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Religious Freedom: History and Crisis PDF Print E-mail

Franklin M. Littell
Temple University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

The traditional pattern has been for various forms of government to use religion as a means of coercion and control. The leaders of the religious structure—like the tax gatherers, and the armies that also serve as internal police, and the teachers for the privileged few—were all part of a single monolithic structure of control. In that kind of situation it has always been the smaller, more adventurous, and more spirit-filled groups that carried the heaviest load. They were the ones most easily singled out and used to demonstrate the authority and power of those who like to use religion that way.

Certainly that has been, by and large, the history of Christendom since roughly 325 in the Common Era. This trend toward those who don’t quite fit has centered on Jews and heretics.

We have made some progress, in some societies, toward moving away from the idea that religion is a tool of government to control subject peoples. But once Western Christendom divided, in the 16th century, it didn’t improve the situation. You were still dependent, primarily, upon the toleration of benign rulers and still victimized by the pride of the malignant.

It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that the idea arose that religion is independent of government control and manipulation. And that it is supported by the voluntary giving and staffing of believing members, and does not conduct itself as an interested cabal to use government for its own purposes. This was a very new idea in human history and human development.

We are just moving out of the idea that toleration and freedom are the same thing. Many of our best friends and collaborators in the fight against Nazism and communism have not yet learned the difference between toleration and liberty. This was evident, for example, in that great declaration of religious freedom, Dignitatus Humani, which was issued in 1965 by Vatican II. It begins with the statement that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Then it goes on to describe a pattern of religious toleration. This confusion lies at the heart of the difficulty that many of us are beginning to sense in the German Federal Republic. After the war, free Germany in the west, and then the seven provinces incorporated from the east after 1989, had section four of the Grump Gazzet, the Constitution, that included a noble affirmation of Globins Freiheight. That is religious liberty.

This mode of toleration has now begun to retrogress. It pains me greatly, after I spent nearly 10 years in the postwar occupation of Germany, to see it retrogress in a way that is very dangerous to “cults and sects. That is the key phrase to persecute, you see, “cults and sects.” That is the new language of the assault on those who don’t fit. It used to be Jews and heretics. It will be a while before, in Germany, they start making open assaults on the Jews. That would be more shame than they can carry.

It is worth remembering that Reinhart Heidrich, who was for a time head of the whole liquidation program, received the portfolio to liquidate sects and cults several years before he received the portfolio of the Final Solution to the Jewish problem. After which he called the conference to organize the Holocaust.

Christianity, since the 1840s, has seen a decline in attendance and participation in the established churches decade by decade. I made a study of this with my graduate students a few years ago. We have come to a time when, in one of the northern countries, church participation is 3.4 percent. In another, it is 3.6 percent. Both of those countries have an established Christianity, and theology professors are paid with tax moneys.

In southern Europe, the percentages on the other side of the Christian divide are little better. It was into this developing spiritual vacuum that orthodox Marxism and Nazism rushed with a pseudo religious solution from anthropology clear through to the zoology of human existence. The sad thing is that traditional Christian cultures of the old Constantinian establishment patterns, which are no longer capable of building great cathedrals, founding great universities, or producing majestic Christian orators, still have the negative capacity to persecute.

A faith whose center is supposed to be brotherhood, love, service to the least brethren, and protection of the defenseless again, is used to serve the purposes of governments that have no great devotion to Christianity, but are prepared to use established religion as a way of coercion, and of reasserting spiritual and political power. It is a slippery slide from the glory of liberty down the slope toward genocide, but it is built in, it is there.

If you lose the vision of respect for the human person—and some of you will realize I am using a wonderful phrase in one of good Pope John XXIII’s encyclicals—then you can slide over to toleration. Pretty soon you move over to contempt. Where did they come from? Then bigotry becomes more and more articulate and open. Then the language of assault begins to enter the public discourse. References to persons of other races, other religion, other cultures are no longer in the dialogue of civilized persons but the language of assault.

Next comes harassment of families, schoolchildren, and so on. Then, open discrimination—as in one stage of the Third Reich—becomes accepted by sensible people, because at least it defines the status of those who had been targeted. The next step is open targeting, then comes isolation, ghettoization, and a military alert. You can’t carry out genocide, such as that which happened at the turn of the last century with the Armenians, without mobilizing the military.

It isn’t like the old murderous actions between tribes. In today’s world you act scientifically; you get the best brains, the best technology, the best planning. Then you have genocide, though you started out with the apparent instance of toleration. Down the slope society goes. A colleague of mine at the University of Hawaii has written five books and a lot of articles on this subject. He always points out a fact that we don’t think of normally. It doesn’t show up in the writings of the paparazzi. Some 152 million people have died in this age of genocide, that is, since 1900, at the hands of their own governments.

We are aware from history books, speakers, and newspapers of the perils of international war. We should of course be aware. We are aware of the price of civil war in various places on the globe. But the wickedness that we need to think about as we affirm religious liberty approaching the new millennium is the wickedness of regimes that start with toleration; move through contempt, bigotry, and harassment; and then slide into murderous genocide. That is the number one lesson of the tragedy of the Holocaust, which is, as the sociologists say, the model case of genocide in the 20th century.

It is not just a question of ignorance or of attitude. The National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP, was a potentially genocidal movement for years before it infiltrated, subverted, and finally came into power to do the terrible things that were done. The second expression of this early warning system is our education of each other, and our fellow citizens. When a free society is beginning to lose freedom because the leaders don’t have the fiber and the moral integrity and determination to maintain the strength of, in our case, the wonderful Constitution.

There are two things going on in Germany today that started out very good and are now going bad. One of them was the foundation of a Budesshin Farlinshru Shalzenshutz, a Center for the Protection of the Constitution, which was defined quite properly. It was created not just to protect the government against neo-Nazis and communists but also to protect the basic liberties of citizens. By protecting the Constitution, we mean protecting the liberty, dignity, and integrity of citizens.

The other terrible thing is the transformation of the Sectan Bealftractor. These offices were based on a concept initiated by a dear friend of mine, long dead, Professor Kurthutten, simply because he wanted the churches to know what the new religious movements were doing. That is what those offices were established for in the various cities. They were contact points for the established churches. Now these Sectan Bealftractor have become persecutors. They have become instruments of self-serving people who write pamphlets and tracts to promote themselves and raise warning flags about cults and sects.

The Sectan Bealftractor to which I referred actually succeeded in putting over 80 communist and neo-Nazi organizations out of business before it got twisted. One cabinet member was primarily responsible for it. What was once a defense against genuinely subversive and potentially genocidal movements has become a tool to be used against new religious movements. These offices, which were supposed to be contact points for established churches and the new religious movements, have turned out to be centers of persecution. Truly, truly, leaves that fester smell far worse than weeds.

I can’t emphasize too strongly how important it is to realize in time that the language of assault is the beginning step, to realize that failing to respect the liberties, dignities, and integrity of your neighbors is the first slide on a slippery slope. Years ago, Ingmar Bergman did a film called the “Serpent’s Egg.” It was a film on the rise of the Nazi party. He did it very well, but it came out in the wrong time so he didn’t get as many Academy Awards as he would have in some other season. He was asked what he meant with this image, this metaphor, the Serpent’s Egg. He said, “The membrane is so thin that through it you can discern the already perfectly formed body of the reptile.”

What I am saying is that in 1923 the Nazi party was already the perfectly formed body of the reptile. It is your business and mine, as we affirm religious liberty, to develop an understanding and an early warning system for those—who are not just of another opinion—but are the mortal enemies of everything we believe in, from the dignity of the human person to the nature of a just and protective democratic society and government.