The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

Discussion Summary

“Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Other Freedoms to Flourish?”

By Thomas F. Farr

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As I reflect on this discussion several key themes emerge. The discussants raised a wide spectrum of issues worthy of the Big Question posed in the original essay (i.e., "Is religious freedom necessary for other freedoms to flourish?"). These questions highlighted the depth and breadth of the Big Question itself, which has both theoretical and practical dimensions.

Among the issues raised by discussants were political and sociological questions (how will religious freedom affect the fates of the so-called Arab Spring countries and of China?), theological-philosophical questions (is the modern Catholic understanding of religious freedom really a form of indifferentism? Does Islam have the theological basis to develop a political understanding of religious freedom?), and legal-philosophical questions (in a regime of religious liberty that includes the right of the majority to make political arguments based on religious views -- such as the regime described in the original essay -- how are minority rights to be protected?).

 

Here are the Two New Big Questions that I see arising from our discussion.

1. Can religious freedom truly be understood in the 21st century, especially by non-Western societies, as a pre-political right rather than the gift of governments?

This is slightly different than asking whether it is true that religious freedom is a pre-political right. It was in fact held to be so by generations of Western philosophers, theologians, and politicians (e.g., Madison, Jefferson, and Washington). But that truth, if truth it be, is in the West no longer widely understood as such, except perhaps in the narrowest sense. The current generation of American political elites would probably concede freedom of belief and worship as a pre-political right attaching to all human beings by virtue of their existence, but they would no longer universally agree that the public aspects of religious freedom discussed in the original essay (e.g., faith-based entities in civil society, or religious arguments in political life) are part of that fundamental right. Why this is the case is an interesting and very broad subject worthy of its own treatment.

The point I would wish to make here is that non-Western nations have never accepted religious freedom as a pre-political right. Today they tend to see it as a threat, e.g., an example of Western cultural imperialism designed to secure space for Western Christian missionaries and, in Muslim-majority nations, to move Islam to the margins of public life. A resulting dilemma for the American policy of advancing international religious freedom is how to overcome these perceptions, and the widespread resistance to the very idea of religious liberty. It seems to me the United States is unlikely to be persuasive in arguing that religious liberty is a pre-political right in cultures where there is no philosophical or theological basis for accepting such an argument.

Some would respond that there is, or may be, such a basis in certain interpretations of Islam, or in Orthodox nations such as Russia. In either case, however, it seems to me that the prudent course is to emphasize the more practical arguments about the advantages of religious freedom made in the original essay -- i.e., that it is necessary if democracy is to last, or if violent religious extremism and terrorism are to be defeated, or if economic freedom and social harmony are to emerge and endure. These practical arguments can act as pathways to deeper reflection. If there are compelling political, economic, social, and intellectual reasons for embracing religious freedom, the philosophers and theologians will take notice. Then we will be in the position to determine whether, as Columbia political theorist Alfred Stepan has long argued, most religions of the world are capable of discovering within their own comprehensive doctrines the basis for liberal self government.

2. Does religious freedom relativize all religions, including false ones?

There is some evidence for the proposition, offered by one of our discussants, that religious freedom as I have described it puts all religions on the same plane, inviting observers to conclude that all are equally true, or that none is truer than the others.

The evidence for this proposition lies in the requirement for equal treatment of all religions in the civil and political spheres. No religion is to be privileged in law over others. All have equal protections within civil society (e.g., in the forming of faith-based hospitals, colleges, soup kitchens and the like). All have equal access to the political processes of the state (e.g, each may make political arguments based on their religious teachings, form political parties based on those teachings, and the like).

This principle of equality in civil and political life has clearly lent support in the West to trends toward religious indifferentism, trends that are grounded in philosophical relativism and materialist scientism. However, religious freedom as I have described it is manifestly not an assertion that all religions are equally true, either morally or theologically. Rather, it rests on the assumption that liberal democracy works best when it avoids monopolies of power among human beings - political, economic, and religious.

In the end, religious freedom does not relativize truth. Rather, it allows human beings to respond to truth as they apprehend it. If, as many believe, there is one God who created and sustains each of us, and one religion that contains the fullest expression of the truths about God and man, then surely human beings can discover this God and that religion. If God exists, and if that religion is true, they beckon us all. And if we are to find them we must have freedom.

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I think that applying this critical question to non-western regimes can add much to the discussion. The key current examples are most certainly the Arab Spring nations and China.

Firstly, what has become of the Arab Spring and the great hopes for democratic transition? The end of oppressive regimes certainly opened many doors for a number of societies seeking new freedoms and rights, rights that their parents may never have even dreamed of. But despite a few peaceful democratic elections, what has become of the great democratic transition that both the West and reformers were looking for? What is missing from the "demcoratic revolutions" that supposedly have swept through a previously oppressed part of the world?

I would argue that genuine concern for religious freedom is what is missing, and if accurate, this would lend great evidence towards the claim that religious freedom is necessary for other freedoms to flourish. The demonstrated influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the stated interest in Sharia Law for Libya's constitution are troubling for religious freedom, and if radicalized to the extent that other societies have faced, could represent the same oppession as under secular dictatorship. Would a democratic Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia without religious freedom be flourishing democracies? How the Arab Spring plays out will definitely provide more answers to this critical question.

China is another rich example. The purely political pressure of Tianemmen Square is engrained in the minds of all who seek freedom for China, but 20 years later, what gains has China made in personal freedoms? Economic freedoms have slightly increased for sure, but democratization is a far ways off. Interestingly enough, the greatest pressure for freedom in China now comes from the growing religious population, whether it is Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang-area Muslims, or the skyrocketing Christian population. Some of the most well-respected Chinese dissidents, such as pastor Bob Fu, are leaders of religious communities seeking religious freedom. Chinese scandals have gained national attention thanks to Chinese Christians, who have begun to attack the most oppressive of Chinese policies based on their faith, including the one-child policy. Finally, some of the greatest expressions of dissent have come from Catholic bishops in China who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Chuch and are fighting for religious freedom from the state's control. These battles for religious freedom seem to have advanced the general cause for freedom and democracy more than previous secular political fights for freedom.

Prof. Farr's treatment of the Catholic Church, vis-a-vis religious freedom, raises some interesting questions. Of course, Dignitatis Humane, seems to put the Church squarely on the side of religious freedom. But has this always been the case? In fact, does Dignitatis perhaps draw on a false hermenuetic that ultimately does not take into account the Church's prior position, or even more importantly, that presents a situation of confusion and contradiction within the Church?

Here is a recent piece by Italian historian Roberto de Mattei: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2012/08/de-mattei-religious-liberty-or-liberty.html

It offers a wider perspective on the Church's historical stance on the issue of religious freedom. We come to the famous addage "error has no rights." The question for the Catholic Church, is, does the current stance toward religious freedom, as expressd in Dignitatis, set up a conflict with the Church's claim to posess the fullness of truth and divine revelation? If the Church posits religious freedom as a positive right, not as a tolerated reality, it seems to suggest that ostensibly false religions (non-Christian, non-Catholic) are put on the same objective  level of value as the Catholic religion. Does religious freedom equalize or even relativize all religions? Might a better way of looking at the question be to consider the liberty of the Church and the freedom of Christians, given that it/they posess the truth about ultimate things, wherein other religions may be tolerated as a practical matter of keeping the peace, social harmony etc, but that, in principal an affirmation of religious freedom weakens the Church's claim to absolute truth.

Author

We recently had an event at Georgetown focusing on religious freedom and the Arab Spring (available for viewing at berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/rfp) during which this issue was vigorously debated. Some panelists argued that pressing the question of religious freedom in full (as opposed to religious toleration, or perhaps the absence of persecution) was simply too incendiary during a transition to democracy. Far better, some scholars argued, to settle democratic institutions first, and then work for a modest version of religious freedom.

There is in fact some wisdom in this approach. It is simply unrealistic to expect a society that has never embraced religious freedom, and which sees it as an American trojan horse designed to undermine Islam and pave the way for missionaries, simply to accept it. The problem is that neither the United States nor any other country is attempting to make the more important point to the Egyptians: if you do not find a way to move toward equality of all religious citizens before the law, your quest for democracy will fail. It is an appeal to self interest, rather than a finger-wagging exercise. 

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of seeing the connection between religious freedom and their own interests depends, of course, on how they define their interests. My guess is that they are divided on this. Whatever one's views about the MB, however, the reality is that they are in a position of great power. We cannot ignore them, but we'd better know how to deal with them.

As for China, I think hoya 14 is quite right. Religious actors have increased freedom there more than most, if not all, other groups. The problem is that the Chinese government sees these groups as a threat, which accounts for the occasional, brutal crackdown that accompanies its system of managing and controlling religion. Imagine what might happen if the Chinese came to believe that religious libery were connected to economic development, or the kind of economic development that is sustainable over the long-term. If the government thought backing off the Tibettan Buddhists, Muslims and Chrisitans would increase social harmony and increase stable economic growth, they would be far more likely to take a good hard look at the value of religious freedom.

 

Author

My view is that Dignitatis Humanae (the Catholic Church's 1965 Declaration on Religious Liberty from the Second Vatican Council) does not equalize or relativize all religions. In fact, the document states explicity that this teaching, while a development of doctrine, does not alter the Church's traditional doctrinal claims about what it is.

What is new is that the Church is no longer claiming privileged access to the civil and police powers of the state. In effect, it is declaring its willingness to compete with other religious groups within civil and political society -- both for the allegiance of souls and for the ability to shape public policy -- without the kinds of laws and policies that once put the Catholic Church in a privileged position. Indeed, Dignitatis demands that every religious group have an equal right in public life. 

In sum, the Catholic Church still claims that it is the Church left by Christ for the beneit of all. Its absolute truth claims have not changed. But in society it now demands that all other groups have an equal right to make their claims. That is religious freedom in the civil order.

Dr. Farr's arguments are compelling.  Any state that demands precedence over God is by definition totalitarian.  Ordered liberty requires certain limits (e.g., the "cult of Kali" which demanded murder as a rite of worship violates the natural law and Judeo-Christian teaching, of course), but within that somewhat confined context religious liberty in public, professional and private life is foundational to every other form of libert.

While I would agree that religious liberty is in a very important sense foundational, that is, other liberties depend upon it, it strikes me that there's still something a bit too abstract about the discussion of it.  What I mean is that historically the idea of religious liberty has been recognized, respected, and insitutionalized in some societies and not in others.  Why?

While the "religious quest" may indeed be universal, and conceded as such by all, I'm less confident about the self-evident universality of the idea of religious liberty.  Some religious traditions, even when pursued with a good will, make that "especially" when pursued with a good will, seem to exclude the very idea, to engage it at all is to risk heresy.  Even the instrumental case for it, i.e., it leads to other "goods" for a society, may sound to some devout ears more heretical stil, vulgar even.

Other traditions (the Judeo-Christian tradition, e.g.), by contrast, have come to almost embody the idea of tolerance which is the root at least of the tree that is religious liberty.  To extend the metaphor, I'm not sure the idea of religious liberty can take root unless it is supported by a soil previously cultivated by a religious tradition that not only allows, but demands tolerance. 

Where does that leave us? 

It is important for the US, consistent with both our ideals and our interests, to use whatever leverage we have to discourage religious persecution abroad.  To that more humble end, we may well have some, perhaps even great effect.  It's our duty to try.  But the creation of a culture of religious tolerance, much less religious liberty, is, I'm afraid, going to take some time, some very long time.       

Author

Mt Airy's sage has raised some very important questions. He notes, quite correctly, that even if everyone agreed that religion is universal, not everyone would agree that the free exercise of religion is, or ought to be, universally protected. Even an "instrumental" case for religious freedom -- e.g., that religious freedom may be a linchpin of the bundle of freedoms necessary for democracy to take root, or that religious freedom can stimulate economic growth, or undermine terrorism -- will cut no ice with someone who sees religious liberty as a license to commit heresy. After all, why should a religion acknowledge a "right" to act in ways that will send a person to hell, even if acknowledging that right might have some positive social effect?

When a religious tradition holds such views about heresy, how can we expect it to embrace tolerance, let alone full-blown religious liberty?

Although the sage does not mention a particular religion, he may have in mind Islam. In some Muslim majority countries (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) some acts of religious freedom are identified as heretical in law and culture, and can be severely punished by the state. Examples are apostasy (leaving Islam for another religion), blasphemy (acting as if one were God), and defamation (defaming Islam or its Prophet).

I agree with the sage that, in such countries, creating a culture of religious tolerance and freedom will be quite difficult. I also agree that many, perhaps most, Islamic believers in these countries are unlikely to abandon core theological principles merely because social goods might be the result. However, history suggests that religious doctrine can evolve on the question of religious freedom. It is true, as the sage suggests, that doctrinal seeds must exist if they are to grow, but it is also true that the exigencies of history can encourage them to grow.

Take Christianity. In its 14th century Christianity shared some characteristics exhibited by contemporary Islam (today in its 14th century). The Catholic Church supported the criminalization of certain forms of heresy, and occasionally sanctioned the death penalty for apostasy. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that those "who have never received the faith … are by no means to be compelled to the faith," but those who have received it, "such as heretics and all apostates ... should be submitted even to bodily compulsion...."

Only in 1965 did the Catholic Church embrace religious liberty in full – in the aforementioned declarationDignitatis Humanae. But, as noted in the initial essay,Dignitatisdid not signal an abandonment of Catholic doctrines, such as the teaching that heresy or apostasy are mortal sins. Religious liberty was manifestlynotarticulated as a liberty to believe or do anything one wishes, but the liberty – consistent with the dignity of the human person -- to make choices on matters religious free of coercion from any human agent. In short, the Church no longer demands the right to enlist the state in teaching what is true - only the right to teach the truth in civil and political society freely, without state interference.

What explains the development of Catholic doctrine? That is a complex question beyond the scope of this essay, but there are two points that go to the concerns expressed by our sage. The first is that the doctrinal seeds of religious freedom were present from the beginning in Catholic Christianity – for example, in the dignity of the person made in the image and likeness of God, and whose worth was sufficient to merit the love of God reflected in the expiatory life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The second is that those seeds blossomed in a soil that was becoming more and more accustomed to political forms of self governance and ordered liberty. Dignitatisitself begins with an acknowledgment that history was moving in the direction of greater human freedom. In short, the emergence of liberalism and democracy in the 20thcentury, especially as it evolved in the United States, encouraged the Catholic Church to look deeply into its deposit of faith. The result was the promulgation of developed doctrine compatible with, and encouraging of, liberal democracy. 

Can Islam come to this understanding? Our sage suggests not, and that US foreign policy should probably not make the effort to encourage it to do so. Instead, we should do what we can to reduce persecution. The question of Islam’s potential is one which I am unqualified to answer; I am neither a Muslim nor an expert on Islam. And, of course, Islam has no religious authority analogous to the Roman Catholic magisterium. But I have observed that there are many Muslims (e.g., Abdullah Saeed, Hamza Yusuf, Khaled Abou El Fadl) who argue that Islam does possess the theological ground for religious freedom. And I have also observed that Muslims in growing numbers worldwide seem to be searching for their own forms of stable self-government, including in the Arab nations once thought least capable of achieving it.

So where I come down is this: if indeed religious freedom is necessary for the other freedoms to flourish and for democracy to take root, and if there are indigenous Muslims who themselves seek both democracy and religious freedom, then it is in the vital national interests of the United States to help them achieve both. An effective US international religious freedom policy will not only help those societies flourish, it will reduce persecution far more effectively than our anemic, ad hoc efforts have done to date.

To the sage of Mt Airy, I say: while it is doubtless true that we cannot “create” religious freedom or democracy anywhere in the world, including the Muslim world, the evidence suggests that peoples struggling to adopt democracy need religious freedom if they are to succeed, if persecution is to diminish in any significant way, and if religion-based terrorism is to be overcome. On the scale of the potential costs to us, which are low, and the potential benefits, which are significant, this seems to me a powerful argument for greater efforts to advance religious freedom in American foreign policy.   

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Farr's essay about the philosophical and empirically verified linkages between religious freedom and other freedoms (and with his point in the discussion about religious freedom having nothing whatsoever to do with relativizing all religions). One point in the essay that I think warrants further discussion, though, is the assertion that religious freedom includes the right to bring religion directly into political action as long as it's done so "on the basis of full equality under the law."

Some religious acts, by individuals or communities, represent a public pursuit of religious obligation, or witness of truth claims, in civil society: for example, the establishment of religious hospitals, schools and colleges, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, or immigration services. Some carry religious actors into political discourse and competition, forming religion-based political parties, or making religion-based political arguments for or against laws and policies. Religious freedom is the civil right of both individuals and communities to perform these acts on the basis of full equality under the law.

"Equality under the law," of course, imposes limits. All religious beliefs and acts in civil and political society are not, per se, equal. Those that are violent or destructive of liberal democratic norms are forbidden or limited by law.

The matter of limits on religious politics is of critical importance to religious minorities, especially in countries where dominant groups think that “democracy” only requires holding elections. Dr. Farr notes rightly that if a form of religious politics is “destructive of liberal democratic norms,” it should be “forbidden or limited by law.” But where does that “law” come from, and what are the implications for countries today that are transitioning (maybe) away from authoritarianism? Is it a matter of constitutional provisions that explicitly protect individuals and minorities from tyranny of the religious majority?

Author

I thank Dr. Hoover for highlighting a very important point, i.e., that the limitations of law as they are imposed by authoritarian governments -- for example, the Chinese government -- are likely to be unjust or arbitrary. When I speak of religious freedom being grounded in the equality of all religious actors under the law I am indeed speaking of constitutional democracies in which the law protects minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

By the same token, the principle of full equality under the law carries within it a kind of self-denying ordinance for majorities. In Egypt, for example, that principle would provide the same opportunities in political life for minority religious groups as those enjoyed by the majority. Christian Copts could run for any office, including President, make religiously grounded arguments about Egyptian policies and laws on the same basis as Sunni Muslims, run religious charties, hospitals, colleges and homes for the aged without suffering legal disadvantages, and even invite Muslims to become Christians without legal penalty. Egypt is, of course, a long way from adopting such equality-based reforms, but if it fails to do so, it risks remaining a perennially unstable democratic polity constantly on the verge of collapse into military or theocratic authoritarianism. 

Author

I thank Dr. Hoover for highlighting a very important point, i.e., that the limitations of law as they are imposed by authoritarian governments -- for example, the Chinese government -- are likely to be unjust or arbitrary. When I speak of religious freedom being grounded in the equality of all religious actors under the law I am indeed speaking of constitutional democracies in which the law protects minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

By the same token, the principle of full equality under the law carries within it a kind of self-denying ordinance for majorities. In Egypt, for example, that principle would provide the same opportunities in political life for minority religious groups as those enjoyed by the majority. Christian Copts could run for any office, including President, make religiously grounded arguments about Egyptian policies and laws on the same basis as Sunni Muslims, run religious charties, hospitals, colleges and homes for the aged without suffering legal disadvantages, and even invite Muslims to become Christians without legal penalty. Egypt is, of course, a long way from adopting such equality-based reforms, but if it fails to do so, it risks remaining a perennially unstable democratic polity constantly on the verge of collapse into military or theocratic authoritarianism. 

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Farr's essay about the philosophical and empirically verified linkages between religious freedom and other freedoms (and with his point in the discussion about religious freedom having nothing whatsoever to do with relativizing all religions). One point in the essay that I think warrants further discussion, though, is the assertion that religious freedom includes the right to bring religion directly into political action as long as it's done so "on the basis of full equality under the law."

Some religious acts, by individuals or communities, represent a public pursuit of religious obligation, or witness of truth claims, in civil society: for example, the establishment of religious hospitals, schools and colleges, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, or immigration services. Some carry religious actors into political discourse and competition, forming religion-based political parties, or making religion-based political arguments for or against laws and policies. Religious freedom is the civil right of both individuals and communities to perform these acts on the basis of full equality under the law.

"Equality under the law," of course, imposes limits. All religious beliefs and acts in civil and political society are not, per se, equal. Those that are violent or destructive of liberal democratic norms are forbidden or limited by law.

The matter of limits on religious politics is of critical importance to religious minorities, especially in countries where dominant groups think that “democracy” only requires holding elections. Dr. Farr notes rightly that if a form of religious politics is “destructive of liberal democratic norms,” it should be “forbidden or limited by law.” But where does that “law” come from, and what are the implications for countries today that are transitioning (maybe) away from authoritarianism? Is it a matter of constitutional provisions that explicitly protect individuals and minorities from tyranny of the religious majority?

Author

Mt Airy's sage has raised some very important questions. He notes, quite correctly, that even if everyone agreed that religion is universal, not everyone would agree that the free exercise of religion is, or ought to be, universally protected. Even an "instrumental" case for religious freedom -- e.g., that religious freedom may be a linchpin of the bundle of freedoms necessary for democracy to take root, or that religious freedom can stimulate economic growth, or undermine terrorism -- will cut no ice with someone who sees religious liberty as a license to commit heresy. After all, why should a religion acknowledge a "right" to act in ways that will send a person to hell, even if acknowledging that right might have some positive social effect?

When a religious tradition holds such views about heresy, how can we expect it to embrace tolerance, let alone full-blown religious liberty?

Although the sage does not mention a particular religion, he may have in mind Islam. In some Muslim majority countries (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) some acts of religious freedom are identified as heretical in law and culture, and can be severely punished by the state. Examples are apostasy (leaving Islam for another religion), blasphemy (acting as if one were God), and defamation (defaming Islam or its Prophet).

I agree with the sage that, in such countries, creating a culture of religious tolerance and freedom will be quite difficult. I also agree that many, perhaps most, Islamic believers in these countries are unlikely to abandon core theological principles merely because social goods might be the result. However, history suggests that religious doctrine can evolve on the question of religious freedom. It is true, as the sage suggests, that doctrinal seeds must exist if they are to grow, but it is also true that the exigencies of history can encourage them to grow.

Take Christianity. In its 14th century Christianity shared some characteristics exhibited by contemporary Islam (today in its 14th century). The Catholic Church supported the criminalization of certain forms of heresy, and occasionally sanctioned the death penalty for apostasy. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that those "who have never received the faith … are by no means to be compelled to the faith," but those who have received it, "such as heretics and all apostates ... should be submitted even to bodily compulsion...."

Only in 1965 did the Catholic Church embrace religious liberty in full – in the aforementioned declarationDignitatis Humanae. But, as noted in the initial essay,Dignitatisdid not signal an abandonment of Catholic doctrines, such as the teaching that heresy or apostasy are mortal sins. Religious liberty was manifestlynotarticulated as a liberty to believe or do anything one wishes, but the liberty – consistent with the dignity of the human person -- to make choices on matters religious free of coercion from any human agent. In short, the Church no longer demands the right to enlist the state in teaching what is true - only the right to teach the truth in civil and political society freely, without state interference.

What explains the development of Catholic doctrine? That is a complex question beyond the scope of this essay, but there are two points that go to the concerns expressed by our sage. The first is that the doctrinal seeds of religious freedom were present from the beginning in Catholic Christianity – for example, in the dignity of the person made in the image and likeness of God, and whose worth was sufficient to merit the love of God reflected in the expiatory life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The second is that those seeds blossomed in a soil that was becoming more and more accustomed to political forms of self governance and ordered liberty. Dignitatisitself begins with an acknowledgment that history was moving in the direction of greater human freedom. In short, the emergence of liberalism and democracy in the 20thcentury, especially as it evolved in the United States, encouraged the Catholic Church to look deeply into its deposit of faith. The result was the promulgation of developed doctrine compatible with, and encouraging of, liberal democracy. 

Can Islam come to this understanding? Our sage suggests not, and that US foreign policy should probably not make the effort to encourage it to do so. Instead, we should do what we can to reduce persecution. The question of Islam’s potential is one which I am unqualified to answer; I am neither a Muslim nor an expert on Islam. And, of course, Islam has no religious authority analogous to the Roman Catholic magisterium. But I have observed that there are many Muslims (e.g., Abdullah Saeed, Hamza Yusuf, Khaled Abou El Fadl) who argue that Islam does possess the theological ground for religious freedom. And I have also observed that Muslims in growing numbers worldwide seem to be searching for their own forms of stable self-government, including in the Arab nations once thought least capable of achieving it.

So where I come down is this: if indeed religious freedom is necessary for the other freedoms to flourish and for democracy to take root, and if there are indigenous Muslims who themselves seek both democracy and religious freedom, then it is in the vital national interests of the United States to help them achieve both. An effective US international religious freedom policy will not only help those societies flourish, it will reduce persecution far more effectively than our anemic, ad hoc efforts have done to date.

To the sage of Mt Airy, I say: while it is doubtless true that we cannot “create” religious freedom or democracy anywhere in the world, including the Muslim world, the evidence suggests that peoples struggling to adopt democracy need religious freedom if they are to succeed, if persecution is to diminish in any significant way, and if religion-based terrorism is to be overcome. On the scale of the potential costs to us, which are low, and the potential benefits, which are significant, this seems to me a powerful argument for greater efforts to advance religious freedom in American foreign policy.   

While I would agree that religious liberty is in a very important sense foundational, that is, other liberties depend upon it, it strikes me that there's still something a bit too abstract about the discussion of it.  What I mean is that historically the idea of religious liberty has been recognized, respected, and insitutionalized in some societies and not in others.  Why?

While the "religious quest" may indeed be universal, and conceded as such by all, I'm less confident about the self-evident universality of the idea of religious liberty.  Some religious traditions, even when pursued with a good will, make that "especially" when pursued with a good will, seem to exclude the very idea, to engage it at all is to risk heresy.  Even the instrumental case for it, i.e., it leads to other "goods" for a society, may sound to some devout ears more heretical stil, vulgar even.

Other traditions (the Judeo-Christian tradition, e.g.), by contrast, have come to almost embody the idea of tolerance which is the root at least of the tree that is religious liberty.  To extend the metaphor, I'm not sure the idea of religious liberty can take root unless it is supported by a soil previously cultivated by a religious tradition that not only allows, but demands tolerance. 

Where does that leave us? 

It is important for the US, consistent with both our ideals and our interests, to use whatever leverage we have to discourage religious persecution abroad.  To that more humble end, we may well have some, perhaps even great effect.  It's our duty to try.  But the creation of a culture of religious tolerance, much less religious liberty, is, I'm afraid, going to take some time, some very long time.       

Dr. Farr's arguments are compelling.  Any state that demands precedence over God is by definition totalitarian.  Ordered liberty requires certain limits (e.g., the "cult of Kali" which demanded murder as a rite of worship violates the natural law and Judeo-Christian teaching, of course), but within that somewhat confined context religious liberty in public, professional and private life is foundational to every other form of libert.

Author

My view is that Dignitatis Humanae (the Catholic Church's 1965 Declaration on Religious Liberty from the Second Vatican Council) does not equalize or relativize all religions. In fact, the document states explicity that this teaching, while a development of doctrine, does not alter the Church's traditional doctrinal claims about what it is.

What is new is that the Church is no longer claiming privileged access to the civil and police powers of the state. In effect, it is declaring its willingness to compete with other religious groups within civil and political society -- both for the allegiance of souls and for the ability to shape public policy -- without the kinds of laws and policies that once put the Catholic Church in a privileged position. Indeed, Dignitatis demands that every religious group have an equal right in public life. 

In sum, the Catholic Church still claims that it is the Church left by Christ for the beneit of all. Its absolute truth claims have not changed. But in society it now demands that all other groups have an equal right to make their claims. That is religious freedom in the civil order.

Author

We recently had an event at Georgetown focusing on religious freedom and the Arab Spring (available for viewing at berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/rfp) during which this issue was vigorously debated. Some panelists argued that pressing the question of religious freedom in full (as opposed to religious toleration, or perhaps the absence of persecution) was simply too incendiary during a transition to democracy. Far better, some scholars argued, to settle democratic institutions first, and then work for a modest version of religious freedom.

There is in fact some wisdom in this approach. It is simply unrealistic to expect a society that has never embraced religious freedom, and which sees it as an American trojan horse designed to undermine Islam and pave the way for missionaries, simply to accept it. The problem is that neither the United States nor any other country is attempting to make the more important point to the Egyptians: if you do not find a way to move toward equality of all religious citizens before the law, your quest for democracy will fail. It is an appeal to self interest, rather than a finger-wagging exercise. 

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of seeing the connection between religious freedom and their own interests depends, of course, on how they define their interests. My guess is that they are divided on this. Whatever one's views about the MB, however, the reality is that they are in a position of great power. We cannot ignore them, but we'd better know how to deal with them.

As for China, I think hoya 14 is quite right. Religious actors have increased freedom there more than most, if not all, other groups. The problem is that the Chinese government sees these groups as a threat, which accounts for the occasional, brutal crackdown that accompanies its system of managing and controlling religion. Imagine what might happen if the Chinese came to believe that religious libery were connected to economic development, or the kind of economic development that is sustainable over the long-term. If the government thought backing off the Tibettan Buddhists, Muslims and Chrisitans would increase social harmony and increase stable economic growth, they would be far more likely to take a good hard look at the value of religious freedom.

 

Prof. Farr's treatment of the Catholic Church, vis-a-vis religious freedom, raises some interesting questions. Of course, Dignitatis Humane, seems to put the Church squarely on the side of religious freedom. But has this always been the case? In fact, does Dignitatis perhaps draw on a false hermenuetic that ultimately does not take into account the Church's prior position, or even more importantly, that presents a situation of confusion and contradiction within the Church?

Here is a recent piece by Italian historian Roberto de Mattei: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2012/08/de-mattei-religious-liberty-or-liberty.html

It offers a wider perspective on the Church's historical stance on the issue of religious freedom. We come to the famous addage "error has no rights." The question for the Catholic Church, is, does the current stance toward religious freedom, as expressd in Dignitatis, set up a conflict with the Church's claim to posess the fullness of truth and divine revelation? If the Church posits religious freedom as a positive right, not as a tolerated reality, it seems to suggest that ostensibly false religions (non-Christian, non-Catholic) are put on the same objective  level of value as the Catholic religion. Does religious freedom equalize or even relativize all religions? Might a better way of looking at the question be to consider the liberty of the Church and the freedom of Christians, given that it/they posess the truth about ultimate things, wherein other religions may be tolerated as a practical matter of keeping the peace, social harmony etc, but that, in principal an affirmation of religious freedom weakens the Church's claim to absolute truth.

I think that applying this critical question to non-western regimes can add much to the discussion. The key current examples are most certainly the Arab Spring nations and China.

Firstly, what has become of the Arab Spring and the great hopes for democratic transition? The end of oppressive regimes certainly opened many doors for a number of societies seeking new freedoms and rights, rights that their parents may never have even dreamed of. But despite a few peaceful democratic elections, what has become of the great democratic transition that both the West and reformers were looking for? What is missing from the "demcoratic revolutions" that supposedly have swept through a previously oppressed part of the world?

I would argue that genuine concern for religious freedom is what is missing, and if accurate, this would lend great evidence towards the claim that religious freedom is necessary for other freedoms to flourish. The demonstrated influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the stated interest in Sharia Law for Libya's constitution are troubling for religious freedom, and if radicalized to the extent that other societies have faced, could represent the same oppession as under secular dictatorship. Would a democratic Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia without religious freedom be flourishing democracies? How the Arab Spring plays out will definitely provide more answers to this critical question.

China is another rich example. The purely political pressure of Tianemmen Square is engrained in the minds of all who seek freedom for China, but 20 years later, what gains has China made in personal freedoms? Economic freedoms have slightly increased for sure, but democratization is a far ways off. Interestingly enough, the greatest pressure for freedom in China now comes from the growing religious population, whether it is Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang-area Muslims, or the skyrocketing Christian population. Some of the most well-respected Chinese dissidents, such as pastor Bob Fu, are leaders of religious communities seeking religious freedom. Chinese scandals have gained national attention thanks to Chinese Christians, who have begun to attack the most oppressive of Chinese policies based on their faith, including the one-child policy. Finally, some of the greatest expressions of dissent have come from Catholic bishops in China who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Chuch and are fighting for religious freedom from the state's control. These battles for religious freedom seem to have advanced the general cause for freedom and democracy more than previous secular political fights for freedom.

Dr. Farr's arguments are compelling.  Any state that demands precedence over God is by definition totalitarian.  Ordered liberty requires certain limits (e.g., the "cult of Kali" which demanded murder as a rite of worship violates the natural law and Judeo-Christian teaching, of course), but within that somewhat confined context religious liberty in public, professional and private life is foundational to every other form of libert.