Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
Religious freedom and religious peace are distinct matters, and that distinction is part of what I intend to elaborate on. I hope to establish clear links between the two concepts.
Both religious conflict and religious persecution basically make life as a religious believer contrary to the way it should be. War unsettles your life and someone persecuting you unsettles your life. But they do so for different reasons. The question of religious freedom pertains to your condition as a religious believer within a single dimension or sphere of sovereignty. In other words, you are a member of a state, and your freedoms are jeopardized by an organization or state that has sovereignty over you.
Religious wars, on the other hand, are an engagement across the boundaries of sovereignty. Religious freedom is a modern concept that is derived from emerging concepts of secular governance. The idea of human rights and religious freedom is a modern and borderline “nonreligious” notion. Religious wars, I would contend, are a pre-modern phenomenon. Most religions do not have the instruments of war at their disposal. Probably Muslim countries are the exception. The Vatican happens to be a state, but they don’t have the divisions. Their divisions appear to be down to a minimum.
With that distinction made, I would say that this conference is characterized by a certain ambiguity. For example, on our opening evening Joseph Paige elaborated on some very good principles, guidelines, impulses, and attitudes required for religious dialogue. That was well instructed—what you can’t digest, leave on the plate. He also shared many other principles that can guide our way to coming closer through dialogue.
On the other hand, immediately following Dr. Page’s remarks, Dr. Littell gave a very stirring and haunting image of the slide beginning with tolerance moving all the way to genocide. That is a religious issue. Also, this morning Dr. Swidler gave remarks analyzing the actual ages, which he concluded by introducing his own Institute for Global Dialogue. It is essentially an interfaith undertaking. It is an organization designed for dialogue and to enhance and create understanding between religions.
Dr. Arias, on the other hand, spoke on the realm of rights. He even ultimately called for a declaration of universal obligations. Those are fascinating and encouraging ideas, but you see very clearly how these two issues, until now, were not clearly reflected upon. Several speakers gave a global overview of religious freedom. Many of the African situations are issues of religious conflict. In other words, they are nations divided between two religious communities that are in conflict. These are not technically matters of religious freedom. They are just two groups of people. In the case of Sudan, for instance, a Muslim north and a Christian south are in conflict with one another.
What we find in the modern age is religious conflict. If you are talking about religious wars, you find that the term is no longer used after 1715 or so. You will find lots of journal articles or books describing the period of religious wars, the Protestant wars, and so forth before that time. However, in the modern period, we don’t talk about religions. We talk about religious conflict. The reason we have religious conflict is that these are sub-sovereignties. There is loyalty to a unit different than the state. This causes conflict, and some sort of warfare may result. You can have a lot of weaponry and guns and act like a soldier, but usually it is a terrorist war, because it is not between states.
The relationship between religion and state is ripe for misuse on both sides—both political and religious concerns. The political concerns mostly want a state that is stable. Politics is, to a certain degree, a matter of maintaining order, of exerting authority.
The ideal pursuit of the state is peace and prosperity. Religions, on the other hand, are mostly concerned with ideology. Religions also, within themselves, like to have uniformity. They set tolerable perimeters for behavior in the community. Then you start to have excommunications, heresies, and so forth. The two communities operate similarly, but with different obsessions over where their bottom line is, what they are after.
They are not separable in human affairs, however. All states are going to have some ideological underpinning for executing or implementing their policies, and all religions are going to have some form of relationship with the state. There may either be a wedding, by which they can share in the authority and dominance of the subjects of the state, or there will be a minority community subject to the will of the majority.
Over time, it has come to the consciousness of states, particularly in the modern period, that a degree of cooperation benefits your own self-interest. Wars have shifted, in large part, when we are talking about very high-level countries, like the G-7 powers. Their wars are economic, not military. So given the recognition of the shift in forms of dominance, expansion, or imperialism, nations do not really need to fight over a river or a port to the same degree that wars were waged earlier.
The market reveals an insight that cooperation is a benefit. As a result, in the modern period there has been the recognition and awareness that self-interest can be benefited through cooperation. For this reason the nature of the world is such that things like the United Nations are a very popular concept. Most people who are extremely fond of it don’t know that much about it but still like it because it is a pleasant thought—all nations cooperating. If you ever get in there you will find there is a real schizophrenic community of people who are theoretically for one world and operate on nothing other than simple self-interest. That is a bit critical, but it is often characteristic of the dynamics that operate at the United Nations.
Now, while material affairs—political and economic affairs—have emerged in the modern period as having growing awareness that cooperation is a benefit, and that, as the expression goes, “all ships rise when the tide comes in,” religions actually have never emerged into that state of consciousness. In fact, the spiritual or religious coin of the realm is such that it would be difficult to forge or determine what is the common benefit of cooperation in religion.
The ideal for cooperation is always democracy. But there has never emerged a religious ideal. Democracy is at best a stretch into the post-Protestant trend in religion, where the human conscience is the distinct link between the individual and God, and then you kind of shed religion and produce a system of government. It is called democracy, in which there is tolerance and individual freedom.
I am very interested to hear of Justice Thomas’s attachment to natural law, because there is an effort to develop a more universal, nonspecific religious foundation to democracy. But, until this point, religion does not avail itself of democracy. And religion has not yet identified ways in which it, as an aspect of human endeavor, will be enhanced and will improve on the basis of democratic principles and cooperation. I would argue that there are, in fact, a great many benefits to authentic religious cooperation in ways that would imitate democratic ideals either as a community of nations or as a democracy in a given country.
The other thing that is lacking in the religious world in order for it to inherit or catch up to the contemporary impulse toward peace and human cooperation is an independent body that oversees religious affairs and is critical of those that are contrary to the community of religions. The United Nations functions in this way for nations. When nations get out of hand, the rest of the nations get together, expose the behavior of the nation acting irresponsibly, and attempt to generate international censure or ways of pressuring the rogue state.
Religious affairs are conducted in the dark. They are not in the open. So far, there is no international body that even symbolically sits above religions at an international or interreligious level that would in similar fashion bring religious affairs to the light of day. This organization would have the community of religions operate in such a way that they would want to expose, bring censure, and put pressure on religions that are acting contrary to the cooperative nature of the body.
But this organization must be forged out of the world of religions itself. It can’t be forged out of the United Nations. It can’t be forged out of some community based on democracy because democracy is not generated out of purely religious concerns. The United Nations, until very recently, has actually been hostile to religion. It doesn’t understand religion very well. Now it is coming around, and I am happy to see developments there.
I hope I haven’t abbreviated my remarks to the degree that I have interfered with your ability to follow my line. My position is that religions have never entered into the modern period. Religious wars once took place when religion and state were fused. When religion became separated from state, then the possibility of democracy, human rights, and human freedoms was established based on a principle of political governance not derived necessarily from a religious position.
That means that religions did not follow the political order. Therefore, although we see a world moving toward peace, economic and political cooperation, and the conscience of the world in institutions like the United Nations, we find a very shadowy relationship between religion and politics. This is because religion has not yet had the opportunity and the structures of international organizations that can begin to function and elevate it into “democratic” principles.
What I would like to see emerge in the modern period is a way for religions to shed their pre-modern impulses and come to understand that there are tremendous benefits from a democratic form of cooperation with one another. Religions no longer need to operate in the dark and not be accountable for their behavior internationally. But the only community, or the only group of people, able to spawn such an organization will be a community of religious leaders. It will not be derived from the secular realm.