Religious Freedom in a Time of War


An essay by the estimable Samuel Huntington in The Influence of Faith recounts the ways in which, for more and more governments in the world, religion is the chief source of, or threat to, their legitimacy. Contrary to secularist expectations in the West, we are witnessing what is aptly described as the desecularization of world history. States seek to control religion, if necessary through repression and persecution, precisely because religion is becoming more important. Christianity in particular is, around the world and in almost all its forms, the carrier of democracy and political liberalization.

It was a mighty battle and alleluias ascended when, in the late 1990s, religious freedom was institutionally ensconced as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. It would not have happened without the heroic labors of people such as Nina Shea, Paul Marshall, Abe Rosenthal, Michael Horowitz, and Representative Frank Wolf and Chris Smith. And, let it be admitted, Arlen Specter in the Senate. In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act was passed by Congress, creating a desk in the National Security Council, an office in the State Department, and an independent commission, all charged with making sure that — along with political, economic, and military concerns — those responsible for making policy would make religious freedom a priority. In 1999 the State Department issued its first and comprehensive Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

To be sure, not everybody was suddenly converted to the importance of religious freedom. In the mandarin world of foreign policy experts, a good many "realists" viewed, and still view, this initiative as an unwelcome intrusion that distracts attention from the cold calculations of power that should guide our thinking about world affairs. The more perceptive, however, recognize that, whatever their personal disposiion toward the "soft" phenomenon called religion, it has become an increasingly "hard" factor in the global reconfiguration of power relationships.

There is a justifiable anxiety that in the current war against terrorism religious freedom is once again being put on a back burner as the U.S. cuts deals with some of the most notorious violators — China, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, for example — in order to secure cooperation and gain momentary tactical advantages. Such maneuverings are understandable. Religious freedom is not and cannot be the only priority in foreign policy, especially in a time of war. But those who worked so hard to make it a priority are justifiably worried that this great achievement could be undermined by the foreign policy establishment‚??s habits of facile expediency. The religion factor will be and should be vigorously debated in the months ahead. That debate does not pit "realists" against "idealists," but is, rather, a deate about the hard reality of religion in defining, more and more, the lines of conflict in politics among nations. The war against terrorism is — more than it is politic for world leaders to say in public — also a war of religion.

To understand what this necessary debate is about, it is necessary to keep in mind the long and scrambled history of religion in our foreign policy. The International Religious Freedom Act has an impressive pedigree. The history is very nicely laid out by Leo P. Ribuffo of George Washington University in a new book resulting from conferences held by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and published by Rowman & Littlefield, The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy.

America‚??s understanding of itself as a new thing on the world scene (recall the words novus ordo seclorum on the Great Seal) gave rise to a powerfully moral, often moralistic, and sometimes explicitly religious vision of its missin among the nations. At times, American "exceptionalism" meant remaining aloof from the conflicts generated by the corrupt interests of morally lesser nations; at other times, America‚??s "manifest destiny" called for waging wars of the righteous against the forces of darkness — notably of Protestant righteousness against Catholic darkness, as in the case of Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippines. The story runs through Woodrow Wilson‚??s expansive mission to "make the world safe for democracy," Eisenhower‚??s World War II "crusade in Europe," and the long years of cold war struggle against "godless communism." In the Vietnam War, the moral consensus was shattered, seemingly beyond repair, until, quite suddenly, it reasserted itself in response to the attacks of September 11. Once again, we are in a war portrayed as a conflict between, to use Reinhold Niebuhr‚??s phrase, the children of light and the children of darkness.

A Mission Vindicated

This history of America‚??s world mission is usually treated condescendingly by scholars, and Ribuffo‚??s account is not untouched by such conventional condescension. But in the century past that sense of mission has also been dramatically vindicated, notably in the defeat of Hitler and of what now almost everybody agrees was the evil empire of Soviet communism (never forgetting that, when Ronald Reagan spoke of the evil empire, the bien-pensant establishment was unanimous in condemning his reckless offense against the dream of "peaceful coexistence"). Nor is it evident in retrospect that U.S. action in Vietnam did not contribute to containing the expansionist ambitions of communism, although there is no end in sight of debate over that intervention. So aso, President Bush‚??s strongly moral construal of today‚??s war against terrorism is, I believe, justified and, we must hope, will be vindicated.

Intellectuals are inclined to think that they are certified as intellectuals by virtue of their capacity to complexify, and the messiness of history is such that any conflict provides ample opportunities to highlight evidence contrary to the general truth. In the present war and the larger story of which it is part, I continue to believe that America is — on balance and considering the alternatives — a force for good in the world. And I continue to be impressed by how many otherwise sensible people criticize that proposition as an instance of uncritical chauvinism rather than the carefully nuanced moral judgment that it is.

A very smart ethicist from Harvard asks me, "Why does America have to have a mission in the world any more than Luxembourg has to have a mission in the world?" Which is yet another occasio for observing that there is smart smart and then there is dumb smart. America‚??s unparalleled influence in the world is attended by unparalleled responsibility; responsibility entails moral accountability; and moral accountability is defined by purpose. Some call it a mission, a word that secularists associate with zealotry but others understand to mean determination. The International Religious Freedom Act is part of that history of determined resolve, as is the American commitment to advance the cause of human rights across the board. Religious freedom is the first of human rights, for it is religion that grounds the dignity of the human person in his relation to an authority that transcends temporal powers.

What Counts as News

The 1998 act did not inroduce a new factor into U.S. foreign policy, but reflected renewed urgency about a dangerously neglected factor. There is also the sheer fact of the dramatic growth in religious persecution, mainly, but not only, of Christians. Christians were and are systematically persecuted, chiefly in Communist and Muslim countries. The list is long and includes China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan. Using rigorous criteria, Paul Marshall estimates that 200 to 250 million Christians are relentlessly persecuted for their faith, while 400 million others live "under non-trivial restrictions on religious liberty." The 1998 act passed because a remarkable coalition of Jews and Christians was prepared to do battle not only with the foreign policy mandarins but also with oldline liberal churches and secular human rights organizations who complained that concern for persecuted Christians is an instance of "special pleading." That complaint ovrlooks the fact that all speaking out for human rights — whether for Buddhists in Tibet or Jews in the former Soviet Union — is special pleading for those who cannot plead for themselves.

It is true that the media generally ignore or downplay religious persecution. For people in the news business, the news business is big news. A journalist jailed in Iran is likely to get more attention than two million Christians killed or enslaved in Sudan. Justified outrage is expressed at Islamist laws requiring women to wear veils, but much less notice is paid the fact that in some countries conversion to Christianity by a Muslim is punishable by death. After all, why would anyone want to convert to Christianity? Exotic religions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, get a modicum of respect, but one would not want to be found pleading the cause of Baptists or Catholics. To the mind steeped in the mythology of secularism — and, while some still deny it, the antireligious bias of the maor media has by now been documented beyond reasonable doubt — Baptists, Catholics, and others who are assertively Christian represent the religious oppression from which the enlightened are only tenuously liberated. I exaggerate but slightly. It is true that in the last five years more attention has been paid to religious freedom by human rights groups and the media, but the general pattern is still one of indifference and incomprehension. The persecution of religion, and especially the persecution of Christians, simply does not fit the secular story line of oppression by religion. Liberal opposition to the 1998 act and the campaign for religious freedom was solidified by the sure sign of great evil afoot, namely, the support of the cause by the "religious right."

Four Scenarios

This picture is changing, however, and it is reasonable to think that the change will accelerate. An essay by the estimable Samuel Huntington in The Influence of Faith recounts the ways in which, for more and more governments in the world, religion is the chief source of, or threat to, their legitimacy. Contrary to secularist expectations in the West, we are witnessing what is aptly described as the desecularization of world history. States seek to control religion, if necessary through repression and persecution, precisely because religion is becoming more important. Christianity in particular is, around the world and in almost all its forms, the carrier of democracy and political liberalization. Huntington cites a Chinese government publication that, taking note of the Church‚??s role in the collapse of Soviet communism, pointedly concludes: "If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby whie it is still in the manger." And strangling religion is precisely what the Chinese regime is determined to do.

But, of course, it is the war with Islamically inspired terrorism that is most forcefully changing the perception of religion, and of religious persecution, in world affairs. Huntington asks, What can be done? and proposes four possible answers. First, the U.S. and others who share its purpose can employ their resources in pressing the concerns mandated by the 1998 act and related human rights agreements. But Huntington is skeptical. "Some of these measures might make some difference; a few could be counterproductive; most are likely to accomplish little in promoting progress toward religious liberty." "Second," he writes, "if religious persecution is in part a consequence of the power and importance of religion as a source of identity, legitimacy, and conflict, then logically religious persecution might be reduced if religion became less important i the lives of people." But he acknowledges that it is doubtful that states can do much to make that happen, and trying to make it happen would likely increase religious persecution, which, in turn, might increase the importance of religion in people‚??s lives. Remember Tertullian on the blood of the martyrs.

The third possibility that Huntington entertains is that, since religious freedom is mainly a Western and Christian cause, and since religious freedom is most egregiously violated by non-Christian, mainly Islamic and Chinese, societies, the answer is for non-Christians to become Christians. But such a mighty missionary initiative, he writes, would likely provoke an equally mighty resistance, including increased persecution of Christians. "Religious liberty would come about only if Christianity were victorious in a global war of religions." So Huntington is left with the fourth scenario, which is encouraging tendencies in non-Christian religions that are supportive f religious freedom, in the hope that the "ecumenical personality" of such religions will prevail over their "darker personality." "Moving in this direction would at best be a long, slow process, but it may be the only practical one." "Religious liberty," he concludes, "is an issue where it is difficult to be optimistic without being utopian."

I am not optimistic by disposition and I am anti-utopian by conviction, but I am inclined to a somewhat more hopeful set of possibilities. Whether or not some efforts are "counterproductive" — and the law of unintended consequences is always hard at work — it is a great and necessary thing, and a thing necessary to American greatness, that this country be the champion of human rights, and of religious freedom in particular. History is not the inevitable march of progress, but there can be progress in history, and the last half century‚??s widespread promulgation of the belief that there are unversal human rights is an instance of progress. We will have been defeated if we acquiesce in, or are perceived to have acquiesced in, the claim that the promotion of that belief is no more than an instance of the "cultural imperialism" of the West.

As for a decline in religious influence, Huntington is probably right in thinking that is neither likely nor desirable. For better and for worse, the indicators are almost all in the other direction. But a vibrant expansion of Christianity need not mean "a global war of religions." A longer historical perspective is required. In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) John Paul II spoke of the third millennium as "a springtime of Christian evangelization." In the same encyclical he declared that "the Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." When the Chinese dictatorship is replaced by a more humane regime — and one may reasonably think it is more a matter of when tan if — the Christian proposal could have a world-transforming effect in aligning that society with the cause of human dignity. That is not optimism, and certainly not utopianism. It is a reasonable hope that may or may not be vindicated.

Islam is the great question for this century, and perhaps beyond. Christians need not abandon their evangelizing mission by joining with others in trying to create a dialogue with Muslims in the hope of eliciting Islamic support for human rights, including religious freedom. But, of course, whether or not that is possible must be answered by those who credibly speak from the heart of Islamic faith and practice. The aim of the current war is to demonstrate decisively that the murderous global ambition of the political ideology called Islamism has no future whatsoever. Once that is demonstrated, Muslim leaders will be free to search for a usable past that can help in constructing, also for Islam, a more sustainable future. Meanwhile, and itmay be a very long meanwhile, the United States must be, and must be seen to be, the uncompromising champion of human rights, including the first and the font of all rights, which is religious freedom.


Richard John Neuhaus. "Religious Freedom in a Time of War." First Things 118 (January 2002).

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Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Squre": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

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