Freedom of Religion: History


A Brief Survey of Major Religions

Until recently, the state and religion were closely intertwined, with religion used not only as a basis for internal governance but also as justification for expansion abroad. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, among others, invoked their various polytheistic gods to support wars and expansion. In each empire, religious devotion was a key component in establishing loyalty to the ruler. Even democratic Athens could not tolerate dissent from its official polytheistic beliefs, sentencing the philosopher Socrates to death on charges of corrupting young with teachings about “other gods.”

The major religions that are practiced today have been central elements of different empires and autocratic systems. Hinduism, a polytheistic religion that emerged in India in the second millennium BC, was an integral belief system for dynasties and kingdoms throughout South and Southeast Asia. Buddhism, founded in northern India in the sixth century BC, was similarly adopted as an official religion by various expansionist monarchies in the region. Chinese emperors oversaw a complex of religions and practices (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional beliefs), but all were fused to justify imperial rule. Although religion was suppressed at the outset of Communist rule in China in 1949, most people today maintain some elements of these former state-supported religions or practice Christianity, which was introduced by Western missionaries in the 18th century. Today, Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, and Buddhism constitute the world's third, fourth, and fifth largest faiths. They have an estimated 1 billion, 500 million, and 400 million followers, respectively.

Christianity, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, and Islam, with 1.6 billion followers, are the world’s two largest religions. Both are monotheistic and each expanded significantly through conquest or adoption as an official state religion. In the case of Christianity, its adoption by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD expanded the faith throughout the Roman Empire. In the case of Islam, it spread by war and the creation of caliphates in Damascus and Bagdad in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The Baghdad (Abbasid) caliphate was later assumed by the Ottoman Empire, which served as the organizational foundation for adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Each faith experienced major schisms that resulted in bloody internecine wars, while Christian and Muslim states and empires engaged each other in centuries of intermittent combat in Europe, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.

Banner showing diverse religious symbols

Judaism, the world's oldest monotheistic faith, originated between 3,400 and 4,000 years ago. Jews initially formed a state with Jerusalem as the capital, which remained at the center of their religious and political life until AD 70, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in the wake of a rebellion. For the next two millennia, Jews scattered in a worldwide diaspora, often experiencing persecution by governments and populations adhering to other faiths. In the 19th century, a Zionist movement arose in Europe encouraging migration back to Judaism’s birthplace, then known as Palestine, with the aim of reestablishing a Jewish state. Following Nazi Germany's murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust during World War II — two-thirds of European Jewry — the United Nations approved a plan in 1947 to create Jewish and Arab states in the territory of Palestine. The state of Israel was established the next year on lands settled by Jews from the diaspora during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The Arab League rejected the two-state solution, leaving the creation of a Palestinian Arab state unresolved to this day.) Today, Israel has 7.8 million inhabitants, of whom nearly 6 million are Jewish (see Israel Country Study). Approximately 7 million Jews live in diaspora of whom 5.5 million live in the United States. 

Throughout most history, countries had an official religion and religions expanded and contracted based on the military conquests or defeats of empires and nation states. The official religion was a key element of the state's legitimacy and policy practices. The ruler was generally regarded as a spiritual leader, often as the worldly representative of the divine or as someone governing with the approval of a divine power or divine mandate. Those who adhered to other faiths, especially ones that rejected the legitimacy of the established ruling authority, were often persecuted in their practices. It is only in recent centuries that states have allowed freedom of religion, whereby no specific beliefs or observances were required of citizens. In democracies today, even those with official state religions, freedom of religion and conscience is considered a basic right. Below is a discussion of how this understanding developed.

The Reformation and Religious Wars 

In Europe, the principle joining the state to religion was expressed in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio, literally "whose realm, his religion." In other words, the religion of the ruler would be the faith of his subjects. This principle meant that the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century led to Christianity’s recognition as the official religion of the empire, now based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The emperor remained the titular head of Christianity in the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, based in Constantinople, however the Holy See in Rome and its bishop, the pope, remained the ultimate authority of the Catholic Church. The Byzantine Church, which broke from Roman Catholicism in 1054, served as the forerunner of today's various Eastern Orthodox Churches, which generally conform to political borders and are at least loosely tied to the state. Meanwhile, following the fall of Rome to barbarian invasions in the fifth century, the papacy emerged as a supranational entity that exercised authority over all of the defunct Western Roman Empire and the lands to the north. Monarchs or rulers who accepted Western Christianity (Catholicism) had to recognize the pope's religious supremacy. The Church reserved the power to excommunicate disobedient rulers, sanction crusades, and combat heresy through institutions like the Inquisition. In accord with the Church, most European monarchies adopted anti-Semitic laws and practices. Jews were expelled from England, Spain and other countries from the 13th to 17th centuries. In that period, only the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth afforded religious freedom and sanctuary to Jews. is only in recent centuries that states began to allow freedom of religion whereby no specific beliefs or observances were required of the population.  

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, which served as the spark for the Reformation, a schism in Christianity between Roman Catholicism and what came to be known as Protestantism. The Ninety-Five Theses challenged the spiritual and temporal authority of the pope, the leader of Western Christianity. He was especially critical of the selling of indulgences (absolution from punishment for forgiven sin) by the Church, a practice widely used by priests and bishops, including the pope, to raise money both for Church projects and for themselves.

Luther’s protest gave rise to “Lutheranism” as well as other new state Churches and sects within Christianity that rejected the moral authority of the pope and renounced Roman Catholicism as the official religion in order to form a purer congregation tied more closely to a country or community. The schism led to repression, internal conflicts, and wars between states. Catholic minorities in Protestant states were seen as agents of the Pope or foreign Catholic rulers, who in turn viewed their Protestant minorities as disloyal heretics. Protestant governments also faced challenges from more radical sects and movements, such as the Puritans in Britain. Catholic and Protestant states, vying for both temporal and spiritual supremacy in Europe, engaged in a series of bloody religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries that devastated many countries. During the Thirty Years' War alone, from 1618 to 1648, as much as a third of the population in German principalities perished.

The religious wars ended through a number of important treaties and decrees that established a foundation for religious freedom between and within states in Europe. The Union of Utrecht in 1579 established a united and effectively independent Protestant Netherlands from Spain. Henry II’s Edict of Nantes in 1598 in France granted civil and religious rights to Protestants (although these were later rescinded). And, most importantly, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, reinforced the earlier principle that each state had the right to establish its own religion but also encouraged greater tolerance within states of different religious practices. In England in 1534, Henry VIII declared himself head of the national Church of England and separated it from the Vatican. After a century of clashes over religion in the British Isles, the Act of Toleration, adopted in 1689 as part of The Glorious Revolution, expanded religious freedoms to “Nonconformists,” which meant Protestants who did not accept the Church of England but who pledged allegiance to the state. Although the Act of Toleration excluded from protection Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who would not pledge allegiance to the state), it was a step toward an acceptance of different faiths outside the Church of England. 

The Rise of Liberal Democracy and Freedom of Religion

The emergence of religious freedom as an individual right was due in part to exhaustion from wars in Europe, but it was also a product of the Enlightenment, a period of scientific and philosophical discovery in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries in which scholars placed a new emphasis on human reason as the basis of knowledge. Just as theologians of the Reformation had challenged religious authority and tradition to seek out what they believed was a truer relationship with God, Enlightenment thinkers questioned the established wisdom of their time in an attempt to uncover the fundamental laws of nature. The Enlightenment's scientific focus sparked the rise of Deism, a form of non-denominational monotheistic belief that rejected supernatural revelation and divine intervention in the world, instead imagining God as the rational architect of the universe. Deism was espoused by many of the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson, who viewed the varying institutional forms of religion and worship as a matter of personal opinion and saw any state involvement in religion as coercive or corrupting. When it came to religious belief, he argued, each man was accountable only to "his God."

This was more than a theoretical matter for Jefferson. The American colonies were refuges for dissenters of established religions --- radical Protestant sects that arose in Anglo-Saxon countries and clashed with the dominant Lutheran or Episcopal faiths; the Protestant Huguenots fleeing renewed repression in France; Catholics fleeing persecution from Britain; among others. Yet they often encountered intolerance again in the New World. Witnessing the repression of Quakers and other minorities in states that had adopted restrictive laws on religion, including his own Virginia, Jefferson saw a fundamental contradiction between the political liberties being adopted in the new country seeking independence from Britain and its ongoing religious intolerance. He believed this contradiction posed a threat to its survival. In 1786, the Virginia Legislature passed the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom drafted by Jefferson. It declared that:

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested,
or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess,
and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The Constitution's First Amendment, adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, built these ideas into the nation's legal foundation: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ." For the first time in history, a formal separation of church and state guaranteed everyone the right to worship as his or her conscience dictated. the 20th century and especially during its decades of rising totalitarianism, the use of religion for political purposes took new

Tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs, freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state, were once revolutionary ideas that are now established in the constitutions and practices of liberal democracies, even those that retain state religions. The principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience is also embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, today religious freedom is not universally respected in many parts of the world. Many authoritarian states continue to repress religious minorities, while many states continue to fuse religion and the state within a repressive state structure. Religious intolerance continues to fuel many conflicts and wars. In liberal democracies, including the US, there continues to be conflicts over interpretations of religious liberty (see discussion below and the United States Country Study in this section). 

Freedom of Religion and Modern Dictatorship

As noted above, religious persecution has had a long history and it continues in many parts of the world. Where freedom of religion is not respected, typically the government is a form of dictatorship. 

In the 20th century and especially during the decades of totalitarianism’s rise, the use of religion for political purposes took new forms. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy was antireligious, but to consolidate power he obtained a formal agreement from the Roman Catholic Church in 1929 that granted moral legitimacy to his government in return for concessions to the Vatican, which remained its own state structure. The agreement included making Catholicism the state's official religion. The Nazis adopted a strict racist ideology of Aryan supremacy that superseded religion. Christian denominations were forced to choose between subservience to the Nazi state or persecution. While some clergy and lay activists resisted Nazism (and often were sent to concentration camps as a result), most churches and religious officials, whether out of sympathy for or fear of the Nazi state, did little to resist its tyranny and often assisted in implementing its worst policies. As part of its racist ideology, Nazi Germany (as well as Fascist Italy) subjected their minority Jewish populations and those of conquered states to persecution, imprisonment, deportation, and ultimately mass murder. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, carried out as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Communism did not attempt to co-opt religion, at least at first. Instead, communism attempted to abolish religious beliefs and replace them with its own materialist ideology. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks destroyed churches, arrested and killed many priests, and banned observance of all faiths. Communist China similarly destroyed places of worship and religious relics and symbols. But when it suited their purposes, Communist regimes reinstituted religion. After Nazi Germany invaded and threatened to overrun the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin looked to the Russian Orthodox Church to rally support for what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. He reopened churches and restored the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, or church leadership, on condition that it accept the Communist regime's political authority. Thereafter, religious institutions were allowed to function in the Soviet bloc but frequently as state instruments and always under strict supervision. Religious officials, including Islamic clerics, were handpicked by the state and often served as police agents or informers. Independent churches in Communist countries were outlawed and repressed.  In the Soviet bloc, only the Roman Catholic Church in Poland retained its formal independence, hierarchical authority, and an officially unimpeded relationship to the Vatican. As Poland’s only independent institution, the Church served as a model and inspiration for the trade union Solidarity (see Poland Country Study).

Falun Gong deity

The inclusion of freedom of religion in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, more importantly, the spread of democracy in the last fifty years resulted in much greater respect for freedom of religion in the world and tolerance of different faiths within nation states, even in countries where there remains a formally state-recognized religion. But there are also many current instances of religious repression and intolerance by dictatorships around the world: China's brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation; Vietnam's campaign against minority Protestants; and state-sanctioned attacks on rival or non-Muslim sects in Iraq; among many other examples (see Country Studies and Resources). Hostility to the Jewish migration to Palestine and the establishment of Israel fueled a high level of anti-Semitism in Arab states and other predominantly Muslim countries. As a result of this hostility, Israel has endured five wars and ongoing terrorist attacks on its citizens, while Jews in diaspora in many countries have been the object of state repression and social ostracism, leading to their emigration to Israel (see Country Study).

Antidemocratic Ideology and Majority Views

In recent years, extreme variants of Islamism — a political ideology arising out of Islam  that calls for the rule of government according to a fundamentalist interpretation of the principles or laws of Islam — have emerged as a new anti-democratic phenomenon threatening freedom of religion. In many countries, more moderate Islamist groups have organized as political parties and worked within democratic electoral systems to pursue the fulfillment of religious goals (see, for example, Country Studies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Turkey). But dictatorial states that join religion with state governance like Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have encouraged more extreme interpretations of Islam both within their own countries and abroad. The export of such interpretations of Islam has coincided with the rise of extremist groups who have recruited and mobilized cadres of terrorists to wage jihad — war or violent attacks on both governments and civilian populations in pursuit of a theocratic dictatorship or restoration of the Islamic Caliphate (a central religious authority governing all Muslims). 

Often this extremist violence is directed at the United States, Europe, and Israel, all three of which are blamed for supposedly humiliating the Islamic world or subjugating it to modernity and liberalism, which extremists consider anti-Islam. Generally, extremists have been politically unsuccessful in gaining state power and their jihadist beliefs are held only by a minority of Muslims. However, they have gained increasing adherence and influence in politically unstable countries such as Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. In recent years, a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has gained control over substantial territory and declared a caliphate, the Islamic State. It has also spread a substantial number of its armed fighters to conflict-ridden areas like Libya. In territory under its control the Islamic State has instituted a regime of terror, massacring thousands of Christians, Yazidis (adherents of an ancient monotheistic sect), Shiites, and any Sunnis who are judged to be apostate in their practices by refusing to abide by the rules dictated by the Islamic State. Extremist groups in other countries are endangering such diverse communities as Sephardic Jews, Egyptian Christian Copts, and Maronite Christians. In Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban held power for a decade and continues to use violence to try to overthrow that country’s incipient democracy.[T]his extremism goes against another historical tradition within Islamic countries of tolerance of other religions. Indeed, the rise of extremist sects does not reflect the majority view in most Muslim communities. . .

There is a growing intolerance in some Muslim communities towards liberal principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech. The publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in a regional newspaper in Denmark in 2006, for example, resulted in violent demonstrations around the world demanding the censorship of any such images (see History in Freedom of Expression). Many disenfranchised minority Muslim communities in Europe where messages of intolerance are frequently spread by extremist clerics have become recruiting grounds for the Islamic State, which, in addition to its horrifying campaign of terror in Syria and Iraq has carried out terror attacks aimed against the West and freedom of expression.

It should be stressed that this extremism goes against another historical tradition within Islamic countries of tolerance of other religions. Indeed, the rise of extremist sects does not reflect the majority view in most Muslim communities. For example, while a large majority of Muslims may favor adoption of Sharia law, this represents a broad spectrum of religious views and coincides with a large majority that expresses support for tolerance of different religious beliefs and practices in the communities they live. A world survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has found definitive majority support among Muslims in most countries for democracy, human rights, and economic freedoms and against extremism (see Resources for links to Pew Research Center studies).