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Rating America’s Heritage of Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Rating America’s Heritage of Religious Freedom

By Dan Fefferman

Presented at the President’s Day Interfaith Celebration of America’s Heritage of Faith February 1, 2001.

Probably more than any country in history, the United States of America is steeped in a tradition of religious freedom. As schoolchildren Americans learn the story of the Pilgrim Fathers’ coming to this land in search of religious liberty. This origin story informs our national identity to such an extent that the ideal of religious freedom is essential to being an American. The Bill of Rights enshrined religious freedom as the first freedom. Although its record is certainly not perfect, the United States is recognized as a model and leader in the field of religious liberty.

Today’s convocation has, as one of its purposes to "take spiritual inventory of where the Nation stands in respect to the fulfillment of its own ideals and traditions." Where does America stand in relation to its ideal of religious freedom? The question really has two parts. How are we doing in terms of practicing what we preach? And how are we doing in terms of influencing others to put this ideal into practice?

In terms of practicing what we preach, I think we are doing very well. This was not always the case however. In our early history, the United States was guilty of serious religious freedom abuses. In Massachusetts, the home of Plymouth Rock, the Puritans expelled Baptists for heresy, executed Quakers, and conducted the infamous Salem witch trials. Even after the Bill of Rights became law, some states officially disenfranchised Jews, Catholics, Unitarians, or believers in native religions. Later, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others suffered gravely because of religious intolerance and persecution. These religious minorities paved the way for the expansion of religious freedom through their legal battles. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

But even in the last century, America’s record is not perfect. We should not forget that prior to WWII, this country denied a safe haven to Jews undergoing persecution under Hitler. Anti-Semitism is still a problem today in some areas. Moreover, there has been intolerance and suspicion toward Muslims and other religious groups that have immigrated to the US in the last half of the 20th century.

The advent of new religious movements has also created challenges. The founder of one new religion, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was imprisoned on tax charges in the 1980s despite the objections of mainstream churches and civil libertarians alike. During the 1970s, we witnessed the phenomenon of widespread religious kidnapping— under the euphemism of "deprogramming"—in an effort to force religious believers of groups such as Scientology, the Children of God, Hare Krishna, and the Unification Church to renounce their faith. Thankfully, the courts eventually moved to thwart this shameful practice.

So over the years, some progress has been made. And when serious harms arise, the courts have generally done a good job of enforcing the guarantees of the First Amendment. In no other country do so many diverse religious groups coexist so freely. So in terms of how we are doing at home, I’d have to give America an A-minus. There is still room for improvement, but, especially compared to other countries, we are doing very well.

In terms influence abroad, the story is more complicated. The United States formally committed itself to leadership in this field through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. One good thing this did was to put pressure on Japan to enforce its kidnapping laws in deprogramming cases, for which we at ICRF can take some credit. But it has done little or nothing to influence China and Sudan—two of the worst violators— to respect the rights their religious minorities. Even in Europe, where US influence should be substantial, serious government abuses occur. To name only a few:

  • France will soon pass repressive legislation to liquidate "cults"
  • Germany officially treats Scientologists as untouchables
  • Several countries have created a state system that discriminates against small or new religion
  • Some European governments humiliate Muslim schoolgirls by forcing them to remove their headscarves in public schools
  • and Rev. and Mrs. Moon are banned from entering Europe through the actions of Germany and France under the Schengen Treaty.

So the US gets an A– for practicing what it preaches—and this is indeed the most essential part of leadership. But it gets only a C in terms of directly influencing other nations. It remains to be seen whether the new administration will do better or worse than its predecessor in promoting religious freedom abroad. In any case I hope we will all increase our awareness of religious freedom and work to encourage our government to support it vigorously both at home and abroad.