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North America, Latin America, and Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Elliot Abrams, Ethics and Public Policy Center

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

It is a great pleasure and an honor to be here with you. Our topic—Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium—could not be more important and I am delighted to address it. I want to begin with some general remarks about the importance of religious freedom, and then turn to Latin America in particular.

A century and a half ago, one of the most famous products of the Enlightenment, the philosopher Karl Marx, began his "Communist Manifesto" with the words "A spectre is haunting Europe." That spectre was, of course, communism itself. Class warfare would soon engulf Europe, he predicted. Class warfare would replace the previous national, political, and religious conflicts.

Marx’s view was in one sense widely shared. Most children of the Enlightenment agreed that religious conflicts were outmoded. In the modern age—the new age of liberty, the new age of science—there would now be religious freedom in place of persecution. But the real reason religious wars would end was not freedom: it was that religious faith would disappear. One of America’s leading students of religion, Prof. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, wrote that

It was consistently assumed that as Enlightenment reason and science spread, something else must decline. That something included the sense of the sacred and transcendent.... Religion, in most of its forms, would lose significance and power.

In his famous work Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville wrote that

Eighteenth-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs. Religious zeal, they said, was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread.

But he added, writing in 1830, that "it is tiresome that the facts do not fit this theory at all."

But today’s most highly educated elites, especially in the West, are still children of the Enlightenment. They still believe that modernization itself—industrialization, urbanization, widespread education—means a decline in religion. They have thought so for two centuries, and they are always amazed to see that religious belief has not died away. They thought religious freedom could not possibly be a problem in the twentieth century or the twenty-first, in the next millennium, because religion would be so unimportant.

Well, they were wrong. By now it is very clear, as this century and millennium end, that religious faith is a perennial feature of humanity. It is not the product of ignorance or backwardness. The religious impulse is built into man. In fact the twentieth century has taught that any society that tried to get along without religious values—without transcendent points of reference—will be shallow at best and murderous at worst. It is no accident that the most murderous regimes of this bloody century have been those that tried to outlaw religion.

In fact, in the last several decades, now at the end of this millennium, religion has become more important. Why do we hear so much these days about religious freedom and religious persecution? Why is denial of religious freedom a daily occurrence throughout the world? Why are religious minorities ill-treated, or forcibly converted, or even tortured and killed? Samuel Huntington has, I believe, explained this correctly in a speech he gave in Washington in January to a conference sponsored by my own Ethics and Public Policy Center:

Religious persecution has become an issue because the power and salience of religion have increased. The renaissance of religion throughout the world has made freedom of religion and religious persecution key issues. . . .Religion has become a potent factor in the lives of people and in the politics of nations.

He argued that "religious persecution is the price of religious power." It is worth following Huntington’s argument. He went on to say that religion has now become more important in three ways.

First, throughout the world secular identities are becoming less significant and religious identities more so. In Turkey, Iran, India, Israel, and Russia, religious identity grows in importance. Often this is a positive development, adding meaning to the lives of men and women who have found that secular faiths and identities do not satisfy them. But there is a danger as well. Secular states may suppress or they may tolerate all religions. If national identity is defined in terms of religion, other religions can be seen as a threat to national identity or even treason.

Second, if the very legitimacy of the government depends on religion, it will suppress any movement, including any religion, that threatens that legitimacy. When legitimacy depends on economic prosperity or democratic elections, religion will normally be no threat. But when religion is the only weapon the government has, it may use that weapon—and use it cruelly.

Third, when religion becomes the basis of nationalism, religious leaders may ask their followers to march off into battle against the enemies of the nation and the faith. "As religion has become central to the identity of nations and the legitimacy of governments," Prof. Huntington said, "religious differences have become a source of conflict between peoples and religious liberty has become an issue in the relations between peoples." That is, it isn’t only government oppression that will threaten religious freedom; it isn’t only abuses of power by the state. We know from history that individuals and societies are quite capable of oppression and persecution without any help from their governments. Sometimes in fact governments are not fomenting but are trying to reduce the levels of persecution that citizens target at each other. Accordingly, sometimes religious freedom must be protected from the government, and sometimes it must be protected by the government.

All of this suggests that religious freedom will be as much of a challenge in the next millennium as it has been in this one. This would have come as a great shock to Enlightenment thinkers of two centuries ago, and to many modern intellectuals who thought science would have vanquished religion by the end of this century.

Now of course, just as modernity is not the enemy of religion, so modernity is not the enemy of religious freedom. Modernity does have some aspects that will tend to promote religious freedom. The first is that many societies are far more heterogeneous than they have been in past centuries. While this can sometimes promote strife, it often teaches us that we simply must learn to live together. It took an extraordinary amount of killing for the Western nations to learn that lesson, after the prolonged wars between Protestantism and Catholicism. As Hans Morgenthau wrote in his famous book Politics Among Nations,

The Wars of Religion have shown that the attempt to impose one’s own religion as the only true one upon the rest of the world is as futile as it is costly. A century of almost unprecedented bloodshed, devastation, and barbarization was needed to convince the contestants that the two religions could live together in mutual toleration.

The American case demonstrates the same point. The early settlers of America were men and women of deep religious faith. When they set up their small colonies, most often they did not permit religious freedom within them. They expelled or punished non-believers. So how did it come about that when the United States was established, its Constitution guarantees freedom of religion?

Because there were so many sects, so many religions, and none was dominant. One of the most commonly used textbooks explains this to American high school students this way:

"Toleration of religious diversity flourished not because Americans deliberately sought to produce it, but because conditions virtually required it." [Alan Brinkley, American History:A Survey, p. 85]

And in this there is some cause for optimism for the coming century. Conditions in many parts of the world will foster toleration, as populations move and mix.

Moreover, it is difficult to retain a religious monopoly without a cultural monopoly. And in tomorrow’s world, there will be more inter-cultural communication than ever. Satellites that beam another culture’s clothes, movies, news, and religious practices throughout the world make a religious monopoly hard to sustain. This too will make religious freedom more likely.

Now, there is another factor entering into this debate that we should be honest about. We have been talking about religious freedom in the world and we have noted that politics will play a role. Let us admit that most of the complaints about religious persecution come from Christians in the West, and are made against Muslim or Asian communist governments. Historically, this is easy to explain. The development of democracy was closely related to that of Protestant Christianity, and is now forcefully supported by the Roman Catholic Church. Except for Cuba every majority Christian country respects freedom of religion as well as political freedom. Most of the freest countries in the world are Christian, although obviously there are critically important exceptions such as India and Japan.

We must hope that a document that came very late in this millennium, just 50 years ago, will come to have a real influence in the next. This is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, which is accepted in theory by every government in the world and which clearly places the rights of the individual over those of the state. The Declaration states in Article 18 that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

I repeat that every government in the world is pledged to these words. They represent a gift to the next millennium from this one, and constitute invaluable lessons that have been taught by war and sacrifice, martyrdom and bravery, in the past hundred generations. As we look ahead to the next millennium, we must pledge to remember these lessons. We do not wish ever to reenact the brutal history of the struggle for human rights. And we must recognize the interrelationship between religious freedom and all the other freedoms.

Religious freedom came late to the world. It was far easier in many cultures to allow some freedom of movement, of political speech, of voting rights, than to allow people to believe what was seen as "error" and as sin. But today we have truly realized that religious freedom is an essential cornerstone of all human rights and all freedoms. If men and women are deprived even the ability to worship their God, and to raise their children in their religion, we can be sure that no other freedom is safe. Conversely, if the state respects and protects their religious freedoms, it is acknowledging that there are rights beyond the claim of the state or the community. It is acknowledging the claim of the sacred. As the late professor Carillo de Albornoz wrote in his book The Basis of Religious Liberty,

respect for the highest values or loyalties of man (which are the religious ones) will the final test and also the best guarantee of the respect for all other human values....If society does not respect religion and its liberty, one does not have any security that the rest will be respected.

Throughout most of history the demand for religious freedom has come from religious minorities and dissenters. Let us now, as a new period in history begins, understand that this is not good enough. Let us make religious freedom the demand of majorities which understand that their own fates hang in the balance as well—if not today then tomorrow. If we do not protect the religious freedom of even the smallest and weakest minorities, we are setting a precedent that will come back to haunt us. For if religious freedom—freedom of conscience—is not protected, the political freedoms of right to vote, freedom of speech and assembly and press, are certainly not safe.

Now, religious freedom and religion itself can play special role in Latin America. In this region, most countries passed through a period of dictatorship and state control of economies, and emerged into economic and political freedom. It is that situation I want to address: the renewal of democracy and economic freedom. For in those "new" societies, what is the role of religion? I want to argue this morning that we should protect religious freedom not least because religion can play a vital role in Latin societies.

Though many North Americans have overlooked this point in recent decades, my own nation was founded upon the realization that a virtuous citizenry played the crucial role in the success of its political and economic order. The Founding Fathers of the United States believed deeply that the new political and economic institutions they were creating were not enough to create a good society. More was needed than freedom, and more was needed than law. What more? A concept of virtue—of what constitutes the good society.

When he visited America before the American Revolution, the French author Alexis de Tocqueville provided an important observation that may offer a helpful start toward answering this question. Visiting the United States for the first time in 1830, Tocqueville sought to discern the chief characteristics which set apart American democracy and culture. In his well-known work Democracy in America, he makes this observation about his search to understand America:

I sought the greatness of America in the mountains and the fields, but I didn’t find it there. I sought it in the schools and colleges, but I didn’t find it there. I sought it in the Constitution and the Congress, but I didn’t find it there. I found it when I visited the churches, and they were aflame with righteousness. America is great because it is good.

In fact, it is this very point—that a political and economic order will only be good when it consists of a society and culture made up of individuals and collections of individuals who themselves believe in good—that I wish to leave with you today. And about the source of that morality and civic virtue there can be little confusion. Indeed, it was George Washington, the first president of the United States, who stated in his Farewell Address of 1797 that:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . . reason and education both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

In other words, the role of religion in society is vital, for without it the moral fabric that a free society so desperately needs is impossible to attain. As the American historian Russell Kirk put it,

The framers of the American Constitution took it for granted that a moral order, founded upon religious beliefs, supports and parallels the political order .... Practical government in the United States, and in every other nation, is possible only because most people in that nation accept the existence of some moral order, by which they govern their conduct. (Roots of American Order, p. 439).

One of the very best articulations of this point—and a substantive expansion of it—is found in Pope John Paul II’s recent statement on Catholic social doctrine. In his famous 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, the Pope clarifies several important observations to describe the crucial role he believes must be played by religion in a healthy, free society:

First, he says, we need to remember that individuals, families, and society exist prior to the state. Their basic human rights, including the right to freedom of religion, do not come from the state.

Second, he says, this implies that men and women are created in freedom "to live the truth of our identity as children of God." The divine-human relationship makes clear that with freedom come certain obligations to ourselves, our families, our communiti¦s, and to God—responsibilities which exist independently of the state’s authority, but which no doubt strengthen the common good and the society in which we live.

Third, and in truly democratic fashion, this places the burden of rightly overseeing the exercise of our rights human rights primarily in the hands of citizens, rather than in the hands of the state. Yes, the state must establish a strong judicial framework to oversee the public-legal dimension of the economic order, but the flourishing of values, or what the Pope calls the goal of "being" rather than "having—that is, being a complete religious, economic, social, and civic creature rather than simply amassing a certain quantity of wealth—can only be taught by individuals and groups acting as free, responsible, and virtuous members of society.

Make no mistake about it. The forms of political and economic order being pursued here in Brazil and throughout Latin America today are, I believe, the very best that exist in the world. Political democracy and a free market economy, both reinforced by a strong rule of law and commitment to justice, are crucial steps toward attaining the good society. But in and of themselves they are not enough. They are the right tools with which to build a good society, but they are only tools. They cannot and will not provide answers that give deeper meaning to the larger questions of human life and communal existence. No, a central reason that religious freedom must be protected is because religious expression and participation provide the values without which a healthy civil society is rendered impossible.

So let me close by exhorting you to do your part to advance and protect religious freedom, not just for its own sake or the sake of peace between differing religious groups, but because without religion the virtue needed for the flourishing civil society is rendered impossible.

Today, our task is to use the lessons we have all learned about religious freedom as a point of departure. It would be tragic if in the next millennium we had to learn these lessons again. Our freedoms are not our achievements alone, but an inheritance from our parents and grandparents and all the generations past who suffered to earn the right to worship freely. Let us accept their gift and resolve to protect it in the years to come.