Religious Liberty Abroad

by Michael Sean Winters

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Weekend before last, I was determined to undertake no writing and no heavy reading. What better way to kill time than an old and wonderful movie. I watched “Gandhi.” Of course, I had been writing a great deal about the issue of religious liberty, and the movie reminded me that we should avoid histrionics, to be sure, but that religious liberty is something that must be defended – and not just liberty but a culture of religious tolerance to support that liberty.

The highpoint of the movie “Gandhi” is not when the Union Jack is lowered over New Delhi. It is not the end of British rule that really provides the drama: It is the question of keeping India united. Gandhi succeeded in ending British rule but he was unable to keep India from breaking apart into two countries, one Muslim and one Hindu, and violence between members of the two creeds forced mass displacement of people on both sides of the border. Pakistan and India have fought several undeclared wars since and the paranoia of Pakistan’s military remains a hurdle in U.S.-Pakistani relations, especially as we improve relations with India which is the world’s largest democracy.

The millions who died in those undeclared wars are a testimony to the fact that the absence of religious tolerance is a dreadful thing. As in the Indian subcontinent, there has been tension between Muslims and Hindus in Indonesia since that country’s founding, although they benefit from inhabiting different islands: When you visit Java, there is no pork but on Bali, there is no beef, but a large body of water separates the islands. We all read of the horrific murder of Christians in Nigeria at Yuletide and of Christian churches being burned in Egypt last year. We know that most of the Christians in Iraq have fled, and that the Jews were expelled from Iraq in the 1950s, prior to which Jews were the largest ethnic group in Baghdad. And, in the heart of Europe, we can find monuments to the cruelty of devout Christians in the pock-marked buildings of Sarajevo and the fields of Srebrenica. Religious strife is all around us and not only in the history books or on the old movie channel.

Religious tolerance should not be merely a concession to human frailty, an acknowledgement of the wisdom of the Enlightenment, recognizing that the absence of ontology from the civic square can be a great blessing upon a nation. In fact, as Catholic Christians, we believe that the mystery of the Godhead is inexhaustible and that, just so, the temptation to claim that one has the full truth, the absolute truth, in one’s possession is not only an invitation to intolerance but an affront to God. In the book of Job, God upbraids Job’s friends because they tried to explain to Job why he had suffered. But, suffering, which is only the flip side of love, cannot be definitively explained because it is rooted in God, who can never be definitively explained. When I hear a pastor say, with absolute certainty in his voice, “God wants you to….” I tend to run in the other direction. Ditto the “WWJD” bracelets. Finding the ways of the Lord is not easy, it requires attentive listening again and again, it requires the humility to know that the ways of the Lord are not our ways, and that very holy people have done very bad things in God’s name, but most of all, it recognizes the danger of any one person saying of Providence – I have exhausted the mystery and grasped the heart of the matter. We are always searching.

Gandhi, we should remember, was not murdered by a Muslim but by a Hindu fanatic who resented Gandhi’s efforts to reach out to Muslims. This fact points us to a different variety of hostility to religious freedom, the theocratic state. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the government denies all non-Muslims the right to worship as they wish. And, in Iran, where the mullahs exercise ultimate control, not only is religious freedom denied to non-Muslims, but also to Muslims who are not Shia. The lack of religious freedom is not the only lack, to be sure: Women are denied the basic rights of citizenship, as well as particular rights we associate with modernity, like being able to drive a car.

I do not perceive a direct correlation between the lack of religious freedom and the lack of other rights. There is a Catholic understanding that allows us to say that freedom of religion is the first freedom, because our Catholic anthropology insists that man is most fully himself when he is worshipping his God, that we are homo sapiens to be sure but that at our deepest selves we should be seen as homo religiosus or homo liturgicus. But, that was not the understanding of the founding fathers. For them, the fact that the right to religious liberty was listed before the others in the First Amendment had no such philosophic precedence but stemmed from a worldview rooted, frankly, in anti-Catholic beliefs about the nature of government. Whenever you hear someone invoke the founding fathers, remind yourself that many of the founders were deeply and profoundly anti-Catholic. And, remind yourself, too, that the Catholic Church remained hostile to the idea of religious liberty until the Second Vatican Council.

In the coming months, as we battle for the religious liberty of our Catholic institutions here in the U.S. I hope we will take the time to learn about the much more severe threats to religious freedom abroad. Indeed, the severity of those threats shows why it is best to defend religious liberty early and often, when we are talking about paying for insurance not when we are talking about preventing mass murders. But, we need more than protests. We need discussions about why religious liberty matters, about what obligations attach to religious organizations that join the public square in a pluralistic society, and about whether or not our American notion of rights as vested solely in an individual is correct or helpful, that the much maligned concept of the libertas ecclesiae may be due for a come back. This must be a time to learn as well as to protest.

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