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Jefferson's Other Wall: Addressing The Global Crisis in Religious Liberty

Thomas Farr

May 4, 2012

RFP Director Thomas Farr delivered a speech entitled "Jefferson's Other Wall: Addressing The Global Crisis in Religious Liberty" as one of Open Door's Frontline Briefings on May 4th, 2012.

"A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. ... This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”

Lord of the Rings

I want to thank my friend and colleague, Carl Moeller, for inviting me. I'm honored to be here. I've long been an admirer of Open Doors. I became aware of Brother Andrew's work when I was in the office of religious freedom at the State Department, but first met Carl after Open Doors developed its Congressional Scorecard on religious freedom. At first I was a bit skeptical, but then I heard about some Republican conservatives becoming hysterical because they had scored 50 out of 100 and I knew Open Doors was on to something.

As you'll see in a minute, I've become a big fan of scorecards. I am also honored to have been asked to help draft Open Doors' pledge on religious freedom for presidential candidates.

Let me begin with something of an explanation. I was born and raised in Georgia as a Methodist, attended a southern Baptist university, and married the granddaughter of a Methodist minister who had been president of Wesleyan College in Macon Georgia.

Twenty years ago, my bride and I entered the Roman Catholic Church. I tell you this because I believe the issue of conversion lies at the very heart of religious freedom - the right, indeed, the duty, of every person to follow his conscience in pursuit of the truth. Second, because it is the reason why I am here tonight. I consider myself a traditional Catholic, which means I support the magisterium of the Church and its truth claims. Among those claims are those of the magnificent document from the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae - the Declaration on Religious Liberty.

Let me tell you a story to make my point. A Methodist minister arrived at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter took him on a tour. They came to a door behind which was joyful singing and rejoicing. St Peter told the minister - that's the Presbyterians. They came to a second door, behind which there was preaching and jubilation. "That's the Baptists," said St Peter.

As they approached the third door, St Peter said to the Methodist minister, "Be very quiet." "Why?" said the minister. "Because that's the Catholics and they think they're the only ones up here."

That's an old joke. Catholics believe in Dignitatis Humanae, the dignity of the human person, a dignity that flows from a conviction that God loves every person, which is why He created them in His image and likeness. That does not mean that every person is in heaven behind one of those doors. It does mean that God loves each of us, that He wishes us to be with Him in heaven, and that the doors are open if we will but say "yes!" to Him.

That is why I am here tonight. This is one way that I want to try and say "yes" to God.

The title of my talk is "Jefferson's Other Wall: Addressing the Global Crisis in Religious Liberty." Now that's a heavy title. By the time I am finished, I think you'll understand what I mean by Jefferson's other wall.

As for the term "global crisis," I use it advisedly. Rhetorical overreach is a problem in our public discourse, and I try to avoid it. But I hope to convince you that there is in fact a crisis and that it is not simply "out there" in the third world. It implicates our lives in many ways.

I want to address three questions tonight. First, what is the nature of the crisis and what are its causes? Second, what are its consequences for others, and for us? Finally, what can we do about it? In particular what can our government do to deal with a very serious problem?

The Nature of the Crisis

Let's start with a few statistics. I know they can be a bit dry, but if you're going to allege a global crisis, you need to produce some evidence. In 2009 and 2011, the Pew Research Center presented two comprehensive reports that catalogued government restrictions on religion, and social hostilities toward religion, in every country of the world. The two reports measure these restrictions over the years 2006 to mid 2009.

The first report showed that some 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries in which religious freedom is severely restricted. That is almost three out of four human beings on the planet. Most of those people live in about 66 countries, or one-third of the nations of the world. Of those, most are either Muslim-majority countries, communist nations such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam or other large non-Muslim countries such as India and Russia.

The second report demonstrated that the problem is getting worse. Restrictions on religious freedom -- either by governments or from social forces -- increased in twice as many countries as those in which restrictions decreased. And because the problem countries tend to be populous, the increasing restrictions affected some 2.2 billion people, or about a third of the world's population, whereas the improvements affected only about 1% of the total population.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the countries where things got worse, either in government restrictions or social hostilities, were Muslim majority countries such Egypt and Libya before the Arab Spring. (It will be interesting to see if and how those scores change over the next few years.) Overall, the great majority of the nations with the highest restrictions on religious freedom are Muslim nations, including the theocratic autocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also the nascent and struggling democracies such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Note those last two. They are places where America has spent its blood and treasure for more than a decade. After the overthrow of Saddam and the Taliban, respectively, religious persecution subsided temporarily. Now, like an infection that was never quite eliminated, persecution is returning in both countries with a vengeance.

But there were also a few surprises in the second report. Europe, compared with all other regions in the world, had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities were on the rise. For example, social hostilities in the United Kingdom increased so much that it placed the scepter'd isle into the category of "high" restrictions. That is quite extraordinary. Across the channel in France, government restrictions increased significantly.

So what about the United States? Our scores did not change during the time covered by the two reports. Government restrictions remained "low" and social hostilities remained "moderate." Two things stand out here. First, I was shocked that many countries in the world graded better than the United States, including countries like Rwanda, the Congo, and Sierra Lione. Second, the 2011 report only includes a few months of the Obama administration's tenure, so our current problems involving religious liberty are not reflected in these scores. I think one can safely assume that the US standing will worsen once those problems are taken into account.

Here's a final set of statistics, which may shock but will probably not surprise you: of the religious groups who were the targets of harassment, Christians came out on top. Either government or social harassment of Christians was reported in 130 countries of the world (66%). Muslims came in a close second at 117 countries, or 59%. Most of the countries where harassment of Muslims takes place are in fact Muslim-majority countries, or countries like China, India and Russia. A few are in the West.

To sum up: 70 percent of the world lives in countries that have severe restrictions on religious freedom; the problem is particularly acute in Muslim majority countries, but also countries such as China, India, and Russia; the problem is getting worse, not better; it is having an impact on Western countries, including the United States, and, worldwide, Christians are highly vulnerable.

Let me give you a couple of vignettes to put some faces behind these statistics. If we define religious persecution as the persecution of people because of their religious beliefs and practices, or those of their tormentors, there are literally thousands of stories to choose from: the slaughter of Egyptian Copts in Alexandria last Christmas; the murder of Iraqi Catholics at mass in Baghdad; the rape of Indian Muslim women by Hindu mobs in Gujarat, their babies ripped from their wombs and slaughtered before their eyes; the stoning of an Iranian mother falsely accused of adultery; the reprehensible attacks on innocent Muslims in the United States after 9/11; the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Note that most of these would fall under the Pew Report’s category of “social hostility” toward religion, but clearly government hostility can feed private persecution, and vice versa. Let me tell you the story that illustrates both – the stoning of the Iranian woman. Her name was Soraya Manutchehri, and her tragedy was captured by a French journalist and memorialized in the movie "The Stoning of Soraya M."

Soraya was the mother of two girls and two boys. She was falsely accused of adultery by her husband. He, like many men and women over the ages, found someone “more desirable” than his spouse. In this case, he decided to get rid of his wife. He conspired with the village imam to concoct evidence of adultery and the two contrived a "trial" of Soraya by the village “court” – in this case made up entirely of men -- who judged her guilty according to their interpretation of Sharia law and sentenced her to death by stoning.

The movie, as you can imagine, is difficult to watch - the producer was Steven McAveety, who also produced “The Passion of the Christ.” Those of you who have seen that movie can understand the wrenching quality of the violence that is depicted on the screen. The men gather and the stoning proceeds. But the worst is this: By all accounts, Soraya was loved by her family. And yet the first stone was cast by her own father. The next two stones, in excruciating sequence, were cast by her two young sons.

What could cause such an evil, satanic action by a man who loved his daughter, and sons who loved their mother? I believe the answer has implications, not only for Iran, but for almost all Muslim countries, even for those many Muslims who would severely condemn the stoning of Soraya M. In fairness, it is important to note that what is happening in Shiite Iran today is not typical of Iranian Shiism prior to Khomeini. Indeed, the Koran itself does not sanction stoning.

However, there is today a conviction - shared throughout the Muslim-majority world by governments, many peaceful Muslims, and virtually all radical Islamists -- that anyone who offends Islam deserves a violent response, either by the state or by private actors. That is what Soraya was officially accused of doing: offending Islam by adultery. That is what those who leave Islam are accused of doing. And that is what those who criticize Islam, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, are accused of doing.

This is the problem that is behind the lethal and debilitating legal and social opposition to blasphemy, or defamation of Islam, in most Muslim-majority countries, including the nascent democracies like Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. For those of you who have not read Silenced, the new book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, I highly recommend it. It is a terribly disturbing survey of anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws and practices in much of the Muslim world.

Now let me be clear about what I am saying. First, I am not suggesting that apostasy or blasphemy, let alone adultery, should be recognized by Muslims or anyone else as religious, social, or political goods. Those of us who are religious believers recognize that such acts are grave matters, sometimes with eternal consequences. Nor am I arguing that all Muslims support such laws and practices. The Marshall/Shea book presents the arguments of three leading Muslim scholars against them.

What I am saying is that no nation and no society, whether Christian, Muslim or other, can succeed at democratic governance unless it learns to deal with apostasy and blasphemy without brutality and violence. Nor can any society eliminate the scourge of violent religious extremism, including religious terrorism, if it silences liberal reformers by the threat of prosecution for blasphemy.

Let me give you two examples of this problem at work. A few years ago a Muslim graduate student studying journalism in Afghanistan wrote a paper arguing that the Koran supports the equality of men and women. His professors reported him to the local prosecutor, whereupon he was tried for blasphemy and sentenced to death! (I like to tell my student about this story before they write their final papers.)

When in 2011 the Muslim governor of Pakistan was murdered for opposing anti-blasphemy laws and supporting religious freedom, polls showed broad public support for the laws .... and for the murderer.

To repeat: no society can survive as a democracy with such practices in law, or in culture. Nor can it defeat violent religious extremism or terrorism. The idea that offending Islam warrants violence by the state, or in the absence of the state, by murder or mob violence, is precisely what motivated the terrorists on 9/11. It is the opposite of religious freedom and a fundamental barrier to stable democracy.

Unless it is eliminated in those countries where it exists, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, our national blood and treasure will have been wasted. Unless that idea is overcome in Egypt and the other countries of the so-called Arab Spring, their experiments in democracy are doomed to fail. And they will remain incubators and exporters of Islamist extremism and terrorism.

Now let me say a word about the emerging crisis of religious freedom in Western countries and the United States. While most Western democracies do not for the most part manifest violent religious persecution, the data show that both government restrictions on religion and social hostility toward religious people are on the rise.

Our Religious Freedom Project recently held a conference in Oxford, England, on the subject of rising tensions between religious freedom and the rights claims of homosexuals. You may have read of the English Christian couple who were denied the right to foster a child because they could not in conscience pledge that they would raise the child to believe homosexual acts were natural and acceptable. That is just one story - there are scores of similar stories in the UK and Europe. If you watch the conference on our website, you will see that many among the political elite defend the proposition that religious liberty must give way when it clashes with modern rights claims of equality.

In the United States the Obama administration has taken the position in the courts that the state may place legal restrictions on the hiring and firing of ministers by churches. Thankfully, the Supreme Court rejected that position on the grounds that the first amendment bars government involvement in ministerial decisions. What is troubling is that an American administration took such a position in the first place.

That is but one of many signs that our political elites no longer accept religious liberty as the first freedom. As you may know, the Obama health care law would compel religious institutions such as hospitals, colleges, and soup kitchens to provide abortifacients, sterilizations, and contraceptives in their insurance plans. For Catholic and other Christian institutions, this law would coerce them either to abandon their core beliefs or get out of business.

Equally insidious is the Obama administration's attempt to define a "religious institution" worthy of a conscience exemption from these regulations as only those religious entities that minister to their own adherents and no one else. Such a standard would eliminate Jesus Christ Himself from conscience protection.

So it seems clear that we have emerging problems in the West. Now I have alleged a global crisis of religious liberty, but the symptoms are very different - violent persecution outside the West and what we might call growing discrimination inside the West. Are they simply different phenomena that share only the word "religion" in describing them, or do they share a common source?

I believe they do. The common ground between religious persecution and rising Western discrimination against religion is this: both originate in the belief that religious freedom in full is not necessary to human flourishing, and not important to societies and to political institutions. We see that belief present in spades in the anti-blasphemy and apostasy practices of the Islamic world and in the crackdowns on believers that periodically take place in China or Russia.

But it is also present in an aggressive and spreading Western secularism, long dominant in Europe but becoming stronger in the US, which asserts that public forms of religion are a danger to democracy, and must be consigned to the private sphere. Religious ideas cannot be permitted to have any impact on public matters. John Rawls, perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the late 20th century, argued that any "comprehensive doctrine" such as religion must be set aside if democracy is to endure.

This attitude, it seems to me, is very much a part of the global crisis of religious liberty. It is not manifested in the West by violent persecution, either by governments or societies -- at least not yet. But the growing travail of religious liberty in the West signals not only a crisis on its own terms, but an incapacity and an unwillingness to address the problem elsewhere.

Consequences of the Crisis

The consequences of this global crisis are dire. What we are seeing is not only an assault on human dignity, but an undermining of the very possibility that democracies will become, or will remain, healthy and stable. This, I would submit, means that the global crisis in religious liberty reflects not only a humanitarian catastrophe of the first order, but also a strategic crisis for the United States -- both domestically and in its foreign policy.

If democracy is to endure -- especially in highly religious societies -- and to yield its benefits, including peaceful relations with other nations, it must have at least two characteristics.

First, all citizens must be equal under the law, including all religious citizens. This means that the Copts in Egypt must have more than the right not to be persecuted. They must have the right, protected in law and in culture, to act publicly as Christians, to speak openly about Christ, to run for office, to make Christian arguments for or against the laws and policies of the government of Egypt.

It means that citizens of California must be able to vote in a referendum to enshrine in law the traditional definition of marriage -- that is, a union between one man and one woman -- without a federal judge ruling the referendum unconstitutional because the reasons adduced for traditional marriage were religious and moral reasons. No democracy can have a national debate on its most vital institutions, in this case the institution of marriage and the family, unless all of its citizens can engage in that debate and stand a chance of winning. If religious ideas are to be removed from American law and policy, our democracy is in peril.

It means that Muslims in Pakistan or anywhere else must be permitted to speak openly about their own religion without fear of persecution, or of prosecution by the state. If the voices of moderate or liberal Islam are silenced, democracy can never take root in such countries. Nor can religious extremism be defeated.

Second, democracy cannot long endure without a vigorous and thriving non-governmental sector - what we sometimes call "civil society." Civil society serves the fundamental role of providing services better and more efficiently than any government can. For that reason, the institutions of civil society limit the power of government. Religious institutions, however, serve an even more vital function in this regard because they limit government by positing an authority beyond the state.

We must never forget the fundamental insight of the American founders: the greatest threat to freedom is a monopoly of power, especially political power. Guided by a Protestant understanding of original sin, the Founders knew that any man, or any group of men, would be corrupted by power. This is precisely why they built into our constitution so many checks and balances - separation of powers at the federal level, divided power between the state and federal governments, and the carving out of a special status for religion in the first amendment - guaranteeing its free exercise and prohibiting an establishment, which would, in their judgment, destroy religion.

Now we come to the question of "Thomas Jefferson's second wall." Jefferson's first wall -- the so-called "wall of separation between religion and state" -- is regularly used by Rawlsian secular liberals in the United States to argue that the first amendment requires not only the institutional separation of religion and state, which it certainly does, but also the separation of religion from politics, which it manifestly does not.

Precisely the opposite is true. One need only read from Jefferson's second wall, Jefferson's real wall, as it were, to understand this point. If you haven't been to the Jefferson memorial recently, in the tidal basin, please go. Here is where you will find the American creed. You will read on the wall near his sculptured likeness the following: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

Unfortunately, you will not find the American creed in the memorials built in recent years by our secular elites. Jefferson's statute looks across the Tidal Basin to two other memorials -- the World War Two Memorial and the new memorial to Martin Luther King. Virtually all of the men memorialized in these monuments were men of God - American heroes such as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Martin Luther King was, of course, a Baptist minister who wrote from a Birmingham jail that men cannot obey an unjust law, which he defined -- along with Saints Augustine and Aquinas -- as a law that is not rooted in the eternal moral law which originates in God.

And yet, if you visit the King Memorial, or the Memorial to our World War Two heroes, you will not find a single reference to God. This, I would suggest to you, reflects what Solzhenitsyn called "an amputation of the national memory," an ideological airbrushing, if you will, of the religious origins of our great land

And so the global crisis in religious liberty affects us all. Let me conclude by pointing out that it is a crisis with both humanitarian and strategic implications. On the one hand, it affects the lives and fates of billions of human beings, families, and communities here and abroad. As the International Religious Freedom Act says, we must stand with the persecuted around the world. I would add that we must also attend to our own house, which is increasingly troubled on this score.

But the decline of religious liberty also implicates the great strategic questions of our day - the fate of democracy in the greater Middle East and elsewhere; the incubation and spread of religion-related terrorism; the policies of Saudi Arabia, a state considered friendly to the United States which continues to teach its children, and to export worldwide, the toxic doctrines of Wahhabism; the policies of Khomeinist Iran, including its quest for nuclear weapons, its vile hatred of the Jews and the Jewish state, and its support for religion-based terrorists, including terrorists who kill Americans; and the fate of the biggest global player in history, China, whose will to control and to dominate we ignore at our peril.

What can America do? Are we in such decline, economically, morally, and strategically, that we can no longer affect the destinies of other nations? Can we no longer hope to influence the world as we did in defeating Naziism with military power and communism with the power of ideas backed up with the threat of military force?

Are we no longer capable of being the "city on a hill" that John Witherspoon in 1630 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 called us to be?

I cannot tell you that I know the answer to that question. But I can tell you that the answer is vital to the entire world. In my view the United States remains the greatest country on earth, not because of its nuclear weapons, its Navy Seals, or its Stealth aircraft, although these are protectors of its greatness. The virtue and importance of the United States, both for its own citizens and for the world, rests on its creed of ordered liberty, centered on religious liberty, and its conviction that our liberties are a gift -- not of men or of government -- but of God.

It is this creed, this conviction of God's grace, that historically has bound us to each other -- men and women of all races, ethnicities, and beliefs. May God grant that we never lose sight of Him.

Thank you for having me here tonight.