From the April, 2008 issue of Touchstone

The First Freedom by William L. Saunders


The First Freedom

Why Religions Must Be Free, Not Tolerated
by William L. Saunders

In Algeria, in early 1996, Father Christian de Chergé, prior of a Trappist monastery, wrote to the leader of an insurgent group. “Brother, let me speak man to man, believer to believer. We cannot take sides. We are foreigners. We are monks. That binds us to the choice God made for us, to live a life of prayer, a simple life, one of manual labor, hospitable to everyone, especially the poor. This is our free choice and binds us to the death. I do not think God wants us to die at your hands. . . . We love everyone, you included. May the one God guide all our lives. Amen.”

Prior Christien and his brother monks had been abducted and released three years earlier, but chose to stay in Algeria. They enjoyed good relations with the community. Many local Muslims depended for their medical care on one brother, a physician. The monks did not proselytize, but sought to provide an example of Christian service, holiness, and austerity.

Still, in March, soon after Prior Christien sent his letter, the insurgents took seven monks, including the prior, hostage. In May, they slit each monk’s throat.

Protected Freedoms

From this sad episode, we see two things. First, religious belief is powerful, so powerful that men will freely give their lives in service to it. Second, it is so powerful, in fact, that other men will do all in their power to stamp it out.

At one time, it appeared that the world had learned its lesson: that religious freedom must, as a core human right, be affirmatively protected.

In 1948, the nations of the world, reeling from World War II—a war in which the Nazi and Japanese regimes had practiced slave labor and inhumane experimentation on conquered peoples and those whose lives were, in the German medical establishment’s chilling phrase, “unworthy of life”—met in New York to found the United Nations.

In order to avoid “the scourge of war,” they determined to recognize and protect basic human rights. The first document they issued was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Its Preamble states: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 18 makes this more concrete: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The Universal Declaration was implemented through treaties, the most important of which is the Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. The United States ratified this treaty during the administration of President George H. W. Bush.

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Its own Article 18 provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom . . . to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” and that “no one shall be subject to coercion.”

It states further that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The nations that signed it agreed to respect “the liberty of parents and when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

One might assume, therefore, that advocates of “human rights” would be working hard to protect religious freedom. But that isn’t necessarily true.

Liberalism’s Misunderstanding

In early February 2002, John Shattuck gave the keynote address to the Harvard University Human Rights Conference. Shattuck had served as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under President Clinton and, as such, was the highest ranking US official expressly charged with the promotion and protection of human rights.

He began by suggesting that the conference’s title be changed from “Religion, Democracy & Human Rights,” to “Religion, Rights & Terrorism.” He went on to claim that:

Freedom of religion is predicated upon the existence of more than one religion. But a multiplicity of religions has always meant conflict, and religious conflict often led to war and human devastation. This was the state of reality for centuries and millennia, and it is hardly a ringing endorsement of religious freedom.

Then, he said, a key, new idea emerged, that of religious tolerance. He gave “three different, but equally strong, rationales” for religious tolerance: “belief of any sort, including atheism . . . is at the root of all human existence, and belief cannot be suppressed without destroying the very essence of what it is to be human”; “tolerance of differing beliefs is a strategic necessity”; and “tolerance of religious difference is essential for the internal protection of religion itself.”

While Shattuck noted some true points, he missed the mark. He, and the philosophical liberalism he represents, sees religion, unlike other human rights, as a problem, as a source of conflict, as something to be managed.

Philosophical liberals do not understand the absolutely fundamental nature of religious belief. Human beings are made with the desire to seek and to worship God. As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Religious freedom stands on its own legs; it is not derived from or dependent upon any other human right.

One should not, for example, confuse freedom of conscience or freedom of speech with freedom of religion. While a hostile judiciary has made it tactically necessary to frame cases in US courts involving “freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs” as if they involved freedom of speech, the two are conceptually different.

Freedom of speech is the freedom to say things others do not want to hear. Freedom of religion simply acknowledges the fact that human self-understanding is impossible unless human beings are free to seek God, to respond to God’s initiative in seeking them, to worship him, and to live a life of faith. A view of religious freedom that bases it upon “tolerance of the other” simply misses the point.

A Fundamental Right

John Adams told us that our republican form of government is built upon the assumption of a religious and virtuous citizenry and is unfit for any other. James Madison recognized religious freedom as a fundamental right that precedes the state and cannot be severely curtailed or denied by it.

Put more broadly, as Pope John Paul II put it in Redemptor Missio, religious freedom is the “first freedom.” It is “the premise and guarantee of all freedoms that ensure the common good.” In his letter, “Respect for Human Rights,” issued in 1999, he noted that:

Religion expresses the deepest aspirations of the human person, shapes people’s vision of the world and affects their relationships with others; basically, it offers the answer to the question of the true meaning of life, both personal and communal. Religious freedom therefore constitutes the very heart of human rights.

Thus, to revise a common Catholic phrase, if you want justice, work for religious freedom.

In September 2006, in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI warned Western culture to “avoid the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mocking of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom.” He reminded philosophical liberals that it is not freedom exercised aimlessly, but freedom seeking transcendent truth that really sets man “free.”

Similarly, though not perfect in this regard, the Universal Declaration recognizes that religious freedom must (that is, does) include the right to manifest one’s beliefs, to follow them—even to the point of changing one’s religion—and to worship God as one sees fit. It does not see “religious freedom” as John Shattuck does—as a source of problems, of conflict—but as a basic human right, a source of meaning, a “good.”

But in my work in the human rights field, I learned that Shattuck’s misunderstanding is widespread. While I began working in the human rights field to protect religious freedom, I soon found that many in this field shared his view that religion is a problem, a pot about to boil over unless we turn off the heat.

Others in the field were simply blind to religion. They did not realize it was protected by the Universal Declaration. Thus, though they might not be hostile to religion, its protection and promotion were not on their agenda.

My experience was completely different. Having had a re-conversion, I understood how important religion is. When I learned that fellow believers were being persecuted for the same faith—particularly in Sudan—my heart burned to help them. When I realized how very little American Christians were doing to help them, I was ashamed.

I did not want “special rights” for Christians. I wanted them to have the basic human rights guaranteed in the basic human rights documents. Yet I found a secular human rights community indifferent to religious freedom, and worse, a domestic Christian community unaware that, as John Paul II said in his encyclical letter On the Threshold of the Third Millennium, “the age of the martyrs has not ended.”

Evangelical Pressure

It has been chiefly through the efforts of Evangelicals that the issue of religious freedom has made it onto the American foreign policy agenda. Through grassroots mobilization, a movement was created that pressured Congress to enact the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998. This created the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the office of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the Department of State.

Both are required to produce reports on the state of religious freedom around the world. The annual State Department Country Reports had hitherto largely de-emphasized this subject. While reports do not solve problems, they do shed light on them. If you don’t know something is broken, you can’t fix it.

The looming passage of the IRFA caused President Bill Clinton to create, ad hoc, a Special Advisor for International Religious Freedom in the State Department in the hope of defeating the bill. His administration largely viewed religious freedom as John Shattuck did: Religion is “important,” but almost more trouble than it’s worth; it is important not to torture people, but maybe not as important to see that they are free to practice their faith fully.

For philosophical liberals, religion is important because an individual chooses to make it so. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy famously put it: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It is the choice for religion, not religious freedom itself, that is important.

From that perspective, the movement, driven chiefly by Evangelicals, to ensure that religious freedom became an important part of US foreign policy had ominous implications. As Shattuck put it in his Harvard speech: “Threats to religious tolerance also exist in democracies. For example, efforts have recently been made by the American Religious Right to advance a political agenda within the United States government that seeks to promote special religious interests overseas.”

How does working for religious freedom for all promote special interests? How does responding to the cries of your co-religionists invalidate your efforts to advance the common good? It would be just as foolish to condemn African-Americans for protesting racial discrimination.

Before passage of IRFA, I sat in the audience at the law school at Catholic University to listen to Secretary of State Madeline Albright. She bemoaned IRFA as creating a “hierarchy” of rights. She feared, she solemnly told us, that “religious freedom” was being “privileged” over other rights. All rights, she claimed, were a package, and to emphasize one meant effectively to deny the others. This from the woman who, upon becoming Secretary of State, had spoken of her special duty to ensure “women’s rights.”

There is no agreement on the entire corpus of human rights, but some rights are universally recognized. Though philosophical liberals may wish it otherwise, the fact is that religious freedom is one of these. There is, thus, necessarily a hierarchy of rights. And, for the reasons I have discussed, religious freedom is at its apogee.

Let me note that the Bush administration also got religious freedom wrong in significant ways. In effect, the administration forgot the wisdom of John Adams, James Madison, and John Paul II. Its failure to insist on genuine religious freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, underlines a deeper unease and confusion about the central role religion plays in men’s lives by nature, as well as a failure to understand that efforts to promote democracy without promoting genuine religious freedom handicap US foreign policy and are doomed to fail.

A Deeper Good News

In Algeria, in the martyrdom of the Trappist monks, we see actions contrary to every notion of human rights: gentle men of faith, prized by their neighbors, killed by militants. But militant Islam is not the only threat to religious freedom.

Christian persecution in India by Hindu extremists dramatically increased in 2006 and is expected to continue increasing. Another motive for religious persecution finds its headquarters in Hanoi and in Pyongyang. It simply and flatly denies religious freedom, believing the old lie from the French Revolution that religion is both “bad” and capable of being extinguished upon the altar of “Reason.”

These are real threats, reflecting powerful forces moving in the world to stamp out religious freedom. However, because of the insistence of Evangelicals and others, the United States is not, cannot legally be, indifferent to those threats. Largely as a result of Evangelicals’ involvement in politics, it is now part of American foreign policy to oppose these threats and to work for religious freedom.

That is good news. But, for Christians at least, there is a deeper good news, though it is opaque and difficult to penetrate. Let me illustrate it through one last story.

Around A.D. 160, an old man, 86 years old, was burned at the stake in what is now Turkey. He was killed at the order of the Proconsul Statius Quadratus. Why?

Because he refused to burn incense to the emperor, Marcus Aurelius. In the words of the Universal Declaration, he was subjected to coercion in matters of worship in violation of his human rights.

This man, named Polycarp, was a Christian. He did not seek this end, but he accepted it with what we might call “a heavenly indifference.” From Polycarp’s Acts we learn of his last words, words subsequently heard, in respectful imitation, on the lips of Christian martyrs throughout the empire:

Quadratus: I have wild beasts.

Polycarp: Call them.

Quadratus: I can have you burned to death.

Polycarp: Do what you please.

While many powerful Romans scoffed at Polycarp’s death, it proved to be, in the words of the early Christian writer Tertullian, “the seed of the church.” His willingness to die rather than recant his faith led many, many others to become Christians in emulation of him.

Martyrdom is not something that only happened to distant figures like Peter and Paul and Polycarp. Rather, as the suffering in Sudan and Algeria, in Vietnam and North Korea, in China and India, teach us, the age of the martyrs is present still. In God’s providence, it will likely prove, as it has before, to be the impetus to the growth of the Church. •

William L. Saunders is Senior Vice President and Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life.

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