Reflecting on and Understanding Religious Freedom – The NAU Review

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*Editor’s Note: The “Views of NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The opinions expressed reflect the personal perspectives of the authors.


By Bjorn Krondorfer

Regents Professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies and Director of the Martin-Springer Institute

Dr. Björn Krondorfer studies religion, gender and culture and post-Holocaust and reconciliation studies; his fellowship helped define the field of critical men’s studies of religion. He is the author of Destabilizing empathy: working with groups in conflict, reconciliation in a global context: why it is necessary and how it works and Remembrance and reconciliationamong many other works.


One of the little-known occasions reserved for celebrating the importance of civic virtues is the International Religious Freedom Day October 27. Religious freedom, a constitutional right in the United States, is an idea often invoked but also often misunderstood.

At first sight, the concept seems to refer only to the protection of the religious practice and beliefs of individuals and communities; that is, protection from state or government interference in the free exercise of one’s religious beliefs. No matter what country you live in in the world, you will not be forced to give up your religion or adopt religious beliefs and practices that are not your own. The official website of the US State Department regarding International Religious Freedom Day focuses on this part of religious liberty: recognizing it as a “cherished American value and a universal human right” and describing it as an opportunity “to defend the rights of vulnerable and underrepresented people around the world, [and] promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all”.

Protecting the free exercise of religion from the control of those in power is indeed an important human right. The long and brutal history of confessional wars in Europe (mainly within Christianity between Catholics and Protestants) led many European communities to leave and settle in North America. This experience helps explain the motivation to enshrine religious freedom in the 1791 United States Bill of Rights, notwithstanding the fact that these rights were not extended to indigenous populations during the westward expansion of Europeans. on this continent. This last point is important to keep in mind at Northern Arizona University, which is on traditional land sacred to Native Americans.

The protection of religious minorities in today’s world is more urgent than ever. We can name here the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s nationalist, Buddhist-controlled state exposed to genocidal violence and forced expulsion, or the Shia Hazara Muslim minority in Afghanistan under massive ISKP attack. (Islamic State of Khorasan) led by the Sunnis. Province) and ISIS. We can draw attention to the Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholic nationalists who fought each other in a brutal war in the 1990s, both of whom suppressed the Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We can also mention the repression of Tibetan Buddhism by the Chinese government, the persistent tensions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants or Russian President Vladimir Putin pressuring the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church to spread hatred against his Orthodox compatriots. Ukrainians. These are just a few examples of the persecution of religiously identifiable populations, even though ethnic hatreds and political interests have always intersected with religious differences in these conflict zones, past and present.

However, there is another dimension of religious freedom that is often overlooked by those who feel that their religion alone does not get its fair share in the public arena. “Religious freedom” is not only freedom of religion but also freedom of religion. That is, a country should not be ruled by a particular religion, and citizens should not be forced to participate in a state-sponsored religion. The First Amendment to the United States Bill of Rights clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two provisions are commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause (which prohibits a government from “establishing” a religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (which protects the rights of citizens to freely practice their religion within broad parameters of what is publicly acceptable). To understand the complexity between these two clauses, see for example the American Bar Association Where 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 non-religious citizens and religious minorities. Frequently the loudest voices calling for freedom of religion are the first to deny the right to freedom of religion, because they advocate governing a country in accordance with a particular understanding of a divine will. In the worst case, this can lead to overthrowing democracy (rule by the will of the people) to establish a theocracy (rule 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, implemented by earthly religious leaders (which historically has always been a variant of autocratic or totalitarian rule ).

There are many examples of such ungodly alliances between religious elites with nationalist movements and nation states. One could cite the Iranian Shiite theocracy, but also the current national Catholic government in Poland. Or point to current Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s embrace of conservative Christian values ​​to cement his authoritarian regime and the current government in India, which embraces the politico-religious values ​​of Hindutva, a form of Hindu nationalism that restricts rights of its approximately 200 million strong Indo-Muslim minority. Unfortunately, the United States is not immune to these trends either, with a growing movement described as Christian nationalism that seeks to impose Christian beliefs and standards on all Americans. For a US-based organization advocating for a stronger separation between church and state, see for example Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In summary: On October 27, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the volatile, complex, and multidimensional issues surrounding religious freedom, internationally and domestically.

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