Religious Liberty: The Most Precious of Our Liberties

J. Kenneth Blackwell

December 1, 2003

We Americans are touchy about our rights. Sometimes it seems that we think anything that’s good—from clean water to good housing—is a right owed us. These are “rights” many think government should provide. In all our talk about rights, we often tend to forget the more fundamental rights: the rights we have by virtue of our humanity, the rights we have against government, and the inalienable rights endowed to us by our Creator. We forget, in other words, both the moral basis of human rights and our responsibility to protect those rights.

Why have we forgotten? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once noted that the most significant trait of the 20th Century was that “Man has forgotten God.” He went on to say “A tree with a rotten core cannot stand.” Can a nation without a moral foundation respect human rights? Can those who cannot recall the source of human rights encourage their protection around a dangerous world?

In 1948, just fifty-five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The achievement was momentous and lasting. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set enduring standards for the entire international community, standards to which each nation could be held so the devastation and cruelty the world had seen just ten years prior to the adoption of the Declaration might not ever be repeated.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is more than just a proclamation. It is an ideal to which all nations have at least agreed to aspire. It is a guide for emerging nations as they make the often-difficult transition from tyranny and poverty to democracy and prosperity. It is the founding document of the human rights movement, its Ten Commandments and its Declaration of Independence.

When Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the first session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that oversaw the drafting of what eventually became the Universal Declaration, a Chinese delegate cited the teachings of Confucius and a Lebanese delegate quoted St. Thomas Aquinas. The delegates explicitly referred to the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as models for a proposed international declaration of rights that was debated during that session.

Since the passage of the Universal Declaration, the world is no longer divided between those countries that say they believe in human rights and those that say they do not. It is now divided between those countries that protect human rights and those that do not.

Today, by virtue of the Universal Declaration and subsequent agreements, every citizen of the world is now recognized as having inalienable rights that the international community is obliged to promote and protect.

One of the most fundamental of human rights is the right to freedom of religion. The authors of the Declaration understood that.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration provides 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.”

I believe religious liberty is the most important of the human rights. Without religious freedom, people exist only as political or economic entities, not as free human beings. Religious liberty is the first of all human rights, for it implies the dignity and sacredness of human conscience. One’s faith is one’s most profound level of personhood.

This is not just my opinion. It was one of the central insights of the Enlightenment that no person’s rights can be secure if his religious belief or faith can be coerced by another. How can I possess any other rights worth having if I am made to submit by mind to mere power or the pain of physical punishment or humiliation? Moreover, do we expect God to be fooled by coerced submission to His will? How can hypocrisy or timidity bring salvation? These were John Locke’s views on the necessity of religious freedom. They were shared by Montesquieu, and they eventually became in America the common sense of the matter.

At the time of our nation’s founding, prudence as well as principle recommended religious freedom. Americans were well aware of the bloody religious wars in Europe’s recent past. James Madison, the author of our Bill of Rights said: “The purpose of the separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” By establishing no specific church and by not compelling adherence, all religions remained outside of the political jockeying for power.

Granted the freedom of religion, Americans worshiped freely. That was another somewhat ironic benefit of disestablishment. When Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous tour of America in the early years of the 19th century, he was struck by the religious faith of the Americans. They were fervent believers and practitioners of a kaleidoscope of faiths. Nothing like it existed in Europe where the tax dollars of citizens supported state-established churches. Establishment bred both strife and apathy. Religious freedom bred peace and commitment.

We Americans should be proud of how the U.N., in the years of its founding, made universally applicable the rights first embraced by the United States, including those guaranteeing religious liberty. No political accomplishment has been more important in our history. Whatever doubts some of us have about the U.N., we should celebrate this early achievement inspired by our own example. It was a great American moment.
The brave and farsighted group of men and women who wrote the United Nation’s Universal Declaration saw violence and cruelty at a scale far beyond what any Enlightenment thinker could imagine. They had seen the world nearly destroy itself and understood that civilization was a very fragile thing. They saw how peace, freedom and dignity were natural human rights. They also understood that these rights required nurturing and protection, not just by good will, but also by rule of law, and even force, when necessary.

Remember, in 1948, the world was a very dangerous place. That was the year when the state of Israel was founded and immediately attacked on all sides by its enemies. Once again, the Jewish people had to fight for their very survival.

It was also the year when the Cold War began in earnest. Every conflict between the Soviets and the West was fraught with danger, and people wondered what might be the spark that kindled another war.

In 1948, China was a year away from Communist takeover. It was the year that Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic opposed to his effort to protect religious and other liberties of the Muslim minority in India. That act was a precursor to a reign of religious persecution of Muslims in disputed Kashmir.

And, 1948 was the year apartheid was developed in South Africa. That racist system was based on an intentional misreading of the Bible by the Dutch Reformed Church. The church claimed support for apartheid was found in “the curse of Ham” from the book of Genesis.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, America itself was not living up to its own promise of freedom.

In its successful prosecution of WWII, America served as an inspiration for freedom and defender of human rights all over the world; but in 1948, America was not living up to those ideals at home. African-Americans were denied many of the basic human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration. There was a fundamental contradiction between the promise of America and its actual practice, a disconnect between those ideas and our reality. There was moral incoherence.

My parents taught that the human condition is not a spectator sport. The Declaration of Independence was required reading in our home. That reading and their teaching helped me understand our human rights were inherent. Human dignity was not something the state could grant or take away. The Declaration of Independence did not grant Americans with inalienable rights, but with its writing, Americans understood the human rights they had inherently, and were therefore able and willing to fight to protect them.
As a family, we talked about the struggle of our great country to live up to its own promise of human rights and human dignity. At the same time, millions of other Americans, black and white, were recognizing this struggle as well. We needed leadership, and we got it from Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and hundreds of others.

The civil rights movement transformed the country and changed our lives. It was a human rights movement, fundamentally a religious movement, inspired by men and women of great faith, whether ordained or lay people, whether Christian or not.
Denied political and economic freedoms, African-Americans still had religious freedom. Faith gave African-Americans the courage to endure the broken promises of freedom with dignity intact. Their faith fueled their will to continue the struggle. Faith also provided the civil rights movement an appeal to a common humanity shared by people of faith outside the movement and provided the possibility for collective redemption.
The civil rights movement also drew on American ideals of justice and rights embodied in the U.S. Constitution. The law was on the side of the movement, even if lawmakers ignored this fact. The movement showed the difference politics informed by faith could make in the lives of people.

Seeing what was happening in America and throughout the world, I refused to live a life on the sidelines. Following graduate school, I got involved in politics as a candidate for public office.

I began my political career as a city council member in Cincinnati; eventually I became vice mayor and then mayor of the city. Working in urban politics, I always found my political decisions were informed by my religious values. But, I also learned to achieve my ideals through pragmatic action. The lesson of idealistic pragmatism is this: You do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

That lesson got a great test in 1991 when I was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission by President George Bush. The first American representative to the Human Rights Commission had been Eleanor Roosevelt. U.S. representatives to the United Nations Human Rights Commission had also included Michael Novak, Richard Schifter, and Morris Abram. I was walking in the footsteps of people of true stature.

My immediate predecessor as U.S. Human Rights Ambassador was Cuban-born Armando Valladares. He understood implicitly the importance of religious liberty.
Castro’s communist Cuba had once been 85% Catholic. It became officially atheist almost overnight. Christian broadcasting and publishing were canceled. In Castro’s first year, 3,500 priests, nuns and preachers had fled or been forced into exile. Christians were labeled “social scum” and sent to labor camps. Christmas and Easter were abolished.
The Communist Party platform supported “the progressive elimination of religious beliefs through scientific-materialist propaganda.”

Ambassador Valladares spent twenty-two years in Castro’s prisons as punishment for his faith. Eight of those years he spent in solitary confinement. He was and is an inspiring example of how faith can sustain the human spirit and give someone the necessary strength and courage to survive seemingly unendurable punishment. Mr. Valladares told me of how Castro’s police had put him in solitary confinement, a prison cell so small that it was nothing more than a box. There was no light. He was given little food. He had no clothing. He said that while they had taken everything away from him, they could not take away his faith, and they could not break his spirit. Faith, Armando said, is all you have when you have nothing left. He found comfort in Jesus’ words: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Wanting to continue Armando’s legacy, I saw the United Nations as a great opportunity to join in the worldwide struggle for human freedom. I had high hopes and ambition, but soon after I arrived at the U.N., I realized there was a built-in contradiction in the enforcement system. In many ways, the United Nations Human Rights Commission was an association of governments that were mindful, protective and proud of their sovereignty. The power structure of the body and the diplomatic relationships between members often prevented effective enforcement of the Commission’s professed ideals. Countries that should have been in the dock were on the jury.

With the Universal Declaration and other documents, like the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, we had every nation, at least on paper, agreeing religious freedom was a basic human right that should not be violated.

Still, the faithful were being persecuted all over the world. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other believers were being denied the rights enumerated under Article 18. We needed to find a way to make the ideals of the Universal Declaration stick. We needed enforcement mechanisms. We needed to develop flexible, imaginative and effective methods to achieve our objectives, just as the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States had in their fight for freedom in America.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. You have to navigate a course between the abstract ideals of policy intellectuals and the concrete realities of those who hold power.

Working in urban politics, I learned how to knock on doors, open avenues of discussion, get people together and help them realize their common interests. I learned how to build coalitions and work effectively toward achievable goals.

During my years in city politics, I had learned how to negotiate. I know that you have to negotiate just about everything in life, from that last piece of toast at the breakfast table to the release of political prisoners. It’s like that old saying, “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”

One of my most memorable diplomatic missions abroad as U.S. Human Rights Ambassador was to the former Soviet Union to help then Assistant Secretary of State Dick Schifter negotiate the release of political prisoners and those being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. I saw firsthand the human cost of Communist persecution and the length to which the state would go to deny the freedom of worship.

In 1992, at Ambassador Max Kampleman’s insistence, I led a delegation of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to Bosnia. I was one of the first American diplomats to visit that region after independence and the horrible war that followed. We visited what were called detention centers but were, in fact, concentration camps for Bosnian Muslims.

One would have to have the imagination of Jonathan Swift to say that the promotion and protection of human rights has not improved since 1948. However, my experience in Bosnia indicated to me that while improvements in the human condition worldwide had been made, there was still significant work to be done.

The examples are sadly still easy to find.

Over the last decade one of the great shames of Africa is the Sudan. In Africa’s largest country, over a million people have died, and millions of others have been displaced due to the violent repression of Sudanese Christians by the National Islamic Front. To call this a civil war, as much of the Western media does, is not accurate. It is a reign of aggression and conquest by the Muslim majority against Christians and other non-Muslims.

Since the fundamentalist revolution in Iran, that country has established a repressive theocracy and engaged in a policy of oppression against members of the Bahai faith.
Throughout Africa and the Middle East, radical Muslims today not only repress Christians and other non-adherents, but have also persecuted moderate Muslims. Many say that this conflict is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Islam.

North Korea had been called “Asia’s Jerusalem” because of its strong Christian influence. But Kim Il Sung replaced Christianity with a cult of personality. All church buildings were closed and every Bible destroyed. Ministers and other religious leaders were murdered or sent to concentration camps.

Vietnam continues to repress both Buddhists and Christians.

In terms of sheer numbers, China has been the worst violator of religious freedom. There are as many as 100 million Christians in China. And, there are more Christians in prison for their religious beliefs and activities than anywhere else in the world. Religious believers of all faiths are branded “counter-revolutionaries” and sentenced to prison or labor camps.

In all of these tragedies we see the danger of melding the church and state, especially when the state is the church, as it is in communist countries. Our Founders, inspired by Enlightenment teaching and Christian faith, wisely separated the two. In part because of that, we remain a nation of believers. Yet we, in the United States, are not immune to religious intolerance.

Our dominant indigenous form of persecution is perversely legalistic. America was founded on the principles of religious freedom. The First Amendment to our Constitution protects freedom of expression, and it was the Founders’ belief that the most important and protected expression was that of religious faith. However, the First Amendment has now become an instrument of religious intolerance. Through what Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon calls, “a judicial pincer movement,” courts have decided: 1) that government bodies, particularly schools, must be rigorously secular; and, 2) that people and organizations that are not rigorously secular will be denied aid and assistance from the government.

Let us remember the First Amendment contains not one but two limits on congressional power over religion—the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. When the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, the establishment clause prevented a national church, but it also protected states’ rights.

That changed. The 14th Amendment allowed the Supreme Court to scrutinize how states protected “due process.” What Jefferson once casually in a letter called a “wall of separation” became, mistakenly, a constitutional principle. The establishment clause became hostile to religion rather than to establishment.

I saw the terrible effects of this narrowly secular reading of the First Amendment in the early 1970s while I was an urban policy academic at Xavier University, and later as a city council member and mayor of Cincinnati.

In my city, some alcoholics and drug addicts received federal supplemental Social Security payments that they then could have sent to a trustee. I found some of them were using bar owners as their trustees, and the trustees would allow them to run up tabs until their Social Security checks came.

These people needed help. They needed treatment for their addiction. They needed to change their lives. Many of them were not going to get clean or sober without a profound spiritual change. Local churches and other faith-based organizations were the best source of treatment for these people, whether they eventually joined the church as worshipers, or whether they used the church as a social service. The treatment programs of faith-based organizations had much better recovery rates and cost one fourth to one half as much as less-effective government rehabilitation programs.

However, because these faith-based organizations were religious institutions, they could not receive federal funding. It wasn’t until some twenty years later when, after a long series of court battles, faith-based organizations were able to receive federal money and expand their treatment facilities.

If we root out our transcendent beliefs from our politics, we will weaken, if not destroy, the moral foundation of our democracy. A politics devoid of morality does not meet the essential human needs. A purely secular politics does not address people’s deepest concerns, nor does it offer any vision beyond the short-term goals of comfort and expediency.

In his excellent book, Father Richard Neuhaus calls the result of a politics of aggressive secularization, The Naked Public Square. Father Neuhaus understands, and I wholeheartedly agree with him, that our political values are informed by our spiritual values. America’s founders understood the importance of faith and morality in politics.

In his farewell address to his troops, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” And, Dr. King called the church the conscience of the state.

I have spoken of two dangers. One was created by the intolerance of a state religion, and, one was borne of a relentless secularism that denies religion any place in public life. The first invites brutal repression in the service of power, whether that power is named the state or God or Allah. The second deprives us of the expression of a fundamental part of our humanity in the name of the least common denominator.

It is within our reach to change the latter. Attacks on faith, while serious, have not destroyed religion in America. We can do the slow and difficult work of reopening America’s public square to faith. The Supreme Court might be moving toward a more accurate interpretation of the establishment clause. It won’t be easy—we need to change a culture as well as legal interpretation—but there is progress.
The former is an even steeper challenge. How do we enforce the standards of the Universal Declaration and work toward religious freedom? How do we make the oppressor nations and individuals responsible for their actions and responsive to our demands?

The secret of statecraft is finding an effective mechanism and applying it with an appropriate degree of response. Major social and political change requires three things: a committed movement able to mobilize public opinion, a political tradition that makes that opinion seem natural, and the will—force if necessary—to make opinion stick.
The civil rights movement was a model social movement. Civil rights activists did not have great financial resources; and, they faced state governments stacked against them, and often an indifferent federal government. But, the civil rights movement had the power of moral authority and personal commitment. Inspired by faith, its leaders and activists developed new methods of forcing social change.

Civil rights activists knew that law alone was not enough. The principles of the Declaration of Independence had been part of the nation’s framework for nearly 200 years, and the 14th and 15th Amendments, which should have protected African-Americans, had been around for 80 years. They didn’t stop disfranchisement, lynching, and discrimination.

From close study of his hero, Gandhi, Rev. King developed strategies of peaceful nonviolence. Sometimes conditions called for more militant action. And, there was the long and sometimes frustrating process of appealing through Congress and the courts of law that ultimately became a very effective mechanism in the struggle for freedom.
It was King’s genius to bring together the elements of moral commitment, traditional values, and political action.

Those of us concerned with religious freedom must build a mass movement based on the moral and practical example of the civil rights movement—a global coalition of committed individuals and organizations, diplomats and politicians, clergy and lay people, teachers and students, to fight for religious freedom everywhere.

In America, a broad coalition of religious and human rights organizations worked together to help make the International Religious Freedom Act law in October 1998. The Act, which passed both houses of Congress and signed by then-President Clinton, made it mandatory for the president to review the state of religious freedom all over the world, and issue an annual report determining who the chief violators are, and proposing a range of actions against them, from diplomatic demarches to trade sanctions.

As the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demonstrates, the United Nations is very effective in establishing human rights standards through international covenants. And, as the history of the past fifty-five years also demonstrates, particularly in the case of religious persecution, the United Nations is not very effective in enforcing those standards. Because of the reluctance of the community of nation-states to pressure human rights violators toward compliance with Article 18 and the rest of the Universal Declaration, clearly reliance on the United Nations by itself is not adequate to the task of protecting religious liberty worldwide.

Can a movement succeed without the looming threat of enforcement—political, economic, or military? Perhaps not. But we must try.

The fight for religious freedom won’t always be easy or immediately rewarding. But, the struggle in and of itself will be strengthening and purposeful. We must take to heart Pope John Paul’s benediction, “Be not afraid.”

I believe that religious freedom is the human rights issue of the 21st Century. Democracy and market economies are flourishing all over the world. People from Chile to the Baltic States, from Thailand to South Africa, are enjoying new freedoms. Yet, at the same time political and economic liberty increases, religious liberty is threatened. Even in Western Democracies, the faithful feel besieged and marginalized. Until we acknowledge the primacy of religious freedom and value it as much as we value free markets and free elections, many of the world’s people will still live in bondage. I believe if we develop a mass effort on the principles of the American civil rights movement, we will have the power to help liberate the people of the world from religious persecution.

Thank you and may God bless you.

J. Kenneth Blackwell is Ohio’s Secretary of State and a member of the Ashbrook Center’s Board of Advisors. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at the Ashbrook Center on September 10, 2003.