visit or live in China, please come worship with us, but don’t bring religious literature to give to Chinese people, and don’t get into detailed conversations about matters of faith–respect the law here!) In terms of officially condoned public worship, it is generally restricted to official locations provided for the five state-recognized religions in China: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (a Protestant organization) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (which does not recognize the Vatican), whose leaders are generally members of the Communist Party or selected by the Party’s Administration of Religious Affairs.
Latter-day Saints are not one of the official five, obviously, but in several cities foreign-passport-holding Latter-day Saints like myself are allowed to meet and worship together quite freely at appointed locations, provided only foreign-passport holders attend our meetings. We are intensely grateful for this freedom, and we strive to respect the laws of China in order to preserve this right and the trust that has been given us. Given China’s history and current needs and concerns, I can understand the reasons for China’s policies. In the US, however, our heritage and fundamental privilege extends much beyond freedom of belief or freedom of worship. I hope that freedom can be preserved as well. Here in China, in my opinion, the trend over the past few decades has been one of increasing freedoms, still with challenges and problems. But the trends of decreasing freedoms that I see in the West are alarming.
Unfortunately, even freedom of belief and freedom of worship in the US and the West in general may soon come under fire. At least that’s my cynical take on the news that the United States is collaborating with the United Nations to help stamp out ideologies (belief systems) that they label “extremist.” Here’s part of the Sept. 29, 2015 announcement straight from the United Nations, which begins by discussing the obvious problem of terrorism–now called “violent extremism,” but paves the way for dealing with much broader issues and belief systems than the small groups that like to spread terror:
The Leaders’ Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, hosted by United States President Barack Obama on the margins of the General Assembly’s annual high-level debate, brought together representatives from more than 100 nations, more than 20 multilateral institutions, some 120 civil society groups from around the world, and partners from the private sector.
“Addressing this challenge goes to the heart of the mission of the United Nations, and it requires a unified response,” stated the Secretary-General, who intends to present a comprehensive Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism early next year to the General Assembly.
“Our objective must be to go beyond countering violent extremism to preventing it in the first place,” he added.
In this regard, he outlined five key priorities: the need to engage all of society; the need to make a special effort to reach young people; to build truly accountable institutions; respect for international law and human rights; and the importance of not being ruled by fear – or provoked by those who strive to exploit it.
“We have a major challenge before us – one that will not disappear overnight – but one that we can address concretely by forging societies of inclusion, ensuring lives of dignity, and pursuing this essential endeavour inspired at all times by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Opening the meeting, President Obama said that it is not going to be enough to defeat ISIL in the battlefield.
“We have to prevent it from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place. And this means defeating their ideology. Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.” …
And in all countries, it is vital to continue to build true partnerships with Muslim communities, based on trust and cooperation, so that they can help protect their loved ones from becoming radicalized, Mr. Obama continued.
“This cannot just be the work of government. It is up to all of us. We have to commit ourselves to build diverse, tolerant, inclusive societies that reject anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry that creates the divisions, the fear and the resentments upon which extremists can prey.
Does it take a lot of paranoid imagination to see how “engaging all of society” and reshaping the minds of the young to denounce and curtail those who allegedly “exploit fear,” threaten “dignity” (the sweeping new right mysteriously found in the Constitution that overturned the right of States to regulate and define marriage), and create “divisions” (i.e., disagreement with sanctioned PC views) could point to government intrusions in not just freedom of religion, but even freedom of belief? After all, these statements imply that it is the belief systems that are responsible for extremism in the first place, and not just the relatively tiny fringe groups who exploit Islam in some parts of the world to promote terror. The language of this UN announcement shows that much broader religious belief systems are being targeted.
In fact, for many of our elite opponents, religion, especially Christian religion and most especially conservative Christian religion such as Evangelical Christianity and Mormonism, is inherently extreme, divisive, bigoted, hateful, and fear-based. In their view, opposition to their political or social goals is an expression of hate and bigotry. There is a divide, but divisiveness is due only to the existence of opponents on the other side. Their anger is just righteous indignation toward the unrighteous hate of the others. Tolerance is not a two-way street, but a strictly enforced one-way road.
Do you think there is no threat that some of the power-hungry who despise religion, if given the opportunity and power, will hesitate to make further incursions into the liberties that we now enjoy or once enjoyed?
If you don’t believe that there might be a little bait-and-switch ruse in this effort to reshape global society, ask yourself this: If the problem being addressed is ISIS and the terrorism of other militant Islamist groups, then why does the mission of this international effort depart from stomping out militant Islamic groups and capturing the most dangerous terrorists among them (some of whom may be posing as immigrants crossing borders with documentation), instead morphing to the new goal of “reject[ing] anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry that creates the divisions, the fear and the resentments upon which extremists can prey“? Whoa, it’s you allegedly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant folks who are causing all that bloodshed? That’s the real enemy now? Or maybe it’s actually you anti-abortion folks who are the real problem here.
You can be as pro-Muslim and pro-immigrant as you want (for example, I’ll take Daniel Peterson as a wonderful example of a Mormon who deeply respects Islam and has given us tools to appreciate it), but if you’re in the cross-hairs of those who despise your particular religion, I bet the eye of the beholder will see something that looks horrifically ugly, or rather, divisive, bigoted, and extreme.
Admittedly, that’s an extreme opinion. Just one more reason (in addition to my shoe size) why I’m an extremist in need of reeducation or something. And yes, the broad statements in the UN announcement have not been passed into law yet. That won’t happen, of course, until we go through the complex and often lengthy process involving both Houses of Congress and loaded with checks and balances as described in the US Constitution–or until an executive order is issued, which takes about 10 minutes on a Friday afternoon.
So is there really any risk that the US government might somehow brand large numbers of Christians as “extremists” who might need the helpful attention and services of, say, the US military? Is that utterly paranoid and ridiculous? A clue about the probability of such a bizarre situation might be found in an incident in 2013, as reported by Nicola Menzie in The Christian Post:
A U.S. Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training brief describes “Evangelical Christianity” and “Catholicism” as examples of “religious extremism,” according to the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, who shared a copy of the documents with The Christian Post.
“The number of hate groups, extremists and anti‐govt organizations in the U.S. has continued to grow over the past three years, according to reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They increased to 1,018 in 2011, up from 1,002 in 2010 and 602 in 2000,” reads the first page of the slide presentation labeled “Extremism & Extremist Organizations.”
Listed alongside “extremist” groups and organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and al-Qaida, the U.S. Army slideshow has “Evangelical Christianity” as the first bullet, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and farther down on the slide, Catholicism.
According to the training documents, “Extremism is a complex phenomenon” that is present in every religion due to “some followers that believe that their beliefs, customs and traditions are the only ‘right way’ and that all others are practicing their faith the ‘wrong way,’ seeing and believing that their faith/religion superior to all others.”
Here’s the offending slide from the presentation to US soldiers, published by the Christian Post. As stated, the list of religious extremists leads with Evangelicals. Further down is Catholicism. Toward the end is “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Real Mormons aren’t on the list, I’m relieved to report. Whew, close call, but looks like we’re safe, right? Perhaps, unless you also affiliate with the Jewish Defense League (I think some Mormons might) or have a very strong dislike of Islam (“Islamophobia”). That’s not me, for the record, but I suspect there are some Mormons that fall into that camp. And some Mormons who converted from Catholicism might still retain some of their former “extremist” ways. Of course, this list is not meant to be complete. The list of potential extremists and their insidious traits could become very, very long. The shoes of extremism are so big that they can fit almost any foot, when it suits the accuser.
Of course, once Catholics, Evangelicals, and perhaps some other targeted “extremists” got wind of this, they objected and the US government quickly washed its hands, pointing out that this was an isolated incident, not representative of what the military is really doing, etc., etc. Maybe it was just a rare, inexplicable mistake. But the organization that helped prepare the materials appears to still be in good standing as an important ally of the Administration. Watch for more efforts to give government more tools and more power to fight the never-ending battle against the extremist spooks that haunt dark corners everywhere.
A crack down on “extremism” of any kind could be a beautiful tool for those who seek ever more power for government. It’s not just the US government (and the UN) calling for this. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, gave a speech at the United Nations last year calling for something similar:
We must be clear: to defeat the ideology of extremism we need to deal with all forms of extremism – not just violent extremism.
For governments, there are some obvious ways we can do this. We must ban preachers of hate from coming to our countries. We must proscribe organisations that incite terrorism against people at home and abroad. We must work together to take down illegal online material like the recent videos of ISIL murdering hostages. And we must stop the so called non-violent extremists from inciting hatred and intolerance in our schools, our universities and yes, even our prisons.
While we all may dislike hate and intolerance, the danger is in defining those terms. If I’m the one making that call, should you be worried that anti-Mormon speech might be treated as hate speech? Will I find you are suffering from Mormophobia or Christophobia and need a few months in a reeducation camp? No, I wouldn’t do that–but do you want to find out what a Mormon would do with that kind of power? Should we give anyone that kind of power? Some of the abuses we’ve already seen with “hate speech” legislation and policies suggest that an all-out international effort on stamping out any form of “extremism” that politicians dislike could be a very dangerous thing. Note, however, that extremism in government power will never be on the official list of extremism to stamp out.
May all Americans, whatever our faith, stand up for freedom of religion, not just freedom of worship and belief. Let me know what you think–but please don’t say anything that might be viewed as divisive, bigoted, or extreme. I’ve got your IP address, and may have to report you. Make sure your words create a society of inclusion and harmony–or else.