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The Changing Landscape of Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

My presentation really is on the intersections between faith and the global movement, towards or away from freedom. I’m going to address that in my remarks. Let me begin by invoking an old Victorian saying, "doing good is good for you." In some sense this is the central theme of my presentation, which will examine the influence of religion on political systems, human freedom and also the influence of political organizations, political systems, and human freedoms in their civic and political dimensions on religious life, and the opportunities for protection of religious freedom.

We had an extraordinarily informative discussion on the state of religious freedom in Latin America in the morning sessions, and it largely confirmed some of the trends in political organizations that I will be referring to.

Let me say at the outset, all people who observe the world in the last twenty years know that something has occurred—that we have had a dramatic movement towards more open societies in large, and sometimes in unrelated parts of the world, but with some order to this evolution, and I will speak on a little bit of that. Really, the last twenty years has seen a remarkable enlargement of political freedom, a remarkable reorientation and consensus among many in the world that more open market-based economic systems are a source of efficiency and prosperity, and in the end some degree of fairness, or at least an opportunity to pull yourself up from poverty.

On the other hand, we are in a period of economic difficulty, of emerging markets being placed under great stress, including stresses on their currencies, on the value of their stock markets. So we will see in the months and in the years ahead, how durable this rather remarkable wave of political expansion will prove to be. I believe it will prove to be fairly durable.

Here is what has happened just in the last ten years. In 1998 of the 167 countries of the world, about two in five, or around 38 percent, were political democracies. That is societies in which there are openly competitive elections, where orderly and regular change of government under some semblance of objectivity, correct ballot counting, equal access to the media and the like. By 1998, that number had grown to 118, partly due to the breakups of multinational states. But nevertheless, it moved from two in five countries, to three in five countries, from 66 democracies, to 118 democracies. Latin America was one of the great beneficiaries of this movement. Today in the Americas, 31 in 35 states are electoral democracies in our region. At Freedom House, have a fairly tough standard. We don’t count, certainly, Cuba, that is an easy call. But we don’t list—among the democracies in the Americas—Antigua, Cuba, Peru, and Mexico, unless and until Mexico conducts its next presidential election under a clearly free and fair basis. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable expansion compared to what it was just 15 or 20 years ago. A number of electoral democracies have doubled in that same period.

Similarly, the number of free societies in the region has mushroomed, that is the societies in which there is a broad respect for minority rights, there is a semblance of the rule of law, and there are independent media. We are again fairly strict in this judgment that we make. I hope no one will take offense, but in our ratings for example, Brazil was rated a "partly free" country.

The extension of liberty has occurred in an important relationship to religion. That is to say, that scholars have been examining the relationship to culture and political development in recent years, and some positive clash of cultures with fundamentally opposing sets of values. And while there are broad differences in civilizations, even within the varieties of cultures in religious faiths, even in single countries, it cannot be denied that democracy and human rights today find their expression on all continents and in a wide array of cultures and beliefs. And clearly there are very strong democratic forces across the spectrum, across the world, in virtually all societies.

But, it is also a fact that the evolution of democracy and the tempo of change have evolved along in patterns related to religious belief. For example, of the 81 countries that we rate as free in our survey, 74 are majority Christian. Of the seven free countries that are not majority Christian, one is Israel, which is part of the Judeo-Christian civilization. Two others, Mauritius, and South Korea, have vary large Christian communities, and in some cases growing Christian communities, more than a third of their population. Of the four free countries that don’t have strong relations to the Judeo-Christian tradition, one is Mali, which is predominately Muslim. Another is Taiwan, where nearly half the population is Buddhist. Another is Mongolia, which is traditional Buddhist. And finally there is Japan, which observes both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

This correlation to freedom and Christianity is very strong in our data. While 74 of the 81 countries that are predominantly Christian are free, just eleven of the 67 countries that have the poorest records of political rights and freedoms, the bottom of the list, are predominantly Christian. So, predominantly Christian countries are about 5-1/2 times more likely to be free and democratic today, as they are to be non-democratic.

I am not going to speak at length about the problems in the Islamic world where there are only six out of 42 countries are something that could resemble electoral democracies. And only one, in our assessment, is fully free, and that is the African state of Mali.

A quarter century ago scholars looking at our hemisphere and examining Latin America, would have drawn a different correlation than they do today. The majority of predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America were corporatist systems under military rule. Oligarchic autocracies predominated in Central America; the capital countries were under dictatorship. In East Central Europe, again predominantly Catholic, Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia, suffered under Communist dictatorship. A whole series of evidences would have led one to the conclusion that there was a strong correlation between Catholicism and autocratic political rule.

There is some lag in the democratic transformation from the orthodox Christian countries, which also leads to similar conclusions. Greece, 25 years ago, was under a dictatorship, as were Bulgaria, Romania and the European republics of the Soviet Union. Many of these have moved in a much more liberal direction of political openness.

On the basis of our surveys, we concluded that as the 20th Century draws to a close, ideas of electoral democracy and political freedom correlate most closely at this moment in history with Christian societies. But there is also strong correlation between electoral democracy and Hinduism and a significant proportion of free societies and electoral democracies among traditional Buddhist societies or societies in which Buddhism is the most widespread.

Now, very often, political leaders looking at the way the world is evolving, don’t pay much attention to these kinds of trends. Similarly, religious leaders may well be aware of trends in their own countries, or trends in their own region, but are not really aware they are part of a more transcendent, global momentum. I think it is important for us to think about these issues. And I think a lot of political scientists and social scientists are beginning to do this. I am quick to speak about the role of two. One is Pope John Paul II’s opening up a Catholic teaching in a more comprehensive and more compelling way in support of democratic options to the degree that some have spoken of the protestantization of Catholicism. Clearly there has been a landmark shift over the last several decades in Catholic churches actively engaging in political reform movements as well as social reform movements.

But I would really like to talk about something else. Increasingly, as I say, social scientists in my country are looking at the influence of Protestant movements on the political transformations of Latin America. We have seen in the statements made today that where I am speaking in effect about a moving target, because traditionally Roman Catholic countries in the region have seen not just a substantial mushrooming of Protestant evangelical proselytization, but participation, conversions, and the rising pentacostalism. David Martin, a sociologist, argues in one of his books, that this is one of the three great historical waves of fundamentalist renewal in human history. About 20 percent of Brazil, and rapidly growing, is now Protestant. Perhaps 10 percent or more are evangelical. These are old statistics, several years old. These figures are always being readjusted. Chile has a substantial proportion, Guatemala 30 percent, and Nicaragua more than a fifth of the population.

Many scholars in my country look at these phenomena from the perspective of what this means could be considered the internal values that are related to work life, to home life, and to some degree to civic life. One of them, Francis Fukiyama, has written a book several years ago on the idea of trust. And he speaks about how Protestant sects and Protestant denominations create very dynamic new networks of association and trust, that also has the added benefits of economic cooperation; lending money within your religious community, assisting in the beginning and start-ups of small business activity and how this is a real stimulus. Not just holding to the I-Math disciplines, in terms of monetary physical control and open trade regimen, but the building up of an internal working middle-class entrepreneurialism—the values of discipline, thrift, and an emphasis on education, which was referred to in an earlier discussion about of evangelicalism in Latin America.

One of these issues is in a sense based on a tradition and religion—and considered by many in the secular world to be backward—but these are really the engines of modern economic growth and modern economic and political success. Because concurrent with this trust which has economic, faith based dimensions there is also a trust that creates civic problems, civic engagement. The use of the political process in the role of minorities in political process gives, I believe, greater depth to the democratic transitions that have occurred in the last 20 years in Latin America.

Now Max Weber, another well known for his Protestant ethic in the spirit of capitalism, had another text called Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued in that text that there existed a coherence of new communities based on these kinds of institutions, Protestant denominations. So again, communities, civil societies, and economic cooperation, these are increasingly understood to be the mechanisms for successful, modern, just, and stable democratic societies.

Doing good is good for you, is good for the community. It is also, I believe, important in a secularly oriented media and in a secularly oriented political world for religious leaders, as well as for these secular political figures, to understand better these kinds of seamless relationships. And not be fearful of certain kinds of trends when in the end all the vectors that go into combining these trends seem to be propitiating a positive change in the direction of greater liberty.

Now, there are some other issues, and those are issues related to the natural engagement of religious groups in the political process. Either to protect their place in the religious firmament, or to carve out rights in the group, and fairness and just treatment for themselves through the political process.

I am not here to urge caution, but I think it is very important to remember some paradoxes that may not always be well understood, but are reflected even in the documents of the International Coalition of Religious Freedom. I was struck in one of the documents related to Austria that the information that the Green Party and the Liberal Parties were among the strong proponents for a more open and rights oriented legislation. It was the Socialists and Christian Democrats who were moving in a different direction. Democracy is a form of government that is given content both by faith and belief, but it is given also content, and a lot is spoken about religious values, ethical values, moral values, being a necessary kind of content for a well ordered democratic society.

But there are two broadly speaking philosophical approaches within a democracy, both of which in societies where there is a broad political consensus, tend to overlap. I think all the major political tendencies share one or the other of these. But one set of values or the other predominates, and this can be broadly called republican. Which is to say not in the name of the Republican Party, but in the sense of alienating power to the elected government, and then that government having responsibilities to carry out a certain mandate of faith with the electorate. Republican forms of government really do emphasize as a kind of vertical chain of authority, but also a vertical chain of responsibility to the electorate. They tend to emphasize therefore, also the moral components of leadership and articulate them in a very clear way.

We also have another aspect of democracy, and that is not the vertical one, but the horizontal one. Which is, I would argue, more linked to the liberal tradition which seeks to empower, in the European sense, to empower, to limit the states to its properly designated functions, and to allow society to play its proper role. It empowers everything outside the state or seeks to. Those traditions exist in most of the major pro-democratic political parties around the world in greater or lesser proportions. But the liberal parties tend to emphasize this more individual-rights-based orientation. Both are needed in the sense of building a stable democracy, both this horizontal emphasis and this vertical emphasis, both this moral emphasis and procedural and neutral emphasis that you sometimes find in liberalism. And sometimes that is the paradox. You find groups that are very secular, that are respectful of religious values, but don’t speak in the same kinds of terms as faith-based political leaders might. They can also be very important pillars and bedrock in the struggle for your rights, your thoughts, and your liberty in this dynamic architecture of democracy.

What I would like to end with is by saying that this dynamic democratic moment has been inspired by this dramatic religious movement. These trends, I believe, certainly in the Christian world, are integrally linked. Many social scientists and political scientists now speak of the spirituality of economics. Then this might also speak, as I try to suggest, about the spirituality of politics. But in order for these integral parts of the democratic process to work well, they need to be better understood by the political leaders, and better understood by the religious leaders. The way to summarize is to again return to that old Victorian adage, doing good—which is to say doing good works, organizing within your communities, holding deeply held ethical and religious and spiritual beliefs—is also good for the societies in which you function.