Sunday, May 09, 2010

Religious Freedom

Created during the heady years of Republican control of Congress the US Commission for International Freedom issued a report his week critical of what it called the Obama Administration's failure to aggressively pursue religious freedom. Citing everything from Chinese violence against any expression of religious belief to the hyper-Islamism of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the report said that, in regards to religious freedom, the Obama Administration's foreign policy "misses the mark".

One wonders what, exactly, any American administration can to do to effect change in another nation's domestic policy. Considering the heinous regimes the US has supported in the past, and continues to support in the present, whether it is Banana Republics in Central America who killed nuns, South American fascists in the Condor countries the regularly killed and disappeared politically active religious folks, or our current refusal to engage the Saudis, Iraqis, Israelis, or others on religion-based discrimination and violence it seems to me that religious freedom is now, as it has always been, a very low priority for American diplomacy.

It was used, albeit not very effectively, during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Whether it was the Soviet imposition of "leaders" or monitoring of dissident, unregistered congregations, or the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel (dealt with by the still-in-place Jackson/Vannick Amendment), conservatives consider "religious freedom" without reference to anything other than itself, and its existence as a "right" in western political thought. Since (most) systems and hierarchies of religious belief, once regularized and bureaucratized, become exclusivist in practice - I say "most" because, for example, if Friends, say, or Baha'i (mentioned in the report because of their repression in Iran) ever controlled government I doubt we would see Quaker thugs roaming the streets beating people who wanted to do violence - it seems to me that promoting "religious freedom" without regard to secularization of the state, legal tolerance of religious minorities, and other civil and human rights, from freedom of speech and assembly, to freedom from state police power such as those in the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the US Constitution are really quite meaningless.

Furthermore, as a Christian, it seems to me that we are forgetting something central to our own identity. The first three centuries of the Church's existence, forgotten in the past 1700 years of de jure or de facto Constantinianism (in its Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox varieties), was one of existence as an outlaw faith. The earliest recorded persecution of Christians, while noted as a necessary action against certain groups of Jews in Rome, occurred within a generation of the death of Jesus, in Rome, under the Emperor Nero. By the time St. Augustine was on the scene as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, the last extended persecution of Christians occurred - and it was, to borrow the language of biology, nearly an extinction event. Christians were tortured, bribed, informants planted, whole congregations were slaughtered or used for sport in the arena.

And Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, this would happen. And we are to rejoice in it. These now-silent witnesses to the reality of faith in human life, individual and communal, should be demanding an answer to an important question: Are our lives, and our deaths, in vain, if now Christians impose their will by force, either legal or military?

While it certainly seems in keeping with our most cherished social and civic traditions to promote religious freedom, in practice, one has to wonder why this is a priority and how it can possibly be accomplished. For example, in reference to China, the overwhelming basis for our relations, strained as they are, is commercial. What possible leverage is there for the US to push for reforms of the Chinese authoritarians when we buy billions of dollars of goods they produce? How can we effect change in Saudi Arabia when they have in abundance the single most important commodity we need to continue to operate? With the exception of Iraq, which the US has effectively ruled since the collapse of Sadaam Hussein's government in 2003, and its deChristianization, the US has little to no power to change the internal policies of any country. The incentive to do so, apart from the legal mandate in the Congressional Act that created the Commission on International Religious Freedom, is almost nonexistent.

I have to wonder what the Obama Administration could do, with any amount of seriousness or vigor, to change the verdict of the panel. I have to wonder, also, why Christians here aren't rejoicing more in the sufferings of our fellows in the faith as a witness to the power of the Gospel.

Virtual Tin Cup

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