Religions, Human Rights, and Civil Society: Lessons from Teh Seventeenth Century for the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt


The treatment of religion by civic authorities today is a product of their respective histories and cultures. In almost every country in the industrialized world, however, there is a strong long-term trend from a close association between politics and religion to separation of the two. A series of debates in seventeenth century Britain contributed to this process.

In ancient times, religion and the state were closely related. In ancient Greece, Socrates chose to die rather than accept the gods as defined by the state of Athens. Rome required of all its citizens at least a formal acknowledgement of its gods. From the fourth century onwards, with the enthronement of Constantine as emperor, Christianity was elevated to the status of state religion and enjoyed this position in virtually all of the political entities of eastern and western Europe for nearly seventeen hundred years.

The close association of Christianity and the state survived major fractures within the Christian community, including the split between East and West, which became definitive in the eleventh century,1 as well as the divisions resulting from the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. In both cases, the new dispositions still assured a privileged civic status for the Christian religion, although they introduced diversity in terms of the versions so privileged. Radical change only came with the United States Constitution, which provided for the separation of religion and the state. More radical forms of separation were implemented later in Latin America, as a result of anticlericalism, and in Eastern Europe, under the influence of the atheist tenets of Marxist-Leninism.

Today, responding to the growing acceptance of international human rights instruments, the growth of secularist rather than religious beliefs in the West, worldwide population movements that have resulted in religiously diverse societies, and the demise of most militantly atheist regimes, many countries are seeking to assure freedom of religion and belief in their societies. In practice, this is resulting in increasing separation of religion and state, although not necessarily following the United States model.

The history of these changes provides some fascinating episodes in the search for ways to accommodate religious diversity. In his 1960 report to the United Nations on religious freedom, the Indian scholar Arcot Krishnaswami reports that twenty-three centuries ago, King Asoka, patron of Buddhism, recommended tolerance to his subjects, on the grounds that

[a]cling thus, we contribute to the progress of our creed by serving others. Acting otherwise, we harm our own faith, bringing discredit upon the others. He who exalts his own belief, discrediting all others, does so surely to obey his religion with the intention of making a display of it. But behaving thus, he gives it the hardest blows. And for this reason concord is good only in so far as all listen to each other's creeds, and love to listen to them. It is the desire of the king, dear to the gods, that all creeds be illumined and they profess pure doctrines.2

More recently, in 1998, through the International Religious Freedom Act (the "IRFA"),3 the United States government adopted another approach to the promotion of religious freedom. The IRFA makes the enforcement of religious freedom through various diplomatic and economic measures a major component of the foreign policy of the United States, the world's most powerful nation. No other nation has yet taken such a position. These two approaches, namely that of Krishnaswami and the United States Government, are very different in time and tone. The first emphasizes the need for the community to examine, debate, and accept common rules,4 and the full title of the Act reads "An Act to establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, to provide for the imposition of sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution and for other purposes. …