Because the United States is the reigning and defending global hegemon, the prevailing winds of American society and politics are of heightened importance as compared to other countries. What goes on here has a ripple effect: The cultural commitments and values that manifest themselves in American politics inevitably spill over the borders of the republic and into the lives of men, women, and children around the world.
’Twas ever thus with superpowers. At the dawn of the Pax Britannica, an Englishman named William Wilberforce decided that he didn’t like slavery very much. He found a few other chaps in Clapham Circle in London who felt the same way, and a few years later the global slave trade had been almost entirely dismantled. The priorities set by hegemonic powers always make themselves felt in this way on distant shores.
A number of Western countries have replaced religion with worship of the state over the past century and, as a result, have come to view the American prioritization of religious liberty either incomprehensible or ridiculous. Conversely, many non-Western countries still rely on a state-sponsored religion to provide social cohesion and to underwrite the legitimacy of the regime. Where the drive to conserve political power is strongest, the promotion of religious liberty is weakest. It shouldn’t surprise Americans to learn that the conviction that liberty of conscience is a non-negotiable component of a humane society is one held by America alone.
We were reminded of this last month by Alexander Dvorkin, who since 2009 has been the head of the Russian government’s “Council of Religious Experts.” The purpose of this body is to decide which religious groups in Russia should be designated as “extremist” and therefore “liquidated.” Among Dvorkin’s recent targets were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were banned and brutally repressed in Russia in 2017. Dvorkin can thus be called, without much exaggeration, the Kremlin’s grand inquisitor.
Dvorkin appears determined to subjugate all other forms of religious association to the dominance of the pro-Putin, statist wing of the Russian Orthodox Church. He’s been successful enough in this respect to have had his services sought out on several occasions by the Chinese Communist Party, who’ve invited him to China and Hong Kong in the past to provide aid and cover to their own efforts at repression.
On February 25, Dvorkin gave a speech at a conference in Paris during which he spoke about how the tightening and loosening of U.S. pressure affects his ability to pursue the Kremlin’s directives. He also provided a useful summary of how Putin’s government views the development of religious liberty in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union (it should be noted that “sects” and “cults” are the terms Dvorkin likes to use when talking about heterodox religions):
In the 1990s, the new Russia, painfully acquiring its shape, faced a massive invasion of totalitarian sects, which instantly attracted thousands and tens of thousands of new adherents to their ranks. . . . The Gorbachev Law on Freedom of Conscience (1990) contributed to giving the cults free rein, and they achieved spectacular successes. . . . A new law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations was passed in 1997. The law was the result of difficult compromises and agreements, but still, to a certain extent, it made it possible to limit the activities of cults. The real progress in the Russian state’s attitude toward cults began sometime after 2015, and more or less coincided with the deterioration of Russia’s relations with Western countries.
Noting a correlation between the deterioration of Russian–Western relations and the progress of his policies, he observed that many of Russia’s Western neighbors used to show a similar penchant for religious intolerance, but that the long-term influence of the U.S. has softened it. “Many Western countries that once set an example in the fight against cults, such as France, Germany, Belgium, and Austria, are gradually revising their positions under U.S. pressure,” Dvorkin lamented. Pliant European states have had to bolster their own commitment to religious liberty so as to remain in good standing with the global hegemon. As a result, Putin’s Russia has been left with only China as a bedfellow when it comes to a policy of religious persecution.
Dvorkin may strike Americans (correctly) as a sinister figure, but it’s important to remember that he is not an exotic one. In the grand sweep of human history, he is the norm and we are the exception. The brutal enforcement of religious orthodoxy has been a sine qua non of human social organization since the earliest days of recorded history. In his magisterial work The Ancient City, published in 1864, the French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges showed how prehistoric religious beliefs shaped first the domestic and then the civic institutions of both ancient Greece and classical Rome. To be a citizen in Athens was to be an obedient member of the city’s official religious cult:
At the age of sixteen or eighteen, he [a young Athenian] is presented for admission to the city. On that day, in the presence of an altar, and before the smoking flesh of a victim, he pronounces an oath, by which he binds himself always to respect . . . the religion of the city. From that day he is initiated into the public worship, and becomes a citizen.
The specifics have varied in different times and different places, but the role that communal religious commitments, endorsed by the state and enforced by violence, have played in human social organization has been enormous. State religion has been the default method used by human beings to coordinate their relations with one another. Julian the Apostate, Augustine of Hippo, the Spanish inquisitors, John Calvin, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell . . . the list of violent religious enforcers goes on and on. Dvorkin, it turns out, is a fairly normal human being — banal, even.
Americans are the real weirdos (and I mean “weirdos” in the best possible sense). As early as the 17th century, there were settlers in the American colonies whose political opinions about religious liberty were staggeringly progressive to the point of sounding almost extraterrestrial to the Europeans they used to live among.
Take Roger Williams, for example, surely one of the greatest Americans in history. Born in 1603, Williams was a Puritan minister and theologian who founded what would eventually become the colony of Rhode Island. He was one of the earliest known abolitionists in the Western world, a staunch advocate of church-state separation, and a tireless campaigner for fair dealings with Native Americans. He eventually became the first anglophone settler to write a book on the Native American language of Narragansett. In 1636, Williams was expelled from the colony of Massachusetts Bay for spreading “new and dangerous ideas” like “liberty of conscience.” His influential writings on religious liberty made him in many ways the morning star of the First Amendment. He described forced worship as “rape of the soul” and decried the “oceans of blood” that had been spilled trying to enforce conformity. Amazingly for a man of his time (and a Puritan minister at that), Williams even favored full religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, and atheists. He justified his position thus:
A civil sword (as woeful experience in all ages has proved) is so far from bringing or helping forward an opposite in religion to repentance that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of souls by such proceedings. . . . Religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it so.
Arguments like this have never been well received by kings or commissars, but they won the day at Independence Hall on July 4, 1776. All the talk about America as the “last best hope of Earth” can easily tip over into angry jingoism and nakedly nationalist idolatry, but on the narrow political question of religious liberty for the human race, it is exactly correct. Alexander Dvorkin has told us as much. If the American commitment to religious liberty falters and fails here at home, liberty of conscience may not be long for this world, or at least for vast portions of it.
The torch lit by Roger Williams is still being carried by the United States and its citizens, but the current administration gives us cause to worry. The career of Xavier Becerra, newly confirmed to head the Department of Health and Human Services, suggests that very little respect will be accorded to groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor. As the administration pursues an agenda hostile to conscience rights, many religious Americans may wonder what’s become of our bedrock commitment to religious freedom.
The enemies of religious freedom beyond America’s borders are presently wielding fearsome power. Here at home, it’s never been more important to defend liberty of conscience, the jewel in the Constitution’s crown — beautiful but fragile, and so very, very rare.