[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Can God and Caesar Coexist?': That Old-Time Conundrum
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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'Can God and Caesar
Coexist?': That Old-Time Conundrum
March 13, 2005
[First chapter appended.]
By JOHN T. NOONAN JR.
CAN GOD AND CAESAR COEXIST?
Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law.
By Robert F. Drinan.
266 pp. Yale University Press. $30.
THIS is a book of questions, not answers. Written by Robert F.
Drinan, a former congressman from Massachusetts, a former dean of
Boston College Law School and a Jesuit, it reflects the insights and
doubts of experience, the convictions of a person conversant with
practical politics and the candor of a man capable of speaking his
He is committed to religious liberty -- a cause, he acknowledges,
belatedly embraced by the Roman Catholic Church in 1965 at the Second
Vatican Council and championed by Pope John Paul II in resistance to
governmental oppression of religion. Its implications for the interior
life of the church have not been worked out or even well articulated.
In ''Can God and Caesar Coexist?'' Drinan follows the pope in looking
at external pressures against religious freedom.
Free exercise of religion is not universally accepted. Several Islamic
states do not acknowledge it as a good. Neither does the regime in
China, which, Drinan says, has ''the worst record on religious freedom
in the world.'' So the rejection of it for religious or ideological
reasons has powerful support in the international community. Other
nations do not persecute religion, but do extend favor to one or
several religions. Among these is the United States, whose tax laws
are honeycombed with exceptions for organized religion. No country
permits the exercise of religion without restraint or favor.
In the face of such diversity, Drinan observes, the United Nations has
done little to defend religious freedom. Is it possible, he asks, to
design an international standard of free exercise that all nations
might agree on and enforce? This is not a matter of simple logic. If
you have the power to enforce your beliefs, you should do it, foes of
free exercise have repeatedly asserted in contexts from Calvin's
Geneva to Mao's China, while devotees of wholly free exercise believe
a country's culture does not count -- the logic of liberty should wipe
out all restrictions, preferences and differentiations.
These friends and foes are equally mistaken. The universe they dispute
is one of values, not logic. No single value -- not the sovereignty of
a country, not even the sacred liberty of conscience -- can be allowed
to eat up all other values; balance is everything, and it evolves. The
ideal of free exercise must be approached within historically
James Madison, deservedly seen as the father of the American invention
of free exercise, offered three lines of argument about why what he
saw as an experiment should be tried. One reflected on the nature of
government: nothing equips the state to decide theological disputes or
guide citizens to salvation. The second appealed to history: religious
persecution created hypocrites and bigots, and religious
establishments created a corrupt clergy. The third was theological: an
individual's obligation to the Creator transcends any duty to the
state; for Christians, force is repudiated by every page of the
Madison's arguments are attractive, but compelling only in our
cultural context. Rulers of an atheistic state would deride the notion
that the state has any theological concerns; it simply gets rid of
potential troublemakers whose radical allegiance to something beyond
the state is subversive. The safety of the state is supreme. As Drinan
points out, a repressive state need not be atheistic but only hostile
to religiously motivated criticism; so El Salvador permitted the
murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuits and other Catholic
critics of an anti-Communist regime. And one can think of governments
run by religious fanatics denying the relevance of the Gospel and
holding that their teachings set everyone on the true road to divine
A skeptic about what the American experiment proves might add that it
wouldn't have worked but for the breadth of our continent; it wouldn't
have worked except that traditional orthodoxies were softened by
biblical criticism; and it hasn't worked very well because we have in
fact a civil religion that is American orthodoxy. Today in the United
States, to win space for the exercise of one's religion it's easier to
invoke the ideal of freedom of speech, a secular shibboleth, than to
rely on constitutional protection of free exercise of religion.
The skeptic's observations may, however, augur well for the expansion
of religious freedom. The same process of criticism that dissolved
many traditional certainties among educated people in the West will
eventually affect Islam and other faiths. Atheistic Communism is
generally regarded as a failed experiment. The globe itself has taken
on the role of the American continent; everywhere, as Drinan points
out, commercial contacts are blurring national rigidities. In a global
community drenched in information that cannot be easily controlled,
the freedom to speak may well work to enlarge expression of faith.
Speech may be understood to include thought, belief, prayer, ritual
and symbolic gestures. It cannot be stretched to include acts with
substantial physical effects. There the freedom to follow one's
conscience meets the limitation built into every constitutional
recognition of free exercise: requirements of public order. As British
and Indian governments concluded, suttee does not fall within free
exercise. Polyandry and polygamy, religiously authorized or mandatory,
have not survived as legal institutions in the West. Refusing military
service because of religious objection to a particular war as unjust
has been a punishable offense in the United States. The logic of
religious freedom has never served as a solvent of all legal
restrictions on conduct.
No universal formula exists to cover all conflicts between
faith-driven behavior and what a particular society will demand. If
the American experience is taken as example, evolution of a global
consensus will be slow. In the meantime, believers will suffer the
cost of discipleship (the Christian shorthand for the cost is the
cross) without support in international law. Drinan's unsparing
analysis permits no more optimistic conclusion.
John T. Noonan Jr.'s most recent book is ''A Church That Can and
First Chapter: 'Can God & Caesar Coexist?'
By ROBERT F. DRINAN
Scores of constitutions drawn up since the end of World War II have
proclaimed religious freedom as one of the most fundamental rights
known to humanity. Similarly, international covenants of human rights
have exalted the right to religious liberty as a privilege that is so
foundational and precious that it should be guaranteed by
Support for the right to practice the religion of one's choice is very
new in human history, and it prompts dozens of questions. If the new
right to religious freedom were accepted and enforced, for example,
would the world be spared the savagery of wars prompted at least in
part by the clash of religious beliefs?
The worldwide spread of national and international commitments to
religious freedom also begets a host of questions. Can the
governmental and other bodies that support this right believe that the
absolutism with which most religious bodies have traditionally
promulgated their beliefs is now so diminished that the adherents of
most religions would not seek to impose their views on others? Is
agnosticism now so widespread that neither believers nor nonbelievers
have the certainty that is necessary to seek to impose their religious
views by force? Whether or not this is the case, the origins and
implications of these unprecedented world commitments to protect
religious freedom deserve intense scrutiny and evaluation.
Support is not universal, and resistance to ensuring religious freedom
must also be evaluated. China and India, for example, are not open to
witnesses of religions that are not indigenous to those countries.
Similarly, the forty or so nations that contain the world's billion
Muslims are not always receptive to religious beliefs or bodies whose
teachings are, at least in part, contrary to Islam.
In other words, although the vast majority of nations have made a
commitment to religious freedom, it is unclear how those nations
actually behave in respect to creeds and cults that are at variance
with their historic cultural and religious beliefs.
One would like to think that wars inspired by religious zeal were
safely in the past. Clearly they are now forbidden by customary
international law; after all, the 191 nations that have ratified the
United Nations covenants on political and economic rights have
solemnly pledged to refrain from such wars. But the international
machinery to prevent them is very new and still feeble.
The ultimate reasons why religious freedom is cherished so widely and
so deeply today need to be explored and amplified. At its most
superficial level, the right to the free exercise of religion is a
rule of expediency that can be traced to 1648, when the Peace of
Westphalia restored to Lutherans the free practice of their religion
in the Holy Roman Empire and extended it to the Calvinists, while
recognizing that the dominant religion of a nation normally forms the
core of the church-state relationship in that country. Given the
presumptive power of the religious majority, religious minorities are
protected by the general right to religious freedom. This rule, with
some modifications, may be agreeable to the nations of Europe, the
United States, and the Commonwealth, but the concept sometimes lacks
Of every hundred people on Earth, nearly twenty are Muslim. The
fifty-five nations that make up the Islamic Conference are deeply
divided over the question of religious freedom. Although most Muslims,
if asked, would register disapproval of the Taliban's destruction of
Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan in 2001, for example, there is
nevertheless a consensus among Muslim nations that the secular state
can embrace the full exercise of the rights and duties that derive
from the Koran.
The uncertainty around the world concerning the extent to which
governments should guarantee religious freedom is one of the major
reasons why the United Nations has not pursued a covenant or a legally
binding instrument on freedom of religion, as it has done with respect
to such issues as the rights of minorities, women, and children.
Similarly, that uncertainty is one of the principal reasons why it has
never considered establishing a world entity to monitor compliance
with the demands of religious freedom, as it has done to implement its
covenants on political and economic rights.
As one contemplates the possibility of a world tribunal competent to
adjudicate and penalize denials of religious freedom, one must reflect
on Christ's predictions that his followers would be persecuted.
Indeed, nothing in the New Testament is clearer. Given this received
wisdom, why should Christians now seek assurances that they will not
be harmed or treated as second-class citizens? In the early years
after the Crucifixion, it never entered a Christian's mind-or anyone
else's-to insist on the kind of right to religious freedom now set
forth solemnly in several documents of the United Nations.
Christians like myself may be asked whether their desire to ensure
religious freedom for all who have faith in any religion is at odds
with their belief in Christianity. But this suggestion of a conflict
of faith is not valid, because central to Christianity is the
conviction that no one believes in Christ unless that person receives
the grace to believe directly from God. Christ made it clear to his
Apostles and to all of us that he chose them, they did not choose him.
Faith is not earned or merited; it is a gratuitous gift from God. A
Christian may, and indeed must, desire that governments facilitate the
rights of all persons who accept the gift of faith as it is offered to
them by God.
To be sure, the Catholic Church did not always seek religious freedom
for every believer. For centuries the Church held to the conviction
that governments should be required to discourage and even ban not
only non-Christian religions but any version of Christianity that
differed from Catholicism. But in 1965 the Second Vatican Council
radically altered that doctrine, so that now the Catholic Church
strongly states that any governmental coercion of individuals to
adhere or not to adhere to any religion is wrong.
By this policy, Christians seek to protect from persecution not merely
themselves but all followers of all the religions of the world.
Christians are well aware of Christ's words: "If they persecuted me,
they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). The words Christ uttered
just before this prediction are equally foreboding: "Because you do
not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the
world hates you" (John 15:17).
People of faith are well aware of the complexity of the task of
guaranteeing religious freedom. The second edition of World Christian
Encyclopedia, issued in 2001, reports that 84 percent of the world's
6.06 billion persons declare themselves to be adherents of some form
of organized religion. Fewer than 2 billion are Christian, and about
half of these are Catholic. Muslims number 1.1 billion; Hindus, 812
million; and Buddhists, 359 million. The number of Jews throughout the
world is estimated to be 14 million. Animists and others account for
most of the rest.
The idea of creating some sort of international legal machinery to
resolve clashes between these religious groups may seem quixotic.
Indeed, some observers may have thought it unnecessary-but the
genocide in Rwanda, resulting partly from religious differences, has
gone far to change their minds. But there are alternatives. A unique
trial in Belgium of persons who had fled from Rwanda drew on the four
universally binding Geneva conventions of 1949 and led to the
conviction of Rwandan nationals, including two nuns, in a foreign
nation. Some could argue that this approach is preferable to the
establishment of a world tribunal. Although the approach used in
Belgium may be satisfactory in some ways, however, it by no means
ensures uniformity, reliability, or predictability.
Most persons who speak out for religious tolerance may be vulnerable
to a claim that they are biased in favor of their own faith. That
charge could be made against me, for that matter: the objectivity of a
person who by solemn vow is committed to the advancement of the
Catholic faith and the interests of the Holy See can be challenged.
But as we have seen, the Second Vatican Council made it clear that the
Church does not condone any pronouncement or action that allows any
shade of "coercion" for the advancement of the Catholic religion. It
is certainly clear beyond question that since 1965, the Catholic
Church has repudiated centuries of its customary practices, concluding
that no government action that seeks to urge citizens to adhere or not
to adhere to any religion may be condoned.
The idea of creating a world tribunal that would guarantee the free
exercise of religion will elicit a strong reaction from both believers
and nonbelievers. The world has welcomed the pronouncements of the
United Nations committees that monitor the implementation of the
political and economic rights to which the vast majority of nations
have pledged their support. But an international entity sitting in
judgment on the way these same nations regard religious freedom raises
more serious misgivings, questions, and doubts. The feeling is somehow
pervasive that government organizations-or even a transnational legal
body-should not get involved in the religious practices of 84 percent
of the human race.
But the world also remembers more and more vividly the tragedies
brought about in the name of religion by the Crusades, the
Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, and the many wars over
religion in Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, the contemplation of such
transgressions led Pope John Paul II to apologize for the atrocities
for which the Catholic Church can be held partly or wholly
The 172 nations that participated in the 1993 UN World Conference on
Human Rights in Vienna repeated and reinforced the proclamations of
world law in favor of religious freedom. But the Vienna Conference
made no giant step forward in this area, as the participants felt that
the threat to world religious freedom had subsided with the demise of
Since then the hindrances to religious freedom in Sudan, Northern
Ireland, China, Bosnia, and elsewhere have strengthened the position
of those individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and nations that
want greater global protection for the right to religious freedom. But
the cry for the expansion of this right is not universal. Many people
remain leery of the interjection of secular forces-however
well-meaning-into the beliefs or doings of religious groups.
Americans generally share a profound distaste for any governmental
ruling that could potentially coerce a religious group in what it will
or will not do or may proclaim. Although there is no reason that the
U.S. example should necessarily serve as a guide for the rest of the
world, it does seem to permeate the global debate about what
governments can or should do to maximize the religious freedom of
persons who are confronted by open hostility because of their
religious beliefs or conduct. It is to be hoped that the general
international consensus supporting religious freedom will enable the
international community to free itself from the vestiges of a past
rife with religious persecutions and move toward a future of true
religious freedom. The world faces both obstacles and aids as it
embarks on this journey.
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