International Religious Freedom: President Obama Misses an Opportunity

A painted welcome to President Obama in Burma. (Photo: EPA/Newscom)

President Obama missed a key opportunity to advance robust religious liberty in prepared remarks delivered in Burma recently.

This is especially disappointing given that Burma has a long track record of persecution against religious minorities; the plight of Muslims in its west is just the latest and most visible manifestation.

In fact, in its recent report on religious freedom restrictions worldwide, the Pew Forum again placed Burma in its category of countries with the highest levels of both government-endorsed restriction on religious practice and social hostilities toward religious minorities. Burma joins a list of some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Iran, Syria, and Egypt.

President Obama, however, only mentioned religious liberty in passing, and instead of defending the comprehensiveness of religious liberty, he once again defined down religious liberty to a mere “freedom to worship”:

And this truth leads me to the third freedom that I want to discuss: the freedom to worship—the freedom to worship as you please, and your right to basic human dignity.… Every nation struggles to define citizenship. America has had great debates about these issues, and those debates continue to this day, because we’re a nation of immigrants—people coming from every different part of the world. But what we’ve learned in the United States is that there are certain principles that are universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you practice. The right of people to live without the threat that their families may be harmed or their homes may be burned simply because of who they are or where they come from.

President Obama’s narrow construal of religious liberty as “freedom to worship” misses the mark. Religious liberty, properly understood, is freedom to act according to the dictates of faith and conscience in daily life, not just to “worship” as one pleases. In other words, religious liberty is comprehensive; in this view, faith is not just a hobby or a set of rituals but the central motivating and organizing feature of one’s life.

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Perhaps President Obama is hesitant to fully promote the concept of comprehensive religious liberty abroad because his Administration continues to define down religious liberty to “freedom to worship” at home.

Indeed, more than 100 religious organizations—including universities, charitable organizations, and businesses—have now filed suit against the Obama Administration’s anti-conscience mandate, which requires religious institutions to provide contraception and abortifacients in violation of religious beliefs. In light of this development, it is clear that a fundamental reassessment of the scope of religious liberty is desperately needed.

The months ahead will prove crucial in our national understanding of religious liberty, yet one thing is already clear: A narrow understanding of religious liberty at home enervates our efforts to seek justice and protection for victims of religious persecution around the world.

Thomas Bell is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit

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