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Religious Freedom and the Foundation of Democracy PDF Print E-mail

Franklin Littell, Temple University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

Mr. Joo moved from the problems of persecution to an affirmation of the importance of peace. I am going to move from an affirmation of the importance of peace to the discussion of persecution and liberty. I want to start with the Japanese constitution and pay a tribute to our host country. There is an article there that lifts a light to the nations: the renunciation of external violence as a policy of government. Article 9 reads as follows: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained. The rise of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

This admirable commitment, which might well be taken as a model for other nations, including my own, is intended to inhibit the violence and coercion that we wrongly accept as a major characteristic of government, that is, outward aggression and international war. Although the great religious seers and prophets counsel compassion, mercy, and peace, we are prone casually in our self-congratulatory realism to dismiss the renunciation of violence and aggression outward as utopian and idealistic.

But let me put a real test question to you. Is there anyone in this room who thinks that the people of India are now more secure in their lives because a reckless regime has broken the international consensus that had developed against testing nuclear weapons? In this context, the stated purpose of Japan, and earlier of Costa Rica, as being against aggressive military potential, sounds realistic rather than to be dismissed as too idealistic.

Of course, when we think of war we automatically shift gears to discuss civil wars and/or international wars. When we follow that old instinctive orientation, we often forget two other political sectors where the jungle still widely prevails. One is the practice of genocide: war directed inward as an instrument of state policy. As a leading specialist has pointed out, since 1900 over 151 million people have been targeted and murdered by their own governments. This is almost three times as many as have perished during the same years in all the international wars and civil wars combined.

The other sector where violence and coercion by government is still widespread is the persecution of minority religious movements, even though international law prohibits genocide and Section 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights prohibits persecution of religious minorities. In large areas of the globe, the unchecked violence of the jungle still prevails, and most unhappily, those entrusted with the stewardship of government--a stewardship under God--are often complicit.

Professor Rummel of the University of Hawaii, who has written several books and many articles on this subject, has shown conclusively that outwardly aggressive regimes, despots, dictators, and so on are precisely those that turn murderously inward against targeted minorities. They are the governments most violent toward those they fear as enemies, whether external or internal. There are, then, intimate connections between aggressive policies of government directed toward other nations, genocidal policies directed against minority communities internally, and persecutory policies directed against smaller religious communities that we call new religious movements. There are intimate connections between persecution and genocide. The connection is obvious, and the moral and ethical deterioration of sound public policy is transparent to the student. Genocide is a crime of modernity that we feel miserable about. Everyone I know, regardless of his political opinions or his religious affiliation, feels miserable about what is going on in Rwanda, Sudan, Tibet, and Bosnia. It is a sign of progress. Two hundred years ago people would have said, ``Well, that is the way it is. It is like a flood or earthquake. Nothing can be done about it.’’ Today we know better. Genocide is a crime of modernity, and it is a possible policy because of the efficient organization of bureaucrats and technocrats. And the enabler is the bicycle man. You know who the bicycle man is? The bicycle man is the one who bows very low before those in front of him and treads down vigorously upon whatever and whoever is below him.

The Nazi genocide of the Jews was an accomplishment of the bicycle man. We who believe in democratic government and affirm life, however, salute the upright man--upright morally, upright as a free citizen, upright in his dignity before God. And we begin our pledge to freedom in the next millennium with an affirmation of the highest standards of interpersonal relations grounded in respect for the liberty, dignity, and integrity of the human person. No one put that better, to my knowledge, than Pope John XXIII in his great encyclical "Mater et Magistra." The liberty, dignity, and integrity of the human person are the cornerstone of our public policy.

When a society leaves that mountain peak, whatever the canny and calculating excuse, the slippery downward slide begins. Let me tick off the steps. Last evening one of our speakers made the point very well. The first step downward is toleration of the other with no attempt at including him in the dialogue of free men and women. You have to put up with him. Then comes contempt. The next steps are bigotry, which rises like a serpent in the pit, on occasion striking out, then prejudice. That is a permanent stain that spreads through the fabric of society. Next is the language of assault. This is a very important escalation of the downward slide toward genocide. The barely contained violence of the society begins to assert itself, poisoning the public forum. Individual wickedness is absorbed into collective evil.

Next comes harassment. Then come discrimination (by custom and increasingly by edict), repressive measures (some of them legal), and targeting, especially the misuse of the media. Isolation and ghettoization of a targeted people follow, then the military alert. The internal enemy is about to be treated in the way external foes are assaulted with aggressive action. Genocide, the crime of the 20th century, concentrates both military and bureaucratic technologies in a massive, all-out assault on a targeted minority.

If you paid attention to the slide into genocide, you would have noticed the intimate relationship in both theory and practice between the persecution of targeted religious minorities and the genocide of targeted religious, ethnic, and cultural minorities. Both are illegitimate actions of government, and, if they become endemic, call into question the legitimacy of any regime.

Thirty years ago I published an early warning system that identifies potentially genocidal movements with a grid. A second grid defines the moment when a legitimate government is losing it. In that system, a rising tide of individual hostility toward new religious movements (NRMs) of high energy and an increase of political measures calls for red warning flags to wave and warning bells to bring loudly. Peace—that is, compassion between peoples, internal peace--and democracy and respect for the dignity of conscience and the integrity of liberty are all welded together in an unbreakable unit. And the time to affirm that is the moment when the first challenge comes and whenever we get a chance.

Ingrid Bergman, the great Swedish movie director, made a film on the rise of a terrorist movement, which was the German Nazi Party, and called it The Serpent's Egg. It would have won Academy Awards if it had come out at the right season. He was asked what this metaphor meant. He said, "The membrane of the serpent's egg is so thin, that through it you can already see the perfectly formed body of the reptile." Those who come out of the pit to threaten the conscience, religious practice, and the integrity and dignity of others have to be challenged the first time we see their ugly head rising up.

That is why we are here, and God bless us.

Books by Franklin Littel:

In Answer : The Holocaust : Is the Story True
by Franklin Littel, Claude Foster, (Editor)
Buy it today!