Religious Liberty on the Global Stage: Ideas and Emotions

Paul L. Heck (Delivered at a conference at Georgetown University, November 16, 2017, in memory of the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of John Courtney Murray, SJ, 1904-1967. Click here for details.)

We live at a rather odd moment in history when it comes to religion. Across the globe, many see it as the problem to be solved, even the enemy to be fought. After all, it’s the cause of hatred and violence, isn’t it? We need to monitor it, police it, keep it under control.

That’s how many view religion today. And that view helps make sense of government control of pious citizens. They’re viewed as suspect and irrational. They have religious passions, ready to break out in holy anger if not heavily supervised.

It’s funny to think that not so long ago, during the Cold War, religion was the moral foundation of society in our righteous battle against atheist communism. We can’t comprehend the grim global situation on religious liberty today without noting this seismic shift in the global view of religion—from friend to enemy. This new view of religion nurtures ignorance in this country, for example, about constitutional accommodation of religious expression in public space. There are moments of hyper-anxiety about any faith expression in public institutions as if faith is the deviant rather than the norm in human life.

In thinking about religious liberty on the global stage, it’s important to keep all that in mind. Also, I want to frame the issue of religious liberty broadly. It’s too naïve to ask whether Islam is the problem, and that’s the question in many people’s mind. (And no doubt, that’s why I was invited to participate in this conference.) In reality, all kinds of people, from fervent believer to fervent atheist, are restricted in their belief pursuits and faith expressions.

Part of it is due to state persecution—of a particular belief community or of atheist belief, but we often overlook inter-communal attitudes and emotions. I’ll focus on that here.

To begin, it’s important to note that religious liberty is a nice idea, but ideas often take back seat to what I’ll call global realities. When it comes to religious liberty, we have to speak about the realities that impinge on the dilemma of religious liberty today—and the setbacks it’s faced on the global stage in recent years.

One of those realities is the emotion of disgust. Groups approach one another from the gut—from the emotions of community. It’d be nice if all that was needed was acknowledgement of religious liberty as a reasonable idea. But the reality is that communities (nation, tribe, class) often view one another as threats: threats to their very existence. You win, I die. I win, you die. Their identity is at stake, not the moral question of religious liberty.

The bottom line is that communities round the world exist in a fragile co-existence. It doesn’t take much for them to view one another as sources of disgust. Indeed, that may well be the deeper reality (the communal default position) that’s only thinly veiled during good times.

The feeling of communal disgust means you can target that community and degrade its members. In some places, the Shi‘a are seen as source of disgust, making them legitimate targets of the majority—including its police and military. In other places, it’s Sunnis. In other places, it’s Jews and Jehovah Witnesses. In still other places, it’s Christians and Atheists.

Christianity is the most persecuted faith today. That can’t be reduced to a moral question—why Christians aren’t equal citizens with civil rights in many places. That might be in the mix, but the deeper question is why so many people in so many places see the Cross as a source of disgust, something to be torn down.

Why is the very existence of Christians a threat to others, so much so that their existence becomes a source of disgust to them? Why are Baha’is in Iran, Shi‘a in Pakistan, Muslims in Myanmar, Christians in Egypt, Jews in Europe, Jehovah Witnesses in Russia, seen as sources of disgust to many within the majority community?

There are examples of this in America and right here at Georgetown University. Recently, a student group on campus that advocates for a traditional view of marriage had its existence threatened not because of its behavior but because of its views, which, it was claimed, are hateful: The traditional view of marriage is hateful and needs to be silenced! The group escaped the attempt to eradicate its existence from the face of this campus, but it shows that we have difficult conundrums around religious liberty right here in our own backyard.

Religious liberty may or may not exist in tension with a regime’s interests. It may have constitutional support in principle. But there’s still the reality of disgust — the disgust people have, individuals and entire groups, at the existence of those whose way of life they fundamentally oppose. Do we view with disgust those who uphold marriage as the union of a man and a woman? Do we view with disgust those who oppose those who advocate that marriage is the union of a man and a woman?

We can’t ignore the legal side in discussions of religious liberty, but we also can’t ignore the emotional anxieties in the way a community views the existence of other groups whose beliefs fundamentally oppose its own.

This is a tough point for post-modern Americans to grasp. It might be helpful to think about the Jews within Medieval Europe. They were generally tolerated, at least in good times, but their existence was seen as a threat to the beliefs of the Christian majority—a defiance of Christian truth. For this reason, the Jew was seen as a source of disgust in that society. That’s how many religious minorities are viewed around the world today.

In a nutshell, the issue at stake for religious liberty on the global stage is the perception of mutually opposed identities. Your existence isn’t simply different from mine. Your existence is a threat to my existence. Your liberty is a threat to my liberty. Your identity cancels out my identity. Communities exist in fragile co-existence if not outright conflict because of this perception of one another as sources of disgust rather than as sources of wonder (wonder being the emotion that broadens cognitive and communal horizons, thus serving as antidote to disgust).

We can talk about the idea of religious liberty in terms of the freedom of all. And here I’m not speaking simply of the freedom of all to worship according to conscience. More profoundly, I’m speaking of all to be morally committed to the common good even when in fundamental disagreement about core issues. That’s the deep freedom that calls us all!

But we also have to get beyond the idea and get to the gut—to the reality of disgust as the lens through which many a group (and many an individual) beholds other communities. A lot of emotional work has to happen before the right of religious communities to exist with full civic liberties can actually come into being in all nations across the globe in reality and not just in the constitution. Again, religious liberty, it’s a nice idea on paper.

We all need to ask ourselves—individuals, communities, entire nations across the world: Do we view the other as source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the Christian as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the Atheist as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the Jehovah Witness as a source of disgust or of wonder?

Do we view the Jew as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the Muslim as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the black person as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the white person as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the Mexican migrant as a source of disgust or of wonder?

Do we view the gay person as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the straight person as a source of disgust or source of wonder?

Do we view the poor and homeless as a source of disgust or of wonder?

To see the other as a source of wonder rather than disgust most likely strains the moral capacities of most of us.

We have to accept the fact that humans in their fallen state incline to live in the gated community rather than the beloved community. We don’t want to live with those people, those deplorables, only people like us who really get what life is all about and who don’t oppose our views—and who look and act like us more or less. It hardly needs to be stated that gated communities can be liberal, and they can be conservative.

But at the very least we can demand of all a moral commitment—and do so very loudly: It’s not the demand that all celebrate all ways of life but the commitment to protect the liberty all enjoy to disagree fundamentally. I won’t ask all to celebrate me—white, American, Catholic, raised with Jews, spends lots of time with Muslims. But I will ask to be protected. And I can’t be asked to celebrate every communal lifestyle, but I am committed to protecting those radically unlike me. You want freedom? You got to give it!

Even that “minimal” request requires confronting our feelings of disgust beyond the simple idea of freedom. How can one community be committed to the protection of beliefs and ways of life that are fundamentally opposed to their own? The natural response to what seems to be a threat is disgust, hate, calls for silencing and eradicating. That is the reality of the globe in which we live. And it’s the reality here in the homeland.

We can’t ask individuals and communities to celebrate beliefs and ways of life that oppose their own, but can’t we ask them to commit to their protection? It’s not easy for one people to see the dignity in another whose existence they loathe.

This is where we can profit today from the thought of John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who helped guide the Church in its engagement with religious liberty over the course of the twentieth century. Without his role, the Church wouldn’t be the great global advocate for religious freedom that it is today.

John Courtney Murray might not have put his ideas about religious liberty in terms of disgust and wonder, but his thought resonates with such concepts.

In the United States in his day, many felt disgust at the idea of Catholic America and the idea of Jewish America, as many feel disgust today at the idea of Muslim America, to say nothing of Black America. And John Courtney Murray was also well aware of the feelings of disgust within his own faith community towards other faiths.

But his gift to us is the way he imagined the protection of the rights of all. He didn’t advocate simply for the protection of separate communities within the nation but the protection of the common good. The idea has centripetal force. It’s not just about you and your community, me and mine, each having the right to live in its own gated community. It’s about all of us having to live in solidarity amidst our radical differences. His wasn’t a call for all to celebrate all beliefs and ways of life in some big love-fest. But it did place the accent on the common destiny that we all share.

John Courtney Murray didn’t argue for the protection of each of the parts of the American Mosaic, but rather for the whole. He was saying to our beloved nation: No part could claim its liberties if not granting them to all—and being committed to all (to the whole). Similarly, he was saying to the Church: She could not claim her liberty if not granting it to all including those hostile to the Church (and also being committed to the whole and not only her own interests).

That didn’t mean asking the Church (or any community) to privatize its philosophical commitments–the Church, after all, is a public thing (res publica in the language of Augustine)–but to see them in terms of the workings of the common good in society. The idea was not to dominate society but to see society as a whole as object of one’s love.

This important aspect of John Courtney Murray’s thought makes it impossible to reduce his vision of religious liberty to a secular construct that marginalizes human beliefs as if irrational. All that contributes to the flourishing of society is to be recognized. Are parochial schools a threat to the nation or at the service of the common good? Is the strong ethical character cultivated by Muslims a threat to the nation or a tangible contribution to the web of our nation’s common good? Is the oligarchy that parks its wealth in offshore accounts, depriving nations of trillions in tax revenue, a contribution to the common good or a threat to it?

Such were questions in John Courtney Murray’s day, and they remain with us today. In brief, solidarity is better for all of us, amidst our differences. Can we move from disgust to wonder when we think of those who oppose us? In that sense, John Courtney Murray very much had in mind the beloved community, not gated communities, when he made the common good the end and purpose of religious liberty: No moral purpose, no liberty! It’s not just a nice idea. It’s the way our humanity works: I can’t be free apart from solidarity with others! To put it another way, no freedom without friendship! (What might that mean … ?)

This way of thinking of religious liberty—not merely as individual right but as essential for human solidarity and the common good—can offer insight today. Around the world, how can minority communities, their institutions and ways of life, be seen in relation to the common good?

It’s a paradigm shift, but not a massive one. If communities are now seen as existing in parallel domains, like train tracks, what would it take for them to view one another as spokes on a wheel, all oriented to the common good and thus all worthy to be seen as part of a common national destiny?

Of course, many regimes wouldn’t like this. They prefer to foster suspicions that pit communities against one another, because that makes sense of their heavy-handed rule. No communal clash, no need for authoritarian regimes!

What would it take for communities to see one another not as threats to their existence and their liberties and privileges but as joint partners, all laboring, even struggling, together for the common good?

I’d like to share a relevant experience that speaks to this paradigm shift. Nearly ten years ago, in 2008, when I first taught in Morocco, I found myself lecturing to a class of pious Muslims who had real suspicions about the very idea of religious liberty, mainly, I believe, because they assumed it was based in a neo-liberal conception of freedom. And for that reason they saw freedom of conscience as a demented idea because of the damage it’d do to the moral fabric of their nation.

They said to me: Today, you want us to accept your American religious liberty. Tomorrow, you’ll want us to accept abortion on demand. Today, you want us to accept religious liberty, tomorrow you’ll want us to accept a new version of marriage, which will harm our poor communities, who have nothing apart from the bonds of traditional family. Today, you want us to accept religious liberty. Tomorrow, you’ll want us to accept transnational companies that claim to be lawful by entering into transactional contractual relations with local power holders but that have no moral commitment to the welfare of our local communities.

You are asking us to accept religious liberty, but you’re really asking us to give up the things that hold our communities together. You may be asking us to accept your American religious liberty and demand that we be civilized like you, but you’re really asking us to get on board with moral purposelessness.

These students were not naïve about religion and liberty. They knew that faith by coercion is no faith. They appreciated the inner workings of conscience. They, too, had anxieties about their own way of life, anxieties that prompt feelings of disgust towards other ways of life, including my own Christian one. Some of them may have felt that Islam should be supreme over the world for its own good.

But here’s the point that can’t be stressed enough: Their primary concern when it comes to religious liberty is not the loss of communal superiority but the loss of moral purpose. And that would mean the abandonment of conscience—religious liberty as the first step towards the abandonment of conscience—what a mind-bending possibility! No moral purpose, no conscience! Does freedom threaten moral purpose—or make it possible?

One of the readings was Dignitatis Humanae (translated from Latin into Arabic), the Vatican II document on religious liberty that John Courtney Murray helped author. We read it in depth and explored a vision of religious liberty and conscience that is rooted in a profound vision of the common good and clear insistence on a moral commitment to it.

As they saw that religious liberty in this sense does not mean secularization, a process often associated with authoritarian rule in Muslim societies (the secular dictator who claims the role of civilizing his pious—and thus irrational—subjects): As they saw all this, they saw a vision of religious liberty that they could claim as Muslims for Islam. And they also saw a vision of liberty that since it was advanced by a Christian, made Christianity less a source of disgust for them, more a source of wonder.

John Courtney Murray’s vision of religious liberty, I suggest, can help us get beyond emotions of disgust and the fears for ourselves that are at the root of those emotions—and get us moving towards a sense for a common good that can be a source of wonder for us all. Through that lens, others, wholly unlike ourselves, become partners in God’s work of making all creation new.

But other views of freedom are regnant in the world, and I fear what might be called a neo-liberal view of freedom is only going to create more gated communities, fomenting feelings of disgust on the global stage. And that is only going to quicken attacks on religious voices: religious minorities and religious voices that resist the pressure to be silent when it comes to the regnant paradigm of sexual and economic freedom as but a transactional affair. And if such issues are simply transactions, it’ll be power, not freedom, that determines the transaction and its outcome. Discussion of religious liberty can’t be separated from moral purpose. That was John Courtney Murray’s gift to our own troubled American religious ecosystem—and also to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Morocco. Freedom awaits us all as a great joint venture in moral purpose of the highest kind.