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The Evolving Role of the State in Interfaith Relations PDF Print E-mail

J. Paul Martin, Columbia University Center for Human Rights

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

I want to say who I am first, and I also have to apologize to the interpreters because since I came here yesterday I have completely changed my speech. I hope that what I say will be more relevant to you than what I thought would be relevant as I sat in my office in New York. I am not an expert on Latin America. My academic work is largely related to Africa and African history, although for the last 20 years I have run the Center for the Study of Human Rights of Columbia University. Each one of these various parts has influenced my thought and, therefore, what I am going to say today.

First of all, as far as Africa is concerned, I have been working with Emory University on the issue of proselytization. My contributions there have focused especially on the interface between Islam and Christianity in Africa. That is something that has always been an element of tension, and I think that now, as the number of people who are not Muslims and not Christians becomes smaller and smaller, we can anticipate greater tension in that respect in Africa.

As Mr. Boothby just said, the second aspect that I am involved in is training people from Eastern Europe so that they can become eloquent on these issues of religion and public policy and religious freedom in their own countries. The third part, which is becoming more and more important in my life, is that we have a small research program associated with the US Department of State’s work on religious freedom. We are trying to collect information for this new committee that was set up about two years ago, and which looks as though it will be perpetuated in the law that is being discussed at this moment in the Senate.

Given those three reference points, I will talk primarily about where Latin America stands in the world context. What sort of experiences have I had that I feel are relevant in terms of Latin America? First of all, as we have all said time and time again, pluralism is not an ideal, it is a fact. I think the most striking thing about the modern world is the degree to which we are intermingled.

When I compare New York with Sao Paulo, I am sure these are the two most cosmopolitan cities in the world. There are, however, two limitations on both sides.

Here in Sao Paulo, I have a much stronger sense of European products and people. European influence is much more visible in the style, the cafes, etc. One has a sense of Europe. The thing that is more cosmopolitan in New York than Sao Paulo is the presence of Islam. I think that this is a question that we all have to ask ourselves. In the last decade the United States has experienced the arrival of many people from the Muslim faith. It seems to me that it would be remarkable and extraordinary exception if Latin America were not to face a similar invasion over the next 10 years. Therefore, this phenomenon raises quite a different set of problems within the field of religious freedom.

The second thing which is striking, but I think again is something I am happy to watch as it evolves, is that the different countries have different forms of administration of religion. Some countries in Latin America have a specific ministry. Argentina would be an example. Some administer religion through the Department of Justice, others through the Department of Internal Affairs, and there is one, I think Costa Rica, which administers religion through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All of these ministries function in quite different ways.

Generally speaking, the good news in Latin America is that constitutionally the principles are more or less there, and there is a sense of participating in a world where religious freedom is accepted. In a sense, it is just a question of time before constitutional practice catches up. Also, the other ways in which religious discrimination takes place are slowly improving. I say slowly. On the other hand, we obviously have serious problems in Latin America that remain, particularly with regard to the new religions.

One of the things that we haven’t talked about so far has been the question of public education. I think there are a lot of different traditions all over Latin America and, if I were not a Catholic, I know that in some countries I would be very unhappy that my child was being taught in a school where it was very hard to pull yourself out from the group, to stand apart and say "I am not a Catholic like you." With the sort of pressures that children undergo, there needs to be significant expertise on the part of teachers, so that the children don’t feel discriminated against.

My own experience as a Catholic in the British army was interesting because Catholics in Britain are a small minority. Often, even when I was an officer, there was this thing called "padres’ hour." Essentially, this was the hour when everybody went along and listened to the chaplain. Well, the Catholics and the Jews were so few that we never had a chaplain. So all the rest of the regiment would go off and listen to the speech by the Anglican priest or the Protestant minister and the rest of us would just sit around and talk. So again, we were not embarrassed by that; we had sensed something different from others. So one of the things that matters a lot in our societies, as they may evolve, is the way in which religious diversity is treated within our different school systems.

My experience has been, and certainly I know that in specific places here in Latin America, that it is very easy to teach us to convey a message, for example, anti-Semitism. The Christians have a great deal of difficulty describing the way in which Jesus was treated by the Jews. Therefore, when people talk about the Jews, it is often hard for young people to realize the history here. There is a whole other context, and certainly there is a whole new tradition within the Catholic Church of interpreting that problem. Typically though, that type of new interpretation that developed after Vatican II has not reached the teachers in our classrooms.

One of the things that has always struck me, and a person who was once the Minister of Education in Argentina said to me, if you look at our textbooks, your task would be to look at all the different history books the children are reading and see where religion fits into them. See the sort of images that your religion or another religion finds itself being portrayed by in those books. I think that will bring a set of other questions we will have to deal with. So I think it is one thing I want to underline as an educator, but we do have to look at the educational systems, private school, but also the university. There is some talk about that, right?

The other thing that comes up very importantly in this context of religious freedom is human rights. If you noticed in one of the plenary sessions this morning, one of the speakers said something to the effect that we can’t deal with religious freedom without looking at the full context of human rights. People clapped. It is one of the few times that anyone clapped during any question in the conference. I was talking to somebody afterwards, and they underlined the point as to why they clapped. The reason they clapped was because they feel that we, in the West, we who have funds, resources, etc., do not take into consideration sufficiently the problem of social polity. It may have come up once or twice this morning, but I think the feeling in many third world countries is that it is too easy for us to talk about religious freedom, but not talk about famine and injustice in those terms. To some degree it is important for us—and the United States is one of the problems in this respect—to try and integrate human rights together with other civil and political rights and with economic and social factors. It is easily said, but in fact in practice it is very, very hard.

Certainly, when those of us who come from rich societies go into the barrio here in Sao Paulo and say to people that religious freedom is important, it is very hard for them to listen to us. We have to somehow integrate into their lives. This means, it seems to me, dealing with it in terms of social justice and what that might mean to their lives.

This takes us to a second point, which is also important. It is particularly problematic here in Latin America. In some Latin American countries the middle class is rather small. There was a discussion in one of the other sessions this afternoon concerning what makes Protestantism so attractive in Latin America. Obviously, there are many reasons, but one reason that strikes me is that Protestantism somehow or other offers a way up in a way that Catholicism doesn’t. There is a sense that the Protestant ethic is: if I work hard I will in fact be able to advance. Somehow, I think that Catholicism tends to be rather stagnant or authoritarian in their belief that it is only necessary to believe and you can be saved.

This morning I went to the Catholic Church. I was struck by two banners at the side of the wall, under two large statues. Underneath one was written "Obedencia," under the other "Corazone." It struck me that this was an interesting symbol of the problem. The feeling among Latin American citizens is that the church wants me to obey, to do what I am told in a sort of passive way and pray to God. So this is a passive type of image, whereas I think that Protestantism tends to offer a much more active type of image. I know people, certainly in many parts of the world who want to move ahead, who want their children to get a better opportunity than they had. They look toward a religion that gives them a sense that they can pull themselves up, even by their own bootstraps.

So these are the sorts of questions I see and identify. I wanted to go on ahead with just a few more words about where we can go. What sorts of lights are on the horizon. Again, I think the point I started with goes back to the point I made previously. When I work with human rights, especially in Africa, I find myself saying voting is important but that we have to talk about not only political emancipation, but some sort of economic emancipation. I find that people want me to help them to find a way in which they can earn enough money to look after the people who depend on them. I think that is a very important consideration. We have to see people having real responsibilities and to help them feed their own families. If we don’t help people do that, they feel our message is not useful in that respect. Then we become a little bit irrelevant in their eyes.

It is a question I raise more and more in the work I am doing now on human rights. I am saying to businesses: "You have to accept the responsibility toward your employees. You have to feel that you are there, and these responsibilities toward your employees mean that you have to somehow or other help them to gain enough in terms of income, etc., so that they can look after the people who are responsible to them." It is not enough to say, "Oh, they get a living wage, oh, the wage is comparable to what other people are paying." I think we have to have a much more sophisticated and sensitive attitude of appreciation of what other people’s needs are. Certainly, corporations should feel that they have very basic responsibilities to the people who work for them. So the emphasis is on political emancipation and economic emancipation.

We also have to look on our horizons to see what is coming up. The issue of gay and lesbian communities was mentioned this morning. What is this going to mean to the different Latin American societies I don’t know. It is certainly going to shape a lot of issues for people. I think the issue of Islam, as I mentioned before, is certainly coming along. I think one of the important areas we can all look at is public education. I was talking to friends here in Sao Paulo yesterday about what happens when a person reaches the age of 13 or 14 and that is the end of obligatory education. What is happening is that probably hundreds of thousands of people in this particular town are suddenly being thrust out into the streets with nothing to do.

It seems that we, as Christians, have to think about what we are trying to do in the bigger context and ask ourselves, "What is the responsibility of religion?" It is not exactly a question of religious freedom, but it is a question of the role of religion in our society. The question about social justice keeps coming up. When I wrote my original paper. I was thinking of this issue, not between churches, but often within churches, between those who feel very strongly about the importance of social justice and others who view society in such a way that the emphasis tends to be on well-being without getting down to the nitty gritty of social order, whatever that might mean. So there is tension. This certainly exists within the Catholic Church between bishops and some of their clergy. Some of this tension is characterized by Liberation Theology, but still, I think it is a lot more than that. This tension exists here in Latin America and in many other countries as well with regard to polity and the poor.

The other thing, in terms of what I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, is the constitutionality. Most Latin American constitutions are doing reasonably well. I think, though, that we do have to look around and try to see what is going on in other parts of the world. In America, we have a tradition of separation of church and state. We don’t have any Ministry of Religion. There are subtle ways in which religion finds its own place. In other recent work, I have been struck by the Spanish experience. The Spanish government is now meeting with religions and sort of trying to have a polity relationship. Having been for so many years locked into a Catholic model, they are now saying that they believe in a very tolerant, diverse, pluralistic society.

Then the question comes, "How do you structure it?" Spain has put a lot of energy into this and has developed a system whereby the different main religious groupings—Jews, the Muslims, and Christians—will work together and develop a sort of corporate relationship with the state rather than a one-on-one religion for state. In fact, in the beginning of next month, the Ministry of Justice in Spain is organizing a conference focusing precisely on trying to promote dialogue between the various religious entities.

To go back to my title then, "Evolving Role of the State: Overcoming Religious Intolerance," I think the first thing has to do with some restructuring. There has to be some rethinking at the level of the state of how the state can, in fact, implement policies in that direction. I think the second level, which is obviously important, is how the state then begins to relate to a pluralistic situation. Where you have new religions and old religions, you have factions of religions. How then does the state develop tolerance?

What appears to me to be very critical in this area is the public education system. It seems the church and the state have to look at the textbooks. They have to look at the training of teachers. If the people in the states are going to live peacefully, then there has to be a level of understanding. As I say, on the horizon, that level of understanding is going to have to include Islam.

One of the difficulties that have come up a number of times today is the of the division between the consciousness of religious organizations and that of non-governmental human rights organizations, which have tended to be seen as rather secularist. I think that is one of those chasms that we are trying to bridge. The Senator today chastised Amnesty International etc., as anti-American. But I think it is more than that. I think there needs to be building up on both processes. My view is very simple. Human rights problems are massive, and we need the churches on our side. At the same time, I think the churches need to develop dialogues with other, traditionally rather secular organizations because they also are very active and have every reason to work on those terms.

On the other hand, I think what we need in the field of religious freedom, with all the sort of questions I mentioned before, is some international organization that does reach across the various boundaries. When one gets together with a group of clergy, one has a sense in the end that they each have their own agenda and they are willing to work together only insofar as their agenda is being met. I think there needs to be a broader coalition.

There is also one other point. If you look around the room rather quickly you will know what I mean. There are two agendas, two sexes in the world. While we have said a lot about women’s action being in power, when it actually comes to discussions like this, women are in fact not very visible. I think this is a problem we have to face much more. The status of woman is a very relevant force within the society. It is a relevant force in the West. It is increasingly a relevant force in Islam.

I think one of the interesting things that will happen over the next few years, is that Islam is going to change because of the role women play within Islam. So that is what being more open to their problems, especially in terms of public health and also in terms of the religious demands where the traditional churches’ views on marriage, abortion, etc., come into conflict and raise questions.

The last point, which really goes back to an earlier one, is that international regimes need a lot of work. One of the things we will do later this week at Columbia University is have a panel focusing on what the role of the United Nations ought to be in terms of religious freedom. The UN is an important organization. It is an effective organization. But at the moment it has one rapporteur, one part-time person, a professor from a law school in North Africa, to put some time into writing a report and monitoring what is going on. That is not enough. We need more activity at the level of the UN. We probably also need a much stronger and more effective presence on the part of religious organizations at the UN.

The last point I make would just be to urge you to read a document that was written for the UN in 1960 by a man called Krishnaswan. He was an Indian scholar and the text is an absolutely marvelous text. It really deals with so many issues we want to talk about today. It is sad, I always feel, if we are always reinventing the wheel, saying things that were said many years ago. I feel the big difference, of course, is that now we are talking about it. In those days only he was talking about it. But I will just close with what he feels are the important things to do.

Firstly the public authority must, themselves, refrain from making any adverse distinction or using undue preference with regard to religious groups. Secondly, they must prevent any individual or group of individuals from making any adverse distinction or undue preference among religions. Thirdly, that governments should make every effort to educate public opinion to an acceptance of the principle of non-discrimination.

As I said earlier, I think those are our goals. When he wrote these words, it was a fairly stagnant issue. Today, I think, we are beginning to move much faster. Thank you very much.