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Freedom of Religion: History

A Brief Survey of Major Religions

Until recently, the state and religion were closely intertwined, with one buttressing the other in both internal governance and expansion abroad. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, among others, invoked divine support for their wars and empires, and saw religious devotion as a key component of loyalty to the state. Rulers including the pharaohs of Egypt, the emperors of Rome, and Alexander the Great considered themselves divine. Even democratic Athens could not tolerate dissent from its official polytheistic beliefs, sentencing the philosopher Socrates to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the young with his unorthodox teachings.

The major religions that survive today have also been central elements of different empires and autocratic systems. Hinduism, a polytheistic religion that emerged in the second millennium BC, fostered dynasties and kingdoms throughout South and Southeast Asia. Buddhism, founded in northern India in the sixth century BC, was similarly adopted by various expansionist monarchies in the region. Chinese emperors oversaw a complex of religions and practices (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional beliefs). Although religion was suppressed at the outset of Communist rule in 1949, most people in China today maintain some elements of these former state religions. Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, and Buddhism now constitute the world's third, fourth, and fifth largest faiths, with an estimated 900 million, 400 million, and 375 million followers, respectively.

Christianity and Islam, both monotheistic religions, are the two largest faiths, with two billion and 1.3 billion adherents, respectively. Each expanded significantly through conquest or adoption as an official state religion, and each experienced major schisms that resulted in bloody internecine wars. Christian and Muslim states also engaged each other in centuries of intermittent combat in Europe, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere.

Judaism, a small religion of 13 to 14 million adherents, is considered the world's oldest monotheistic faith, originating more than 3,000 years ago. It served as the foundation of both Christianity and Islam. Jews initially formed a state centered on Jerusalem, and the city 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, periodically experiencing persecution by governments and populations of other faiths. Nazi Germany's monstrous Holocaust killed six million Jews, or two-thirds of European Jewry. In 1947, the international community approved a plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and the state of Israel was established the next year, mostly on lands settled by Jews from the diaspora during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, roughly six million Jews—and one million mostly Muslim Arabs—live in Israel (see Country Study of Israel).

In the cases above, the state never lacked an official religion, though religions frequently persisted without a state. The official religion served as a key element of the state's legitimacy and practices. The ruler was regarded as a spiritual leader, as the worldly representative of the divine, or at least as an administrator governing with the tacit approval of divine powers. Those who adhered to other faiths, especially faiths that could not accept or accommodate the legitimacy of the established system, were generally persecuted or restricted in their practices. It is only in recent centuries that states began to allow a freedom of religion in which no specific beliefs or observances were required of the population. Below is a discussion of how this understanding of state and religion developed.

It is only in recent centuries that states began to allow a freedom of religion in which no specific beliefs or observances were required of the

The Reformation and Religious Wars

In Europe, the basic principle joining state to religion was expressed in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio, literally "whose region, his religion." In other words, the religion of the ruler would be the faith of his subjects. This principle meant, for example, that the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century led to its eventual recognition as the official religion of the empire.

The emperor remained the head of Christianity in the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, based in Constantinople; the Byzantine Church served as the forerunner of today's various Eastern Orthodox Churches, which, like the original, 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. Kings and emperors repeatedly clashed with popes over the extent of this authority, but all rulers who accepted Christianity (Roman Catholicism) had to recognize the pope's religious supremacy. The Church reserved the power to excommunicate disobedient princes, sanction crusades, and combat heresy through institutions like the Inquisition.

On October 31, 1517, German theologian Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-five Theses in the University of Wittenberg, attacking the Church's practice of selling indulgences, or the remission of punishment for sins, which he argued had led to the Church's corruption. The event has come to symbolize the beginning of the Reformation—the temporal and spiritual challenge to the Catholic Church's doctrines, practices, and authority. Earlier dissidents such as Jan Hus of Bohemia and John Wycliffe of England had advocated reform and criticized corruption within the Church, but Luther and other theologians, who came to be known as Protestants, were the first to attack basic Catholic dogma and undermine the institution of the papacy. Luther, John Calvin, and other Protestant thinkers hardly believed in freedom of religion. They advocated what they considered to be a purer form of Christianity, and their teachings became the official religions of city-states, principalities, and kingdoms in Central and Northern Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII of England nullified the pope's authority and declared himself to be the head of a separate, national Church of England.

The proliferation of new sects, both official and dissident, led to further repression and conflict. Catholic minorities in Protestant states were seen as agents of foreign Catholic rulers, who in turn viewed their Protestant minorities as disloyal heretics. Protestant governments also faced challenges from more radical sects and movements. Catholic and Protestant states, vying for both temporal and spiritual supremacy in Europe, began a series of bloody religious wars that lasted about a century and caused millions of deaths. (In the German principalities, as much as a third of the population may have perished in the Thirty Years' War alone, from 1618 to 1648.)

Banner showing diverse religious symbols

The religious wars resulted in a number of important treaties—the Union of Utrecht (1579), which marked the emergence of a Protestant, united, and effectively independent Netherlands; the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted civil and religious rights to Protestants in France; and, finally, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War and included important provisions for religious toleration between and within states.

The Rise of Liberal Democracy and Freedom of Religion

The emergence of religious freedom as an individual right was clearly tied to exhaustion after the religious wars in Europe. But it was also a product of the Enlightenment, a general term applied to scientific and philosophical developments in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Years of conflict had resulted in a partial acceptance of religious diversity, and with it diversity of thought, leading European scholars to place a new emphasis on human reason as the basis of knowledge. Just as theologians of the Reformation had challenged authority and tradition to seek out their true relationship with God, Enlightenment thinkers questioned the established wisdom of their time and attempted to uncover the fundamental laws of nature. The Enlightenment's scientific focus sparked the rise of Deism, a form of 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 forms of religion and worship as a matter of personal opinion and saw any state involvement 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. Witnessing the repression of Quakers and other minorities in states that had adopted restrictive laws on religion, especially his own Virginia, he noted that the contradiction between the political liberties of the new country and its ongoing religious intolerance posed a threat to its survival. In 1786, the Virginia Legislature passed his Statute for Religious Freedom. It declared in part that

no 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 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.

Today, many find it hard to believe that religion and religious institutions once played a dominant role in state affairs, and that entire societies could be forced to adopt a single faith to the exclusion of any other. Tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs, freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state, whether by constitutional provision or in practice, were revolutionary ideas that are now established in constitutional law in much of the world. The widespread acceptance of these ideas advanced not just religious liberty but also the broader values of democracy.

Freedom of Religion, Dictatorship, and Antidemocratic Ideology

As noted above, religious persecution has had a long history. And where freedom of religion has not been respected, government has typically been in the hands of some form of autocrat whose rule is bolstered by the obligatory state religion.

In the 20th century and especially during its decades of rising totalitarianism, the use of religion for political purposes took new forms. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy was antireligious, but in order to consolidate his power he obtained a formal agreement from the Roman Catholic Church in 1929, giving a sense of moral legitimacy to his government in return for concessions to the Vatican, including making Catholicism the state's official religion. The Nazis, on the other hand, emphasized what they considered a higher belief system—a strict racist ideology—and Christian denominations were forced to choose between subservience and persecution. Many churches, whether out of sympathy for or fear of this ideology, did little to resist Nazi tyranny and often assisted in implementing its worst policies. Nazi Germany and, under growing Nazi influence, Fascist Italy subjected their minority Jewish populations to persecution, imprisonment, deportation, and mass murder.

In the 20th century and especially during its decades of rising totalitarianism, the use of religion for political purposes took new

Communism initially made no attempt to co-opt religion, which Karl Marx had characterized as "the opium of the people." Instead, it 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 also reinstituted religion. After Nazi German forces 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 patriarchate, or church leadership, on the condition that it accept the Communist regime's 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. There were exceptions, however, including the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. It continued to answer to the pope in Rome and later became a driving force in the anti-Communist movement of the 1980s, although some clerics were subsequently found to have collaborated with the authorities.

There remain many current cases of religious repression around the world: China's brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation; Vietnam's campaign against minority Protestants; and Islamist militant attacks on rival or non-Muslim sects in Iraq, among others (see Center for Religious Freedom at

In recent years, extreme variants of Islamism— a political ideology that calls for government according to the principles of Islam—have arisen as a new antidemocratic phenomenon. Moderate Islamist groups have organized as political parties and worked within existing electoral systems, but the extremist factions have recruited and mobilized small cadres of terrorists to attack both governments and civilian populations in pursuit of their goals. This small minority has often provoked fresh political and religious repression by authoritarian regimes, and new security measures by democratic states attempting to cope with the threat. While terrorist acts are almost universally condemned, Islamist extremists have won varying degrees of sympathy among Muslim populations, potentially eroding Islam's centuries-old tradition of tolerance.

Falun Gong deity

Extreme Islamist ideology emerged partly in response to the failures of the secular, pan-Arab nationalist movement, which had been unable to dislodge the new state of Israel, unite the Arab people, end dependence on foreign powers, or deliver basic public goods like the rule of law, civil liberties, and, in many cases, economic prosperity. Unlike nationalists, Islamist extremists see themselves as fighting for Muslims worldwide, giving them a similarly expansive list of perceived foes. They also bolster their violent tactics with religious claims, such as the notion that God will reward those who carry out suicide attacks, even on civilians who are deemed enemies.

Extreme Islamist ideology emerged partly in response to the failures of the secular, pan-Arab nationalist movement...
Some observers have compared Islamist extremism with fascism (a term that includes the original Italian fascism and German Nazism, among other examples), in that it violently promotes the supremacy and purity of one group—a religious community in this case, rather than a race or a nation—and regards any other group, institution, or principle as utterly expendable in the quest to restore this group's past or rightful glory.


The examples of antidemocratic ideology and dictatorship discussed above illustrate the need for freedom of religion and the basic separation—either formally or in practice—of religion and state. Without such a separation, religious institutions have historically become either repressive political instruments or compromised entities that are unable to fulfill their proper functions. Dictators view freedom of belief as a threat because it can undermine individual obedience and mobilize community opposition. Independent religious institutions have been part of many recent movements for broader political freedom, including those in Chile, Poland, and South Africa.

Just as freedom of religion is a menace to dictatorship, it is a safeguard of democratic society. Democracy requires a diversity of views and choices, an environment in which differing opinions can be debated freely. This would be impossible if there were intolerance of "the first freedom"—freedom of conscience and of worship.