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Religious Freedom: An American Perspective PDF Print E-mail

Elliott Abrams
Ethics and Public Policy Center

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

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 specter is haunting Europe.” That specter was, of course, communism itself. He predicted that class warfare would soon engulf Europe. Class warfare would replace the previous national, political, and religious conflicts. Marx’s view, in one sense, was widely shared. Most children of the Enlightenment agreed that religious conflicts were outmoded. In the modern age, the new age of liberty, 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, Professor Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, wrote, “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. Today’s most highly educated elites, especially in the West, are still children of the Enlightenment. They still believe that modernization itself, industrialization, urbanization, and widespread education mean 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 20th or 21st century, because religion would be so unimportant. Well, they were wrong. By now it is very clear, as this century and this 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 20th 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, and now, at the end of this millennium, religion has become more important. Why? Why do we hear so much these days about religious freedom and religious persecution? Why is denial of religious freedom a daily occurrence now throughout the world? Why are religious minorities ill treated, forcibly converted, or even tortured and killed now?

Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard has explained this correctly in a speech he gave in Washington in January to a conference sponsored by my own Ethics and Public Policy Center. Here is what he said:

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 of the politics of nations.

He argued that religious persecution is the price of religious power.

It is worth following Professor 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, Israel, India, and Russia, religious identities grow 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. But if national identity is defined in terms of religion, other religions may be seen as a threat to national identity or even treason.

Second, if the legitimacy of the government depends on religion, the government will suppress any movement, including any religion that threatens its legitimacy. When legitimacy depends on economic prosperity, or on 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. Professor Huntington said, as religion has become central to the identity of nations, and the legitimacy of governments, 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 level of persecution that citizens target at each other. That is, 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. That would have come as a great shock to Enlightenment thinkers of two centuries ago. And it still shocks 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 were 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 prolonged wars between Protestantism and Catholicism.

In his famous book Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthal wrote, “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 barbarism was needed to convince the contestants that two religions could live together in mutual toleration.”

The American case demonstrates the same point. The early settlers of the United States 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 nonbelievers. So, how did it come about that when the United States was established, as Congressman Roth pointed out to us, its Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion? The answer is because so many sects, so many religions existed, and none was dominant. One of the most commonly used textbooks in the United States 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.

And in this there is 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. In tomorrow’s world there will be more intercultural 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. There is another factor entering this debate, and we should be honest about it. 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 of the world are Christian, although obviously there are critically important exceptions such as India and the country in which we meet for this conference, Japan.

I am an American and would like to speak now not just about religious freedom in general but about the American view in particular. Most Americans, I think, would draw the following conclusions about religious freedom in the next millennium. First, whether religious freedom expands depends in good part on whether the remaining bastions of communism weaken and become more democratic. It is probably not an accident that the current presidents of South Korea and Taiwan, who were both democracy activists, are Christians. Communist rulers often see Christianity as a threat to their authority, and they are right. If communism, as an ideological system, dies in Cuba, Vietnam, and China, we can expect that more toleration of Christianity and more religious freedom will follow.

Second, religious freedom in the next millennium will depend in good part on developments within Islam. I am no expert on this topic, but clearly the debate has begun among Muslim scholars and religious leaders. Islam is a great world religion. The Islamic view of religious freedom or freedom for nonbelievers seems to be more open in, say, Indonesia than in Iran. Indeed, in Indonesia, a very powerful Islamic revivalist movement is democratic and pluralist. It will be interesting in the coming months and years to study what role this movement played in the many changes we now see in Indonesia.

For many centuries, minorities lived well under Islam. In fact, many of the greatest works of Jewish thought were written by Jewish philosophers and rabbis living comfortably, as protected nonbelievers, under Islam. In the next decades and centuries we must see how Islamic authorities, believers, and governments address the issue of religious freedom. This will certainly affect both religious freedom itself and relations between certain Islamic countries and the predominantly Christian countries of the West.

Third, respect for religious freedom will depend in good part on activism in democratic countries, especially the United States. Congressman Roth spoke about the new activism in the United States. Perhaps it is the old missionary spirit in the United States, which was so active in the last century. Professor Irie was telling me about the missionaries who founded his university in Tokyo over a hundred years ago. Perhaps that missionary spirit will offend many governments. But in the last few years this subject of religious freedom has really caught fire in America. New books are written about it. Conferences are held. Newspapers cover this story now as never before. On a National Day of Prayer for persecuted Christians held last November, eight million Americans participated. And Congress is acting too, passing new laws.

Most Americans realize that these actions can be seen and will be described as Western imperialism, or even as Christian imperialism. But the vast majority of Americans are Christians who believe in God, and they are not going to see efforts to protect persecuted Christians as imperialism. They will see it as an act of faith and a good way to promote the expansion of religious freedom. So they will keep it up. That will affect relations between the United States and a number of countries where religious freedom is not protected. But surely, making religious freedom an issue of importance in international politics will help expand the frontiers of religious freedom in the coming century.

Fourth, respect for religious freedom will depend in good part on the expansion of individual rights as against the power of the state. For centuries now, the building block of society has been the state. As technology improved the weapons of war and the means of transport, feudal patterns gave way to nation-states and great empires. But now, the newest technology points in another direction. If the printing press and the television gave power to the government, the Internet, the satellite, and the fax give it back to the individual. If the train gave power to the state, the car gives it to the individual. So what Marxists would call the objective conditions may now favor more and more the ability of the individual to go his own way. Perhaps the coming centuries will see a turn toward the individual, a recognition that state power is a changeable political condition, while individual rights are the birthright of all people everywhere.

In this sense we must hope that a document that came very, very late in this millennium, just 50 years ago, will come to have a real influence in the next millennium. This is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948. Accepted in theory by every government in the world, it clearly places the rights of the individual over those of the state. Article 18 of the declaration says,

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

Every government in the world is pledged to those words. Those words 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 should 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, political speech, and voting rights than to allow people to believe what was seen as error and sin.

But today we have truly realized that religious freedom is an essential cornerstone of all human rights and all human freedoms. If men and women are deprived of even the ability to worship their God and raise their children in their religion, we can be sure that no other freedom is safe. Conversely, if the state respects and protects religious freedom, the state 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 Kario de Albornos wrote in his book The Basis of Religious Liberty, respect for the highest values or loyalties of man, which are religious ones, will be the final test and also the best guarantee of respect for all other human values. If society does not respect religion and its liberty, one has no security that the rest will be respected.

Throughout most of history the demand for religious freedom has come from religious minorities, 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 who 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 religious 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 the right to vote, as well as freedom of speech, assembly, and press are certainly not safe.

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 those in generations past who suffered to earn that right to worship freely. So let us accept their gift and resolve to protect it in the years to come.