Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me:
Why Governments Discriminate Against Religious Minorities
by jonathan fox
cambridge, 292 pages, $99.99
Jonathan Fox, a professor of religion and politics at Bar-Ilan University, has produced one of the most complete, sophisticated, and systematic studies of global religious freedom available. Every conception of religious freedom, Fox claims, must answer fundamental questions about civil authority. May the state restrict religious practice, public or private? May government support religions, whether equally or unequally? From these questions, Fox derives a typology of religious-civil regimes. Some regimes establish free exercise or toleration, some claim neutrality, some are committed to “laicism” or secularism, and others favor one or several religions over others. No state, he claims, “fully adheres to separation of religion and state.”
Fox adopts a lowest-common-denominator definition of religious freedom by focusing on “government-based religious discrimination,” that is, government policy that imposes on religious minorities restrictions that are not imposed on the majority religion or religions. Fox is also interested in “societal religious discrimination,” that is, repression of religious minorities that is not backed by government policy. A law prohibiting public wearing of the hijab is an example of government discrimination, whereas graffiti on a synagogue is an act of social discrimination.
Fox finds that government religious discrimination is increasing in most of the world. Government religious discrimination decreased for only 7.7 percent of minorities and increased for 39.6 percent. All forms of social discrimination, moreover, were more common in 2014 than in 1990, with Jews and Christians the chief targets. Ninety-four percent of the countries in the study witnessed some form of social religious discrimination during this period.
Discrimination cannot be equated simply with hostility toward religion in general, or even toward a particular religion. In some countries, discrimination against Muslims is driven by the “securitization” of Islam, the view that Islam poses a security threat. Some countries restrict minority religions out of nationalist motives or because the minorities are considered non-indigenous. China suppresses non-registered religions in part because they can be incubators of political opposition. Religions classified as “cults” may be controlled because governments consider them harmful scams (as is the case with Scientology in Germany). Historical conflicts between religions may be significant: Some Muslim-majority nations are hostile to Christians because they view history as a centuries-long battle between Christianity and Islam. Economic development plays a role. A repressive regime needs to pay for surveillance, police enforcement, courts, prisons, and so on. Developed countries engage in more government religious discrimination than do developing countries, partly because they can afford to.
Fox’s most notable conclusion is that Western democracies aren’t the bastions of religious freedom we pretend they are. Secularism is supposed to promote religious freedom, but it doesn’t. Besides, most Western states aren’t entirely secular. Though the bonds between state and religion are weaker in the West than in Muslim-majority countries, such bonds do exist in most Western states. As a result, with the exception of Canada, all Western democracies exhibit some level of government religious discrimination. Muslims are the most frequent targets, but “many minorities in these countries experience significant restrictions on their religious freedom.” Christian-majority states in the developing world, by contrast, display high levels of religious tolerance and low government religious discrimination. Again, Fox draws a policy conclusion: If the West wants to promote religious freedom worldwide, it needs to clean its own house first.
Even secular or laicist regimes in the West restrict religious practices. Secular France has higher levels of government religious discrimination than do Western democracies that favor one or several official religions. Structurally speaking, “liberal” restraints on minority religions are no different from restraints imposed for religious reasons. Fox writes, “The ‘Gods’ of secularism are arguably inspiring a form of intolerance similar to the intolerance that is often inspired by religious ideologies. Like many of the ‘Gods’ of various religions, these secular ‘Gods’ will tolerate no other ‘Gods’ before them.”
Illuminating as his study is, Fox does not follow through on some of his most arresting insights. This flaw is best illustrated by his oft-repeated claim that Canada engages in no government religious discrimination, which becomes an implied endorsement of the Canadian church-state settlement. Fox acknowledges that no regime entirely avoids religious restrictions or regulations. But Canada is singled out for praise because it applies the same standards to the majority and to all minorities. That claim will surprise conservative Christian minorities in Canada. The Ontario Court of Appeals requires all doctors to perform abortions or refer patients for abortions. The Supreme Court of Canada denied a law school charter to Trinity Western University because its community standards infringe on LGBTQ+ rights. How does the decision against Trinity Western not qualify as discrimination against a minority religion, in this case Evangelical Protestants? A church friendly to LGBTQ+ rights would get a charter. Far from being an exemplar of religious liberty, Canada is increasingly an incarnation of the jealous gods of liberalism.
Canada is a good reminder that a low level of government religious discrimination doesn’t necessarily indicate free exercise of religion. A totalitarian regime such as North Korea, which suppresses all religions with equal brutality, scores a zero on Fox’s government discrimination scale because it imposes no restrictions on minorities that are not imposed on the majority. To put it this way, however, is obviously misleading. It would be more accurate to say, as Fox acknowledges in passing, that North Korea’s Juche is effectively a nationalist personality cult. North Korea most closely resembles the eleven Muslim states with a mandatory religion. This raises serious questions about Fox’s method. If his indexes don’t capture the brutality of North Korea’s religious policies, they need some serious recalibration.
At this point, normative questions press in. Fox takes for granted the consensus view that government religious discrimination violates religious freedom, but on what basis? Why can’t a country give preference to the religious beliefs of a majority? Why is it unjust for a nation, convinced of the truth of Islam or Christianity or Judaism, to give preference to truth over falsehood in education, law, and cultural institutions? Don’t all regimes claim to give preference to truth over falsehood? Or, to bring the question down from the metaphysical stratosphere: Is it unjust for, say, Ireland to give discriminating support to Irish holidays, cultural traditions, or language? If that is unobjectionable, why can’t Ireland give preference to its traditional Catholic religion? Questions of truth aside, why should religion be treated differently than other national traditions?
Fox might reply that no religion has exclusive claim to the truth. But how could he know that? He might say that states are wrong to meddle in religion, but he admits that all states do meddle. He might insist that regimes ought not be constructed on metaphysical foundations, yet all are. Whatever his response, it’s likely to be derived from one or another version of liberalism. Which leads me to conclude: Fox’s entire study is premised on devotion to the secular gods of liberalism, which, as he knows quite well, tolerate no other gods before them.
That devotion is evident in the fundamental categories of his study. As D. C. Schindler has argued in his recent Freedom from Reality, liberal freedom is premised on a determined rejection of Christianity’s claim that in the incarnation the “radical generosity that is the source of all things, has entered into history.” For Christianity, everything, including human freedom, has meaning only in relation to this event. Liberalism displaces the incarnation from the center of reality. To frame the modern dilemma as a problem of “religious pluralism,” as Fox and most sociologists do, already relativizes the incarnation to one of many religious “options.” Liberalism permits us to accept Jesus as “personal” Lord and Savior, but it won’t tolerate the biblical claim that he is incarnate God and Lord of all. In the liberal order, “religious freedom” as a power of choice takes on an ontological potency, reducing God to a mere “possibility” to be “actualized” by individual wills. A freedom of religion that can perform such a diabolical alchemy “is the devil’s final triumph.”
Yet Fox has done Christians a service: He reminds us of the need to rethink the entire question of religious freedom from theological first principles.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.