One hundred and fifty years ago this June, the Edgardo Mortara case shocked the world. Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy in Italy, was taken from his family by the papal authorities and raised as a Catholic under the supervision of the pope. This was done under the law in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, after it was discovered that, five years earlier, the boy’s Catholic nanny had secretly baptized the one-year-old child when he fell ill and she feared he was going to die. The law required that this “Catholic” boy receive a Catholic education.
This story, a major sensation at the time that had vast repercussions, has garnered added attention lately because of coverage in First Things, long the country’s premier journal of religion and public life, of the recent publication of an English edition of Mortara’s memoirs. The article in First Things on the new translation got so much attention because the article’s author appeared to be justifying the abduction of the boy by the pope and his police. Or, if “justifying” is too strong a word, I’ll say “explaining sympathetically.” Needless to say, this brought some heat on First Things’ editor, who was criticized for publishing the piece.
It’s not my plan to discuss the Mortara case itself, the questionable article inspired by the memoir, or even the wisdom of publishing such a piece. But I do want to take, as my starting point for this lecture, the opening of the editor’s response to the criticism of his decision to print the article:
The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario [the author of the article] does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day.
What we have before us is a fundamental issue concerning religious freedom. We have before us the underlying question of whether people have the right to choose and live their faith free from interference by the government or whether the limits of religious freedom are determined solely by judgments of prudence. In other words, we have the question whether people have a right to religious freedom in principle or only in practice when it suits the state.
Skipping for a moment to the punch line, let me say that I take the first view, that religious freedom is a God-given, inalienable right. To be sure, this does not mean that the right to religious freedom has no limits. As with other rights, reasonable limits can and do exist (the nature and scope of those limits are a subject for another day).
Here, instead, I’d like to make the case for why it is more important than ever to articulate the principled case for religious freedom. I’ll begin by describing a variety of ways in which religious freedom is threatened—from the right, from the left, and around the globe—ways that, together, combine to create a landscape in our time that is deeply worrisome. From there, I will suggest a way forward in defending religious freedom.
Given the battles over the scope of the First Amendment in this country, I am sure that many of you are eager to hear about religious freedom in the West. But, before that, I want to address religious freedom outside the West, where in so many places religious freedom is imperiled. The peril comes from what I’ll call the totalitarian threat. This totalitarian threat has two prongs: one religious and one secular.
We find religious totalitarianism in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia—though recent developments in Saudi Arabia suggest that that country may be headed in a new direction. We’ll see. What’s critical to remember about those places is that the problem isn’t just religious freedom for minorities; it’s religious freedom for everyone. Even if an individual or group—or even the majority of the country—happens to adhere to the state-enforced version of religion, those people do not possess religious freedom. None of them is free to dissent, change, or deny. None of them is free to adhere to a different version of the government-backed sect. Things may be worse for religious minorities, but the theocratic ways of these countries deprive the entire population of religious freedom.
Such violations of religious freedom are not new, of course, but in many ways the threat is growing. ISIS is the epitome and, thus far, the peak of such extremism; the caliphate stands for religious totalitarianism. Thank God, ISIS has been beaten back in some places, but it lives on in many others, and the ideology is not going away any time soon. On the contrary, as ISIS has receded, Iran’s oppressive ways have spread into Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other places in the region.
In May, I traveled to Pakistan. Despite the heavy influence of the military, I would not classify Pakistan as totalitarian, yet the situation in that country has regressed significantly. Shortly before my visit, a Muslim university student was lynched following an accusation of blasphemy. Pakistan, sadly, is a world leader in prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonments for blasphemy—with some even on death row—but perhaps worse is the horrific vigilante violence perpetrated against the accused in so many cases. This violence is fostered by a climate of impunity that often sees accusers and attackers suffer no penalties for their actions. The case I mentioned of the university student was particularly notable because it exploded the narrative in Pakistan that blasphemy accusations and accompanying attacks mainly affect poor and illiterate religious minorities, such as in the dispute between farmhands that landed the innocent Christian woman Asia Bibi in prison on spurious charges of apostasy. The victim in the university case was a young, educated, well-to-do, Muslim man, murdered by his fellow students—in the name of a toxic, totalitarian ideology that brooks no deviations and no dissenters.
I will say more about blasphemy laws, but let me add another word about Pakistan first. One group targeted for egregious discrimination in Pakistan is the Ahmadis, a sect that other Muslims consider to be heretical. They’re followers of a latter-day, nineteenth-century prophet, at odds with the more traditional adherents of their faith. Ahmadis are despised throughout the Muslim world, but in Pakistan they are singled out even in the country’s constitution for special, official discrimination. For instance, in order to vote, Ahmadis must renounce their beliefs. They are not allowed to call themselves Muslims, and they are not allowed to call their houses of worship mosques. Recently, the government proposed a very modest change to the wording of the law that would not guarantee but might at least open the door to Ahmadis voting freely. In reaction to this tiny step, protesters brought the capital city of Islamabad to a standstill, a situation the government was able to resolve only by yielding to the demands that the change in the law be withdrawn and the law minister, who introduced the proposal, resign.
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are an enormous problem, but I suspect you’ll be surprised to learn the extent of blasphemy regulations around the world. In 2016, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), of which I am the chairman, released a report that catalogues and analyzes all the blasphemy laws in the world. Guess how many countries have blasphemy laws. Almost seventy—a third of the countries in the world. Surprised? Well, you’ll be even more surprised when you learn which countries have them.
In addition to the usual suspects—and there are plenty of usual suspects—the list includes Austria, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, and Switzerland, to name a few. To be sure, blasphemy laws in those countries are often not enforced. Even so, we on the commission believe that all countries should repeal their blasphemy laws, as Demark and Malta recently have. Doing so sets a good example and puts pressure on countries in which blasphemy laws are enforced more vigorously, often with brutal consequences.
Even more important is the principle that’s at stake. Religious freedom, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entails that:
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 or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
People must be free to deviate or dissent from the local orthodoxy. They must be allowed to reject the local gods and to call their own by whatever name they see fit. Blasphemy laws, enforced or not, establish that, in principle, the government can regulate what you believe. And I say “believe” because true belief is so often inseparable from the expression of that belief in one form or another. Blasphemy laws establish that one’s religious freedom isn’t a right in the proper sense but an entitlement or privilege subject to judgments of prudence by the state. Thus, religious totalitarianism ultimately aims to control the entire person, even down to one’s thoughts. This much it certainly shares with its secular counterpart.
This brings us to the other major threat to religious freedom abroad: secular totalitarianism.
In some cases, the totalitarianism is truly ideologically secular. While religious totalitarianism fears false gods, secular totalitarianism fears the true God. This is the case, for example, in China, where the communist state is officially atheist. For Chinese officials—as in other communist dictatorships—religion is a threat because it offers a source of authority and allegiance outside the ruling party. So they are very keen to stamp out religion wherever it flourishes free from government control. China can tolerate the state-appointed bishops but not the underground ones.
One group that is severely oppressed in China is the Uyghur Muslims. Lately, the government has stepped up its suppression of their practice of Islam with far-reaching measures, including prohibitions on long beards, on fasting during Ramadan, and even on giving children certain Muslim names. The Uyghurs are found mostly in western China, and the government perpetrates these violations claiming separatist agitation among the Uyghurs. Although Islamist extremism is a real threat around the world, the Chinese government does not merit the benefit of the doubt when it comes to religious freedom in particular or human rights in general. As far as we can tell, the majority of Uyghur Muslims are peaceful, and their treatment is plainly unjust.
I raise the issue of the Uyghur Muslims in China because it points to a wider phenomenon of secular governments, mostly authoritarian, repressing religion in the name of security. This is particularly true in the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. Once again, I concede that the worldwide threat of Islamist extremism is real. Yet, too often, legitimate security concerns are used as a pretext for excessive restrictions on religion freedom. In these countries, through elaborate systems of registration and approvals, the governments regulate and monitor all religious activity. Muslims, who make up the vast majority of these countries, as well as Christians and other small groups, suffer unjustly in the name of national security. Here, the government is not so much seeking to impose an ideology as it does in a theocracy. Instead, it hopes to bolster the state’s unrivaled authoritativeness by preserving the society’s irreligious character. In some ways, this state-centered vision becomes a stand-in for religion (North Korea being the most radical and most ridiculous example).
Both religious and secular totalitarianism take religion and, therefore, religious freedom as their enemy.
Religious Freedom in the West
From that perspective, we in the West have it pretty good. Serving on USCIRF, which monitors and reports on the worst religious freedom situations in the world, I am acutely aware of how our challenges at home pale in comparison to what goes on abroad. But the lesson from this is not what you think. It’s not that we should feel so good as to become complacent about our own present circumstances. On the contrary, the painful international scene should be an ever-present reminder to us of how rare, how precious, and how vulnerable religious freedom is—and how vigilant we must be in defending it.
We’re not inherently better or more deserving of religious freedom than anyone else in the world, and we should not take our good fortune for granted. Rather, we must work hard to preserve the cultural, political, and legal conditions that make religious freedom possible. In short, we should not make either mistake: we should neither exaggerate our problems and forget how good we have it, nor should we exaggerate our blessings and neglect the defense of religious freedom.
In tomorrow’s essay, I will describe developments in our own civilization that demonstrate how the erosion of this sacred right can occur, analyzing the domestic challenges religious freedom faces from the right and the left today.