blank.gif (51 bytes) Religious Freedom
in the Next Millennium

Is freedom of or freedom  from the growing trend?

by Pat Hickey

Pat recently attended two First Amendment conferences in Tokyo and Berlin.

merica’s founders formed a nation around their shared conviction that there were in life certain self-evident truths that could enlighten a country’s conscience in the practice of its political ideals. The Declaration of Independence made it clear that both human and civil rights are "endowed by [a] Creator," and not by the generosity of the state.

In America, no religious institution was ever to be awarded a favored status—as is still done in many countries. Enshrined as the first freedom in the Bill of Rights was the civil belief that government should never be the final arbiter of the faith, the conscience or the speech of Americans.

In 200-plus years a lot has changed and not always for the better. As we approach the close of the 20th Century, the question can legitimately be asked: Do we Americans still treasure freedom of religion and conscience? Or, are we systematically seeking freedom from religion and the conscientiousness it imparts to public life?

Postcard from Abroad

It’s been said before: when you want to get a good look at yourself, step outside of your self. Similarly, if you want to gain a perspective on America, do what I did recently—leave the country. Traveling to Tokyo and Berlin to attend two First Amendment conferences, I couldn’t help but reflect on the status of religious freedom in my own country.

In Tokyo, I spent an afternoon with Akira Koiso, a Japanese legislator who represents a suburban district in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. Interestingly, he wanted to talk about the reasons for America’s sustained economic success. He asked about Ronald Reagan and the economic reforms he instituted in the 1980s. He was interested in deregulation, tax cuts and the devolution of power from the federal government to the states. Apparently these are all issues the Japanese are currently contemplating as they try to budge the bureaucratic sludge out of their bloated economy. More importantly, he wanted to know about what ideals shape American public policy.

Having visited earlier in the day in Tokyo two of his country’s most traditional treasures, a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, I wanted to know how Japan’s religious norms were impacting his country’s debate on public policy. He said, "Japan is somewhat rudderless at this point."

Assemblyman Koiso told the story of how distraught Japanese were over the recent news of a middle school boy’s brutal murder of his parents. I—ashamed perhaps—avoided telling him that such news has become the steady diet of Americans, and that we’ve coped by becoming virtually numb to the repetitive reports of violence we witness daily on our Japanese made televisions.

After discussing how crucial the role of the family is to both societies, my Japanese counterpart asked the question that troubles me to this day: "How has religion helped shape American public policy?"

Here I was in a country with which some 55 years before my own father had been at war. The next day, I was to depart for Germany. Naturally I thought about how America had behaved after WWII.

Traditionally after a war, "to the victor go the spoils." More often than not, a price is extracted and the vanquished are made to pay. This historical rule of thumb was especially true if the defeated nation had been the aggressor.

But America acted differently after the defeat of Germany and Japan. Instead of ruling, America had helped rebuild. Instead of being punitive, America had been magnanimous in victory.

The next day as I flew over Siberia on the northern route to Berlin I pondered: What was it that tempered America’s foreign policy at that incredible juncture in history?

Was it merely Yankee pragmatism and self serving designs on the future economic order? Or was it security concerns over the growing threat of the Soviet Union that prompted the United States to rebuild the Axis nations? Both are true. But it occurred to me a few days later—while standing in a bombed out ruin in Berlin—that deeper principles influenced the way America acted after the war.

Residing somewhere within the collective consciousness of American leaders were ancient axioms instilled by a religious heritage. Core values like being "your brother’s keeper" and "forgiving your enemy" were quietly there. As self-evident truths, they whispered in consciences that helped create the humane ways the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift were carried out. Helmut Trotnow, director of the Allied Museum in Berlin, provided perspective to the dictum that the "truth will set you free" when he said that "the fight for modern German freedom and democratic rights began with the Allied airlift."

Arguably, there was more than a little moral philosophy present in the generous way Douglas MacArthur and the American occupation forces oversaw Japan’s transition to democracy. At that moment in history, American foreign policy makers put into public practice what parishioners had prayed privately about in their pews.

My answers to my new Japanese friend seemed to satisfy him, but they rang hollow inside me. It was hard to think what noble and inspired principles were presently guiding American technology transfers to China, one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and religious freedom. Of course it’s not easy for the current administration to take the moral high ground when, prior to his visit to Beijing, Chinese newspapers were proclaiming President Clinton’s troubles as the "greatest sex scandal in the world."

Religious Freedom Under Assault

Speaking at the Tokyo conference, former Wisconsin Congressman Toby Roth told of feeling "personally violated" while listening to testimony of Harry Wu about the brutal tortures inflicted on religious dissidents and fellow Catholics in China. The Dali Lama told of similar assaults on Tibetan monks.

On paper, religious freedom seems guaranteed in China. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says "Citizens of the People’s Republic enjoy freedom of religious belief." On paper, "democracy" also exists in China. But tell that to the pro-democracy students of Tiananmen Square.

Dr. Peter Juviler, human rights expert from Columbia University, told the conference, "China doesn’t see a threat to religion, but a threat from religion to its existing social order." In order to preserve its Maoist system, China requires all religious groups to join government sponsored organizations.

What is it we say in America about the power to tax? Certainly China and other countries threatened by the influence of religion seek ways to control and curtail it. After all, what better way to destroy a life-transforming idea than to have a government bureaucracy run it?

It was reported by Pedro Moreno of the Rutherford Institute how the government of Sudan uses slavery, forced conversion, torture, the kidnapping of children and starvation to oppress both Christians and Muslims. The international laundry list of religious freedom violations goes on and on. Unfortunately, our sense of moral outrage has a much shorter shelf life.

Is Religion Relevant?

George Orwell contemplated what might happen in 1984.In one grim passage Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, has no belief in God but does profess faith in "the spirit of Man." Soon, however, Winston will be broken. O’Brien, his interrogator, aims to insure that Winston learns to love Big Brother. A specialist in the subtleties of betrayal and human domination, O’Brien has less use for God than does Winston. As for Winston’s faith that "the spirit of Man" will prevail, O’Brien gives a blunt rebuttal: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."

Totalitarian regimes like those envisioned by Orwell can’t be blamed for wanting to give religion the boot. Anyone who believes in a moral force transcendent of time and space is not as likely to place his or her allegiances in government as the ultimate authority.

What should worry us as Americans— is how our own tradition of responsible self-government is evaporating in the face of a growing secular faith that government can be our redeeming benefactor. Sadly, the result is far more dependence on government and far less reliance on ourselves.

The presumed wall of separation between church and state has been expanded by the courts, codified by legislation and made orthodox by the popular media. Traditionalists are left wondering if the "wall" is being unfairly interpreted as a barrier to exclude religion from the marketplace of ideas and American public life.

As Richard Neuhaus wrote in the Naked Public Square, "The American experiment, which, more than any other, has been normative for the world’s thinking about democracy, is not only derived from religiously grounded belief, it continues to depend upon such a belief."

Speaking at the same Berlin Conference. Former Nevada Secretary of State Cheryl Lau, now at the Harvard School of Government, said, "Religion may be the most powerful and yet seriously unexamined force in the late 20th Century."

Unexamined maybe by our contemporaries, but not by our political predecessors. One proof of America’s political genius was the institutionalizing of religious freedom. We not only created freedom of religion, we created freedom with the help of religion. Ever since our founding, faith and moral sentiments have been present in the hearts and minds of those who have steered America along the high road of freedom.

Assemblyman Koiso was right to ask whether religion is still relevant to American public policy. Should we as Americans answer "No," God only knows what the next millennium will be like.u

Pat Hickey is Editor of  Nevada Journal.

News to Use
International  Coalition for  Religious  Freedom <ICRF@AOL.COM>

Rutherford Institute<international@Rutherford.Org>

Freedom House <NFF@NFF.org>

Pat Hickey <comments@npri.org>

 


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