*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of various people affiliated with the NAU, including educators who share opinions or research in their fields. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.
By Bjorn Krondorfer
Regents’ Professor in the Comparative Cultural Studies Department and Director of the Martin-Springer Institute
dr. Björn Krondorfer studies religion, gender and culture and post-Holocaust and reconciliation; his scholarship helped define the field of critical men’s studies in religions. He is the author of Unsettling Empathy: Working with Groups in Conflict, Reconciliation in Global Context: Why it is Needed and How it Works and Remembrance and Reconciliation, among many other works.
One of the lesser-known occasions to celebrate the importance of civic virtues is the International Day of Religious Freedom on October 27. Religious liberty, a constitutional right in the United States, is an idea that is often invoked, but also often misunderstood.
At first glance, the concept seems to refer only to the protection of religious practices and beliefs of individuals and communities; that is, protection against state or government interference in the free exercise of one’s religious beliefs. Whatever country you live in around the world, you will not be forced to leave your religion or adopt religious beliefs and practices that are not your own. The official site of the United States Department of State regarding the International Day of Religious Freedom focuses on this part of religious freedom: to recognize it as a “cherished American value and universal human right” and to describe it as an opportunity “to advocate for the rights of vulnerable and underrepresented people around the world, [and] to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all.”
It is indeed an important human right to protect the free exercise of religion from control by those in power. The long and brutal history of confessional wars in Europe (mostly within Christianity between Catholics and Protestants) led many European communities to leave and settle in North America. This experience helps explain the motivation for enshrining religious freedom in the Bill of Rights of 1791 in the United States – despite the fact that these rights were not extended to indigenous peoples during the western expansion of Europeans on this continent. The last point is important to keep in mind at Northern Arizona University, which sits on traditional homelands sacred to Native Americans.
The protection of religious minorities in today’s world is as urgent as ever. We could mention here the Rohingya Muslim minority in the Buddhist-controlled, nationalist state of Myanmar, which is subject to genocidal violence and forced expulsion, or the Shia Muslim minority of the Hazara in Afghanistan who are under massive attack by the Sunni-led ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) and ISIS. We can draw attention to Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholic nationalists who fought each other in a brutal war in the 1990s, both oppressing the Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We could also mention the suppression of Tibetan Buddhism by the Chinese government, the ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants or Russian President Vladimir Putin pressuring the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy to express hatred of fellow Ukrainians. to propagate orthodox believers. These are just a few examples of persecution against religiously identifiable populations, although ethnic hatred and political interests have always been associated with religious differences in these conflict zones, past and present.
However, there is another dimension of religious freedom that is often sidelined by those who feel that their religion alone does not get a fair share of the public arena. “Religious freedom” is not only freedom of religion, but also freedom of religion. That is, a country is not governed by one particular religion and citizens are not forced to participate in a state-supported religion. The First Amendment to the US Bill of Rights clearly states, “Congress shall not enact any law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” These two provisions are commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause (which prohibits a government from ‘establishing’ one religion) and the Free Practice Clause (which protects citizens’ rights to practice their religion freely within broad limits of what is publicly acceptable). For example, to understand the complexities between these two clauses, consult the American Bar Association or this US courts educational resource.
Freedom of religion is as important a human rights issue as freedom of religion. If the former is ignored, it leads to a state religion or nationalist religious rule that ignores the rights of both non-religious citizens and religious minorities. Often the loudest voices demanding freedom of religion are the first to deny the right to freedom of religion, arguing for the government of a country in accordance with a particular understanding of a divine will. In the worst case this can lead to the overthrow of democracy (government by the will of men) to the establishment of a theocracy (government by the supposed will of God). Theocracy is a form of government in which a deity or God is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, carried out by earthly religious leaders (which historically has always been a variant of autocratic or totalitarian rule).
There are many examples of such unholy alliances between religious elites with nationalist movements and nation states. We could mention Iran’s Shia theocracy, but also the current national Catholic government in Poland. Or point to the embrace of conservative Christian values by the current Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to strengthen his authoritarian rule and the current government in India, which embraces the religio-political values of Hindutva, a form of Hindu nationalism that protects the rights of its people. approximately 200 million strong Indian Muslim minority. Unfortunately, the United States is not immune to these trends either, with a growing movement described as Christian nationalism seeking to impose Christian beliefs and norms on all Americans. For a US-based organization that advocates stronger separation between church and state, see, for example, Americans United For Separation of Church & State.
In summary, on October 27, let’s pause and reflect on the ephemeral, complex and multidimensional issues surrounding religious freedom – internationally and domestically.