Religious Freedom Now, Everywhere? Not So Fast.

By: John M. Owen

Those of us who believe in human rights, including the right to religious liberty, must grapple with the derivative question of what those rights demand of each of us. We who live in wealthy, powerful countries such as the United States might lunge toward the view that it is imperative that our country act always and everywhere so as to vindicate human rights, and hence that it is imperative that we citizens do all we can to press our country to vindicate those rights everywhere at all times. After all, these are human rights we are dealing with: claims that all persons have simply by virtue of being human—not because they live in one nation or culture or religious community rather than another. 

In actual foreign policy, we know that it does not work that way. America, like plenty of other countries, does not enforce human rights in very many places; does not try to do so; and even supports governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia, that brazenly violate human rights. Such tolerance of intolerance typically arises out of a conclusion that America’s national interest is better served by setting aside human rights in a given case.

There are serious questions here that are dealt with inconclusively by perennial debates about political realism and its critics. In this post, however, I am interested instead in a different question. Let me pose a thought experiment: Suppose all of the world’s governments suddenly and magically began to recognize and enforce the right to religious liberty. Would that be a good thing? I want to emphasize the suddenness of liberty: I mean not gradual, “evolutionary” change, but an abrupt adoption, in law and practice, of rights to freedom of religious belief and practice by all governments.

This is no idle thought experiment. How we answer it affects how we think about the duties of our countries, and of ourselves as democratic citizens, to press for human rights recognition.

We must take care in drawing lessons from history, but I would suggest that history teaches that sometimes an abrupt change in religious liberty law and practice can lead to bad consequences for religious minorities. It can do so by generating a backlash among members of a majority religion who are offended by what they see as the tolerance of error and infidelity and may feel their own positions of power and privilege to be threatened. To say this is not to excuse those members of the majority religion; it is simply to acknowledge that they may exist and may hurt religious minorities, and to use that acknowledgment to question whether those of us in rich powerful countries ought to demand religious freedom now in all countries without attending to special conditions.

The historical episode comes from France roughly 450 years ago. In 1560, France was officially Roman Catholic, enjoying status as the “first daughter of the Church.” The Protestant Reformation had penetrated France several decades earlier, and by 1559, the Calvinist branch of the Reformation—begun by the Frenchman John Calvin—had attracted a large following, including among the nobility (who, at that point in European history, were still the warrior class). In 1559, King Henry II, a persecutor of the Huguenots (French Calvinists), died in a joust. His son and heir Francis II was only 15 years old, so his mother (Henry’s widow) Catherine de Médici became Queen Regent. Henry and Francis were of the House of Valois, and at this time two other powerful houses—the Guises and the Bourbons—were both trying to wrest the Crown from the Valois.

Religion was entangled with France’s political struggles. The leading Bourbon prince, Louis de Condé, had been raised a Huguenot. The Guises, on the other hand, were militant Catholics. In February 1560, Condé and other Huguenots tried to oust the Guises from the royal court. This Conspiracy of Amboise failed, and Condé’s life was only saved by the death of young Francis II. In October 1561, Huguenots took over a number of cities and towns in the Toulouse region. Recognizing the growing power of the Huguenots, in January 1562 Catherine—still Queen Regent while her second son reigned as Charles IX—issued the Edict of Saint-Germain, which granted the Huguenots limited but real toleration: they now enjoyed freedom of conscience and private worship, and could organize themselves, but were prohibited from worshiping openly in towns.

Here, then, was a sudden granting of religious toleration. Catherine probably issued the Edict of Saint-Germain because the biggest threat to Valois power at the time was the Guises. But her motives are immaterial to the question we are asking. In any case, the Guise family had other ideas. In March 1562, the Duke of Guise tried to disrupt a Protestant service in the commune of Wassy, resulting in violence and the slaughter of eighty Huguenots.

On April 7 of the same year, with the approval of Calvin’s own lieutenant Theodore Beza, Condé ordered the mobilization of the Huguenots. What became known as the first French War of Religion commenced. Before these wars ended in 1598, France was to fall into three such wars between Catholics and Protestants; to draw foreign intervention by England, the Dutch Republic, and German states; and to go through the horrible St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.

Of course, the point I am making may be inflated into an all-purpose excuse never to press any country to liberalize its laws on religion. But careful attention to history is a safeguard against that inflation. The French Wars of Religion finally ended with another edict (Nantes) by a stronger French monarch (Henry IV). The success of the Edict of Nantes tells us something about what is required if religious liberty is not to generate a harmful backlash: At the very least, rich and powerful democracies should join their demands for liberty to efforts to help target states build the will and capacity to enforce such liberty. Otherwise, calls for immediate religious freedom for minorities are a luxury easy to indulge from a safe distance in Washington or Brussels, but difficult to absorb in the Wassys of our own day.

John M. Owen IV is the Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom Project. 

This piece was originally authored on April 11, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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