I am pleased to share an op-ed of mine that The New York Daily News published this morning, “A Catholic Model for Muslim Awakening.” The Paris massacres have brought still another round of debate on what sort of religion Islam is. Predictably, there are renewed calls for an Islamic Reformation. Others have called for an Islamic Enlightenment. Both are bad analogies, I argue. A far better model is the Catholic Church’s long road to religious freedom, culminating in Dignitatis Humanae — the Church’s declaration on religious freedom — at the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s historical trajectory shows how a religious community that once did not embrace religious freedom found a way to endorse it on grounds consistent with its traditional core commitments rather than on the basis of secularism or otherwise a departure from these commitments. Arguments welcome!
Another story that we’ve been tracking here at ArcU is the surprising and interesting revival of Catholicism in France. Writer Samuel Gregg has a new piece out documenting the trend. The title, “France’s Catholic Revolution,” seems a bit overstated to me; I would think “French Catholicism’s Slow But Steady Comeback” would be better. Still, it’s an insightful piece with interesting angles on Church-state relations and laïcité.
Last week we posted a piece on the Orthodox Church and Russia’s relationship with the West. Now, an insightful piece has been published in the Christian Science Monitor by correspondent Fred Weir on the OC’s backing of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
The following post is written by Jekatyerina Dunajeva of the Political Capital Institute and Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and Karrie Koesel of the University of Notre Dame. It is based on observations from fieldwork in Russia during July-August 2015 for “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a global research project supported by the Templeton Religion Trust. The authors visited three major cities in Russia and conducted interviews with lawyers, religious leaders and laypersons, social workers, academics, and politicians. To protect identities, all informants are anonymous.
At the height of the Cold War Russia was frequently depicted in the West as a country ruled by godless communists—a brutal regime that set out to eradicate religion and thus, one that also lacked a strong moral compass. These same charges are again resurfacing many years later, but this time Russia is directing the charges at the West. Over the past several years, Russian leaders have played up its moral superiority and defense of traditional values, while openly criticizing the West as amoral and devoid of spiritual values.
How does a country redefine itself from godless to godly in just over two decades?
This shift must first be understood within Russia’s distinct pathway from communism. From a Western perspective, the Russian transition to democracy in the 1990s is generally considered a disappointment. This disappointment has again been reaffirmed under the rule of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia has become increasingly autocratic with the centralization of power, decline in competitive elections, greater control over civil society and the media, and growing international isolation. Russia, in other words, failed to embrace democracy and democratic values.
From a Russian perspective, however, it is democracy and the West that have failed Russia. Political transitions are rarely seamless, and many Russians maintain that the West abandoned Russia in its time of need. The 1990s were awash with crumbling stability, social chaos, Ponzi schemes, the privatization of lucrative national industries, and extreme corruption. It is hardly surprising then that this same “democratic decade” is commonly associated with lawlessness, instability, and the decline of international prestige; and the fact that 61 percent of Russians prefer order to democracy, even when order means the curtailing of rights and freedoms.
The failure of Russian democracy has seeped into popular culture. In one telling instance, the word “democracy” in Russian slang is “dermokratiya” [дермократия]—a portmanteau of the words “crap” and “democracy”—in other words, “demo-crap-ia.” Even Russian police violence is associated with democracy. The rubber batons carried by police are nicknamed “democratizers” [демократизаторы]—a term that came of age in the 1990s when police used them to repress popular protests. Democracy, quite simply, is often seen as a destructive and destabilizing force, an imposed foreign political system that the misguided West exported. Religious communities have expressed similar opposition toward democracy. Roman Lunkin, one of the leading scholars of religion and society in Russia explained, “Orthodoxy is associated with resistance to democracy and with the ideology of Putin’s majority.”
The failed export of democracy alone, however, cannot explain the striking shift from a godless to a godly Russia. We must also consider the revised role of religion. In contemporary Russia there is now not only greater religious freedom and expression than in the Soviet past, but also some religious groups are playing a decisive political role. The Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, has waded into political waters declaring Orthodox Christianity as a sine qua non marker of Russian identity—in other words, to be Russian in a post-Soviet context is also to be Orthodox. Alexander Agadjanian, a professor of Religious Studies at the Russian State University of the Humanities has written that in many ways the enlisting of the Church to shape “the ‘new nation’ seems natural in Russia… given its dominant position and clear links with a dominant ethnos.” One lawyer working on issues of religious freedom in Russia explained that “There is still a mentality that being Orthodox is the right thing, it’s patriotic.” Indeed, not only do we see that “Russians are perceived as Orthodox,” added another colleague, but even “abroad Russia is symbolized through its Orthodox churches and cupolas.” Thus, both at home and abroad there is the constant reminder that Russian statehood was founded on religious principles.
Given these sentiments, it may seem natural that the Orthodox Church has taken on the role of national defender. Church leaders have become outspoken critics of any and all perceived threats to Russia, including NATO expansion, Western sanctions, the crisis in Ukraine, and domestic opposition groups. The defense of the motherland has also meant that the Church has gone on the offensive against liberalism. Patriarch Kirill has equated liberalism with evil and declared it a pathway that eventually leads to hell. The official website of the Orthodox Church claims that liberalism is not only an anti-Christian value system, but is also an anti-Russian one. Some religious activists warn “The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere…We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology.”
Here, it is interesting to note that other religious communities have also gone on the offensive against liberalism in defense of traditional Russian values and joined the circle of anti-Western defenders of Motherland. “I love Russia,” shared a Baptist pastor, “I voted for Putin myself…. Crimea is ours – now that we have it again, fairness has won, and this is a pure Russian position.” The deputy mufti of Tatarstan, Rustam Batro, declared “Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.” Another Protestant pastor we interviewed speculated that Russia is probably the last country “sticking with traditional values in Europe.” Putin’s traditionalism makes him popular among other Christian communities in Russia, suggested yet another Russian expert on religion during our fieldwork. Western consumerism and individualism, many religious leaders suggested, is what most Russians show aversion to.
To be sure, the defense of traditional Russian values feeds conveniently into the larger anti-Western rhetoric of Kremlin. At a Federal Assembly meeting Putin stressed the growing immorality and destruction of traditional values outside of Russia. As tensions with the West have increased this summer, Putin declared: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization…. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” This moral superiority decline of Western values was also echoed among some religious communities. One expert of Evangelical Christianity explained that traditional values are “in the interest of a strong Russia…if we don’t have strong families, which are evidently weakened by same-sex marriage and similar horrific ideologies” it will prohibit the flourishing of the country.
As for the larger implications of the Russian shift from godless to godly, we observed at least two. One is that the Kremlin’s filtering of politics through a religious prism lends support to Russia’s increasingly illiberal and isolated position; it clearly distinguishes Russia from the West; it reinforces the idea that Russia is the only authentic alternative to Western ideology; and it positions Russia as pious and in contrast to an immoral West. This is a dangerous political project.
The other is that religious groups, for the most part, seem uncritically and openly participating in this latest political project. One Orthodox priest explained, “For the moment freedom is not a popular concept [in Russia], because we have to revive tradition and revive the Church. When we are reviving something from the past we have to take freedom away.” And yet, we cannot help wonder if this revival of the Church is also nurturing a precarious position for religious communities—one with hardened boundaries between themselves and their co-religionists abroad, one that props up an increasingly authoritarian regime, and one that encourages religious groups to be on the front lines of civilizational conflict.
I’ve written some opinion at Canada’s foreign policy newsweekly, Embassy magazine, on what should be next for Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom. A snippet here:
It’s moving month in Ottawa’s capital, and we already have a few clues of what’s coming and what’s going.
The Liberals are making good on campaign promises, but there are at least a few areas where it’s unclear if the Liberals will want to renovate, rebuild or just tear down. One of those is the new Office of Religious Freedom, barely out of adolescence since launched in 2013. But there are very strong, Liberal, reasons for this government to promote and expand this initiative.
The legacy of the Liberal Party of Canada is one that has always taken human rights very seriously. Liberal internationalism, classically, has human rights and the dignity of the human person at the centre of its global agenda. Liberalism manages to marry two competing claims in foreign policy: moral action and national interest. Canada, and Liberals especially, have always argued these are not paradoxes but two sides of the same coin.
Where human dignity, where freedom of the person and of communities, are respected, local and international security are strengthened. Freedom of religion or belief, as part of the package of human rights necessary for any society to flourish, is not peripheral to national security, it is at its very foundation. This was the idea which animated the establishment of the American Office of Religious Freedom in 1998, and one of the reasons the Liberal Party of that day also took religious freedom seriously.
In fact, while it may have been a Conservative prime minister that launched the office in 2013, the idea had roots stretching back to Axworthy and others. This is because the Office of Religious Freedom is not a Liberal or Conservative idea, it’s a Canadian idea.
The whole article can be read at Embassy online here.
Check out the new web site for Under Caesar’s Sword, the project on Christian responses to persecution that I direct at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in partnership with the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. Thanks goes to our project manager, Zahra Vieneuve, who designed it and arranged the content.
Check out the tab “Rome Conference”for the latest on our upcoming conference of December 10-12, 2015. And it’s not too late to consider attending!
In a four-part series of articles this year, Pakistani researcher and activist Arafat Mazhar has outlined his case for why he believes his Islamic faith does not support the popular claims in Pakistan that the country’s blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty, is based on the religion of Islam:
Mazhar is also founder of an organization, Engage Pakistan, dedicated to reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The website for Engage explains, “The mass support for this narrative,” supporting the blasphemy law in Pakistan, “makes it a potent legal instrument for intimidation, violence and enacting personal vendettas, and specific persecution of minorities. We are attempting to deconstruct the law and its surrounding social narrative through the framework that informs it,” i.e. through the framework of Islamic law in the Hanafi school of jurisprudence which is dominant among Sunni Muslims in Pakistan.
The website further explains that Pakistan’s blasphemy law, “has gathered mass support through its conceptualization as a divine decree that cannot be tampered with.” The Engage Pakistan website highlights that whereas previous attempts at reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law have pitted religion against secularism, this effort by Engage is by contrast coming from within the Islamic tradition. Engage exists to foster an internal Muslim-to-Muslim dialogue among Sunni Muslims in Pakistan about this law.
Arafat Mazhar is not alone as a Muslim in his support for religious freedom. For example, he serves together with other Muslims on the Advisory Council of the Islam and Religious Freedom Project whose website provides access to media by Muslims across the globe supporting religious freedom.
The following piece is written by Cory Bender and Wade Kusack. Cory Bender is the Program Officer for Eurasia at the Institute for Global Engagement. Wade Kusack is the Director of the Religious Freedom Department at Mission Eurasia.
Ukraine has created a crisis for the Kremlin, or at least that’s what a string of recent op-eds has claimed. Whether it’s economic malaise, fissures in Putin’s inner circle, or the possibility of democratic revolution, analysts are eagerly searching for chinks in Putin’s armor. Less discussed, however, has been a slow-burning crisis in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
The ROC has its cameos in Western news coverage of Ukraine. The “Orthodox Army” ravaging the Donbass and molesting religious minorities, in particular, has drawn some attention. But it would be wrong to assume that the Kremlin, or even the Moscow Patriarchate (the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church), are directly responsible for these atrocities. Mostly to blame are Russian Orthodox zealots motivated by religion rather than instructions from Moscow. Moreover, these freelancing faithful are creating serious problems for the Russian Orthodox Church, and if it can’t rein them in, the church could become dangerously divided.
These zealots—whom some scholars have branded “Nationalist Orthodox”—claim to be loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, however, they view the Church leadership in Moscow as traitors. They derisively call them “Nikodimovtsy,” after Metropolitan Nikodim, whom they vilify for his conciliatory stance towards other branches of Christianity. The Nikodimovtsy, according to the Nationalist Orthodox, include many of the ranking bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church—and Patriarch Kirill himself.
The Nationalist Orthodox share many of the same assumptions as more moderate Russian Orthodox. They both see Moscow as the Third Rome—an idea stretching back centuries that posits Russia as the last bastion of true Christianity. On this view, Western liberalism is the primary threat to Russian statehood today, and as such Russia must be protected from Western proselytism—whether it be religious proselytism by Protestants, or human rights proselytism by the State Department.
But the Nationalist Orthodox take this to an extreme. While the Moscow Patriarchate noisily opposes what it sees as Western attempts to subvert Orthodox Russia, it accepts that Russia must coexist with the West. Nationalist Orthodox, on the other hand, see the West through the lens of New World Order conspiracies: as a stew of international Jewry, Wall Street banks, imperialistic military and political forces, and demonic religious movements. For them, Russia cannot coexist with the West; one or the other must be annihilated.
This violent fanaticism of the Nationalist Orthodox faction has put the Russian Orthodox officialdom in a bind. The Russian Orthodox affiliate in Ukraine, called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), is hardly able to balance its affiliation with Moscow and its Ukrainian congregants’ patriotism. This has led to speculation that the UOC-MP may seek to break its ties with Moscow; already, dozens of churches have left the UOC-MP to move to its Kiev-affiliated sister church. But the Russian Orthodox Church’s problems aren’t limited to Ukraine: the divide between Orthodox officialdom and militant nationalists is emerging in Russia as well.
Aware of this, the Kremlin is trying to assert control over nationalist fringe fighters. It sacked the swashbuckling Igor Strelkov, a key leader of the Nationalist Orthodox fighters in Ukraine, and may have even assassinated other separatist leaders that were too hot to handle. More ominously, Russian border guards are reported to have killed hundreds of retreating separatist fighters rather than allowing them to enter Russia.
But the root of the problem facing Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate is not a few firebrands, but rather the ideological poison of religious nationalism itself. This ideology survives on generalized hatred of the West and its values, while doing little to define a positive identity and a path forward. The Kremlin and the Orthodox Church themselves have stoked this fire, and now it is burning out of their control.
The (potentially) good news for Russia is that this nationalism is still changing. If Russian leaders could divert the flood of patriotic fervor into positive channels, it could stem the tide of militancy, and possibly even help to lift Russia out of its social and economic rut. The ROC would have to play an important and courageous role in any such effort.
Given current trends within the Church, however, the prospects for this look dim. Priests that preach reconciliation are marginalized, while Nationalist Orthodox are promoted. The Moscow Patriarchate, for its part, sees all of this as a kind of balancing act: not wanting to buckle under the pressure of ultraconservatives, while not wanting to run afoul of the Kremlin.
This balancing act will probably fail. And when it does, the Church, like so many in eastern Ukraine, may find itself hostage to extremists.
Under the auspices of the British Council, Boston University, Notre Dame, and the Religious Freedom Project, a truly wide collection of individuals and institutions came together to organize a conference at Georgetown University on October 8-9, 2015 on the subject of transatlantic cooperation to advance international religious freedom. In the course of the conference, despite powerful countervailing trends, compelling theoretical and practical reasons emerged for thinking that such cooperation is eminently possible.
On first blush, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the very idea of transatlantic cooperation to promote religious freedom. Consider the radically different approaches of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to the question of church-state relations. America is known for its commitment to constitutional and institutional non-establishment combined with a highly religious political culture, complete with “In God We Trust” on its currency; France is known for its non-negotiable commitment to laïcité and a public square sanitized of religious symbols and ideas; and the U.K. is known for its Anglican establishment and its Erastian church-state arrangement in which the sovereign is the formal “governor” of the Church. On top of all that, as Robert Kagan opined more than a decade ago, Americans and Europeans tend to have markedly different ways of framing national priorities, assessing security threats, and implementing their foreign policies. As he memorably summarized the differences, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Could countries with such different foreign policy styles and with such different views of religion’s proper role in public life really have much in common — much less actively cooperate — when it comes to promoting religious freedom in the world?
Well, yes, actually. And part of what inspires me to answer in the affirmative is a series of eloquent remarks my friend and colleague Fabio Petito of the University of Sussex offered in the course of the conference.
Religious freedom as the moral minimum of non-coercion
One remark was of a theoretical nature. On the last panel on the second day, Fabio Petito made the powerful point (which I paraphrase here) that the moral intuition that religious coercion is prima facie wrong is not a uniquely Western or modern intuition but widespread across cultures and across history. By religious coercion, I think Petito meant the deliberate use of force to compel people to alter, abandon, or muffle their religious beliefs and practices, or to punish and even eliminate people on account of their religion (where, he implied, such use of force cannot be justified by the very high demands of public justice or public order). Despite the fashionable anti-universalism that tends to prevail in such discussions, he forcefully asserted that this intuition is widely evident and available across an incredibly wide range of historical epochs, cultures, and religious traditions, and is not restricted to cultures influenced by, say, modernity, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.
It is worth underscoring, though, how much Fabio Petito’s assertion of the universality of religious freedom runs against the grain of important intellectual trends today. Indeed, a growing number of scholars today — whom Daniel Philpott calls the “new critics of religious freedom” — assert that the whole project of religious freedom presupposes modern, parochial, and controversial views of religion, the individual, freedom, and conscience. Rather than protect people from coercion, the project of religious freedom coercively compels people to conform to a reductive privatization, creedalization, and interiorization of religion. In the view of the “new critics,” religious freedom is in effect an ideology that serves certain powerful interests. According to this ideology, only “good” or “authorized” kinds of religion — essentially quasi-Protestant forms of religion that hinge on creedal confession and belief and are willing to submit to elite-prescribed privatization —are worthy of legal and constitutional protection. Or so one prominent “new critic,” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, seems to argue in a new book. In fact, according to Hurd, the modern project of religious freedom is so narrow, demanding, and coercive that it is really an elaborate system of “mind control.”
Despite the spread of these fashionable views, Fabio Petito is on to something. The core idea of religious freedom is not coercive conformity. On the contrary, the core idea of religious freedom is precisely the opposite — non-coercion in religious matters.
Furthermore, the minimalist idea of religious freedom as religious non-coercion, far from being parochial or peculiar to the modern West, enjoys a widespread resonance across history and across cultures.
One sees this when one considers, for example, the apologetic works of the early church father Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220). A number of these works Tertullian penned in order to refute anti-Christian calumny and halt anti-Christian persecution. Around the year 212, he addressed one such work to the Roman proconsul of Carthage, Scapula. As I note in a volume forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Tertullian used the occasion of a fresh wave of anti-Christian attacks to advance an argument that religious coercion in general — not just anti-Christian coercion — is wrong as a matter of principle. Here is what Tertullian said: “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature [humani iuris et naturalis potestatis], that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion — to which free-will and not force should lead us — the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.” Note that this compact and lucid argument for the intrinsically voluntary character of religion, and hence the intrinsic illegitimacy of religious coercion, appears in human history in North Africa in the early third century — some 1,300 years before the European Reformation and some 1,500 years before the European Enlightenment.
Furthermore, note that Tertullian is appealing here to what he takes to be a common-sense, moral intuition, to use Fabio Petito’s phrase, as well as a common-sense, shared intuition about the nature of religion. He is not building an elaborate theoretical edifice. Nor is he advancing (or assuming) a parochial conception of “religion” or a narrowly Christian moral, theological, or philosophical argument. His assertion of the injustice of religious persecution occurs in an apologetic work he crafts precisely for the sake of persuading people who violently oppose his Christian views — views that were, as a matter of fact, held by an exceedingly tiny proportion of the population of Carthage in the early third century C.E. He therefore seeks to rest his argumentative case on premises such as the illegitimacy of religious coercion that he is confident his pagan audience will be capable of understanding and embracing. In other words, a doctrine of religious freedom — a phrase, by the way, that it is not anachronistic to apply to Tertullian because he uses the very phrase “libertas religionis” or “religious liberty” in his Apology of 197 — appears in his writing not as the conclusion of an elaborate philosophical or theological chain of reasoning. Rather, Tertullian presents his assertion of the injustice of religious coercion as a shared, inarguable starting-point in a practical plea for an end to state-sponsored Christian persecution. He expects that even on their own understanding of piety, religion, and justice, his pagan interlocutors should be able to grasp the unjust and unreasonable character of religious coercion and persecution.
Religious freedom: intimations of universality
There are many further hints, I believe, that the simple moral intuition that religious coercion is essentially wrong as a matter of principle is indeed widely shared across vast historical, cultural, and religious distances and is certainly not restricted to a few cultures or traditions.
One detects the intuition underlying the edict of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in India in the 3rd century B.C.E. that “a man must not…disparage [the sect] of another man without reason.” One sees it underlying — and indeed driving — the moral drama of the narrative in the deuterocanonical First and Second Books of Maccabees, in which a large contingent of Jews rebel against the Hellenizing policies of king Antiochus in the 2nd century B.C.E. that sought to impose religious and cultural uniformity. (As Mattathias responds, “We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2: 22).) One sees it in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the heroine defies Creon’s unjust decrees — decrees that are unjust chiefly because they impose a kind of religious coercion by preventing the fulfillment of a central, binding obligation of piety. One sees it in the church father of the late second century, Irenaeus, who pithily and powerfully declares, “there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch. 37, sec. 1). One sees it in the early fourth-century church father Lactantius: “For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist” (Divine Institutes, Book V, Ch. 19, sec. 20). One sees it with enormous force and clarity in the famous injunction of the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). And one sees it in the fact that the nearly 2,500 bishops from around the world who gathered for the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) concluded their months of deliberation and drafting on religious liberty with a declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, that revolves around the simple proposition that “all human beings ought to be immune from coercion” in religious matters.
In other words, contrary to the “new critics,” religious freedom is the basic and remarkably widespread idea that as a general rule people should enjoy a simple freedom from compulsion and coercive interference in religious matters. It is not the normative expectation that individuals and communities should conform or aspire to some particular, parochial, quasi-Protestant notion of religion, or to some specific kind of church-state (or mosque-state…) arrangement. Nor does it insist that they should conform to notions of individual autonomy peculiar to modern Western liberalism. Rather, religious freedom is more a No than a Yes. It is a great No to the idea that any human agent enjoys a presumptive, standing right to coerce the consciences of individuals or communities in their beliefs and practices in matters of religion. What it precisely does not do is prescribe or entail any particular, elaborate religious, philosophical, or political doctrine.
Now I would be quick to emphasize that, in my own view, religious freedom is ultimately rooted in or founded on deep truths about the nature of the human person, the nature of the divine, and the nature of the relationship between the two. However, various — and indeed very different and even conflicting — interpretations of those truths can all nonetheless converge on the simple and indeed very minimalist idea that coercion in religious matters is presumptively wrong. One kind of view might ground and articulate the essential wrongness of religious coercion in terms of a violation of basic justice. Another view might articulate it as a violation of the inherent natural rights or inherent dignity of all human beings. Another view might articulate it as an attack on the nature and integrity of true religion or piety, understood as the duty to seek the truth about God, and then freely to conform one’s conscience and actions to the truth one has found. Another might reject religious coercion as an assault on the moral autonomy proper to all rational beings. But the basic idea or principle of religious freedom as such is different from the various religious or philosophical views that might ground or justify or explain the underlying rationale(s) for religious freedom. Religious freedom in and of itself is not an elaborate social doctrine or lofty political aspiration or complicated philosophical theory. Properly understood, it is not a ceiling, but a floor. It is not “mind control,” but a moral minimum.
That is, religious freedom should not be seen as the long-term end or goal of a political society. It should be seen as a necessary beginning, without which even a minimally decent and stable society is either impossible or exceedingly difficult to achieve and sustain. It is what societies need to do to get past the gate of acceptability, not what societies should do in order to achieve social or political perfection. (In some ways, this whole way of thinking about religious freedom might be called the “religious liberty of fear,” inspired by Judith Shklar’s minimalist understanding of liberalism epitomized by her phrase, “the liberalism of fear.”)
Of course, the claim that the intuition of the essential injustice of religious coercion is widespread must reckon with the obvious and countervailing fact that the practice and justification of religious conformity and coercion are infinitely more widespread. And the new critics of religious freedom are right to point to the ways in which even ideologies and systems that claim the label of religious freedom have been used to mask or legitimate atrocious forms of religious coercion. Isn’t it hard to argue that religious freedom is universal when religious freedom has been so seldom respected, and when systems of religious coercion and conformity are the assumed and legitimate order of the day, even at this very moment?
My own take is that the widespread intimations of the essential injustice of religious coercion gain even more force and are even more impressive when they are juxtaposed with the widespread, systematic violations of this moral intuition across human history, including in the present day. My reasoning is roughly as follows. Powerful regimes and groups — including regimes and groups that think of themselves as liberal and democratic — always possess enormously tempting incentives to impose religious uniformity and limit religious difference and dissent. Religion has probably been the single most powerful source of political legitimacy in the history of humankind. Any religion beyond the control of a political community therefore represents a potentially serious threat to its authority, unity, and stability — a powerful potential source of political de-legitimation, or political division, or both. Some rulers and some political communities will therefore always see even a modicum of religious freedom as a risk they cannot afford to take. Given all of these powerful incentives, it is all the more remarkable that the intuition that religious coercion is unjust has been so regularly and widely articulated across history — against all the odds, one might say. In order for this perpetually uncomfortable idea to have overcome the odds in so many different contexts, it seems reasonable to conclude that it must be rooted in fundamental and enduring intuitions concerning the nature of humanity, the nature of morality, or the nature of religion, or all of the above.
Religious non-coercion: a shared theoretical and practical basis for cooperation?
Fabio Petito expressed another insight that argues in favor of the possibility of more robust transatlantic cooperation on religious freedom. As a practical matter, he argued in an intervention from the floor on the first day of the conference that what Western governments can and should do with respect to advancing international religious freedom is focus on working together to reduce and stop the worst forms of persecution in matters of religion or belief. In other words, what they should do is focus on the most extreme forms of coercion inflicted against individuals and communities in their religious beliefs, norms, practices, and institutions. And they should intentionally work harder and work more closely together to encourage societies around the world to stop these forms of coercion.
This, of course, is a simple point. But it is striking that this second, practical policy point converges very powerfully with the first, theoretical point about the widely shared intuition of the wrongness of religious coercion. Together, they yield the following, crucial conclusion: To focus on the most serious forms of coercion in religious matters around the world is not to pursue a lowest-common-denominator understanding of religious freedom. To focus on such forms of religious coercion is not just a practical, policy imperative. It is not something we should do simply because it is a goal that is easier to reach or one we can more easily agree on despite our differences — low-hanging fruit, as it were. Rather, to focus on such forms of religious coercion presupposes a more theoretically sound and more precise understanding of what religious freedom actually is in the first place.
To elaborate, if the foregoing theoretical reasoning about the basic and widespread notion that religious coercion is presumptively and essentially unjust, then religious freedom precisely is the avoidance of such forms of religious coercion. That is, both by universal or near-universal definition and by universal or near-universal intuition, religious freedom is nothing other than the right of individuals and communities to immunity from coercion in religious matters. Therefore, religious freedom can be said to be respected in a society — indeed, fully respected — precisely insofar as that society simply lacks or avoids undue or unjust religious coercion. It follows that a society can be said to have at least basic religious freedom insofar as it simply avoids the most serious, substantial, and obviously unjust forms of coercion of individuals and communities in their religious beliefs and practices. On this understanding, then, from both a theoretical and practical point of view, it becomes a sound goal of policy — and a solid basis for transatlantic policy cooperation — to identify and to stop the most serious and substantial forms of religious coercion being carried out by governments and non-state actors in the world today.
Of course, this way of looking at religious freedom does not resolve all theoretical and practical difficulties. For one thing, there are obviously very different types of coercion. And there are very different levels of coercion. And there are difficult questions about what precisely constitutes coercion. When members of one religious community are de jure unequal under the law for certain purposes, with fewer rights and opportunities in the economic sphere or political sphere, does that constitute coercion — perhaps subtle, perhaps indirect, but nonetheless real and serious coercion? When members of one religious community experience de facto discrimination in society for the purposes of employment or housing, does that in effect constitute a kind of coercion or coercive punishment for holding certain religious beliefs or for having certain religious identities?
These are not easy questions. But focusing on religious coercion may help us retrieve and clarify what religious freedom is all about. And, at the very same time, it may help us articulate a realizable policy goal that very different governments — including governments on both sides of the Atlantic — as well as people of very different religions, cultures, and philosophical perspectives can rally around.