Watch Your Language!

For the past few months, I’ve been telling you about a significant rhetorical shift in American foreign policy: the switch from talking about “freedom of religion” to talking about “freedom of worship.”

As I pointed out, “freedom of religion” means a lot more than “freedom of worship.” Freedom of religion includes things like practicing your faith in public, bringing up your children in the faith, and seeking to convert others. “Freedom of worship,” on the other hand, turns religion into a purely private matter.

A few weeks ago, I noticed an exception to this rhetorical shift: speaking to a Muslim audience, the president said that “This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

This rhetorical doubling back had me a bit confused: what was it? “freedom of religion” or “freedom of worship?”

So I asked BreakPoint listeners for their take. I’m glad I did.

One listener wrote that he didn’t believe that the “confusion and double-speak between Freedom of Worship and Freedom of Religion” was “necessarily intentional.” Instead, he saw a more benign explanation: it’s just part of a larger pattern-a way of speaking about religious and faith matters in “diluting generalizations and [with] a barrage of questions.”

Like many professing Christians, the listener suggested, the president may not be all that knowledgeable about what Christianity does and does not teach and about all that Christians hold dear.

I think that the listener is on to something when he talks about “diluting generalizations.” Having worked in the White House, I know the careful attention that is paid to the wording of agreements and treaties with foreign countries. If you don’t word things precisely, the resulting loopholes and ambiguities will come back to bite you.

Yet, when it comes to matters of religion, that precision is missing. Words no longer seem to matter. Now, in a pluralistic society, some of this is inevitable, but lawyers of all people-and the president is a lawyer-should understand the implications of saying “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.”

If verbal precision is vital when discussing trade policy, it ought to be many times more important when it comes to our first freedom, freedom of religion.  Yet it’s not, which says something ominous about the state of religious freedom in our culture.

But this got me to thinking further: It’s bad enough when our leaders don’t pay close attention to the meaning of words, but it’s even worse when Christians don’t. Listening to what passes as apologetics often, I’m not surprised that other people don’t know what Christianity teaches.

The sad truth is that “diluting generalizations” aren’t limited to politicians – it’s the rhetorical style of many Americans, including Christians, for whom faith isn’t something to be articulated but, instead, something to be felt. When we say that “Jesus loves us just as we are,” for instance, are we talking about the Lord’s self-sacrificing love? A love which drove him to the cross to die for our sins so that we might be transformed? Or are we talking about a blank-check kind of love that would allow us to die in our sin-so long as we’re happy?

Well, the point here is simply this: Words matter. Time will tell whether the president was using generalizations or was signaling a disastrous policy switch. But in the meantime, let’s make sure that when we spread the Christian faith, we use words that communicate the Truth, and not dilute it.

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