The American Legion Magazine, 2.1.16
By Alan W. Dowd
months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt shared
his vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”: freedom of
speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want and “freedom of every person to
worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”
Importantly, FDR asserted those Four Freedoms in the
context of a speech about “the democratic way of life…being directly assailed
in every part of the world” by a “new order of tyranny.”
In short, he
understood that religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the coalmine of a
society’s health. It doesn’t tell us everything about a government or group,
but it tells us enough.
they’re mass-murderers masquerading as holy men in Nigeria or Syria, atheist
dictators in Pyongyang or Beijing, theocrats in Tehran, or autocrats in Moscow,
regimes and movements that rationalize the stifling of religious liberty inside
their borders are more likely to rationalize unacceptable behavior beyond their
borders—and more likely to threaten U.S. interests.
spoke during the high noon of godless tyrannies—or more accurately, tyrannies
that elevated their leaders to god-like status.
Some observers contend, wrongly,
that Hitler and the Nazis hijacked Christianity and used it to validate the
Nazi program. The truth is that Hitler’s Nazis embraced a pagan religion of
mysticism, racialism and social Darwinism.
The Nazi Party platform called
for religion to be subordinated to the state and to “the manners and moral
sentiments of the Germanic race.”“The destruction of Christianity was explicitly recognized as a purpose of the
National Socialist movement,” Nazi leader Baldur von Schirach explained.
Historian Gerhard Weinberg argues
Christianity and Judaism “were removed simultaneously” by the Nazis.
1938, Hitler’s SS destroyed 300 synagogues and arrested 25,000 Jews. A year
later, Hitler began to deport Germany’s Jewish population to Eastern Europe,
where his war on religion would crescendo. By the end of the war, Hitler had
murdered 6 million Jews.
the Nazi regime desired “a complete extirpation of Christianity,” as the U.S.
government concluded after combing through Nazi records, but “considerations of
expediency made it impossible” to do so in one fell swoop. So Hitler employed a
policy of gradualism—lying to church leaders about the Nazi program and then
lying about church leaders to the German people; abrogating laws protecting
religious independence; seizing control of church institutions; shuttering religious
schools and seminaries; declaring certain denominations illegal; fomenting
violence against church leaders; sending anti-Nazi church leaders to
concentration camps; murdering church leaders.
Imperial Japan elevated its
emperor into a god, making it easier for his high command to justify anything
In the interwar years,
Japanese authorities began reversing liberal policies on religious activity. By
the late 1930s, as Princeton University’s Sheldon Garon details, the regime was
religious activity; ordering religious groups to correct “discrepancies between
their teachings and the imperial myth”; and subordinating all faiths to the
cult of the emperor.
As Paul Johnson adds in his history
of the 20th century, Modern Times,
Japan’s imperial masters turned Shinto into a state religion that encompassed
emperor worship in the military and in schools. Shinto was thus transformed
into “an endorsement of a modern, totalitarian state,” and “religion, which
should have served to resist the secular horrors of the age, was used to
The Soviet Union—an
enemy-of-my-enemy ally during the war—rejected religion altogether, purged
those who refused to genuflect to the state and elevated government above all
else. Lenin, founding father of the Soviet Union,
viewed religion as “a powerful and ubiquitous enemy,” Johnson writes.
Virtually the entire
clergy corps of the Russian Orthodox Church was liquidated or sent to labor
camps in the 1920s and 1930s. “By 1939 only about 500 of over 50,000 churches
remained open,” the Library of Congress reports.
Although Stalin, in the grimmest days of World
War II, permitted the practice of religion to rally the Russian people, it was
a self-serving—and short-lived—response to an existential threat. As evidence, in 1953, Stalin ordered more
than a million Soviet Jews deported to
Siberia. They were spared only by his death.
University of Texas professor William Inboden notes that “Every major war
the United States has fought over the past 70 years has been against
an enemy that also severely violated religious freedom.” He sees a clear “correlation between religious
persecution and national-security threats.”Indeed, today’s worst violators of religious liberty represent the most
serious threats to U.S. interests.
North Korea stands out “for its absolute prohibition of religious organizations
and harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities,” the State
Department concludes.“Thousands of religious believers and their
families are imprisoned in penal labor camps,” according to the U.S.
Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF),
which consigns North Korea to the lowest tier—the bottom eight—on its
ranking of religious freedom. The religious are “arrested,
tortured, imprisoned and sometimes executed.”Some 300,000 North Korean
Christians have disappeared since the end of the war.
special United Nations panel finds in North Korea a “complete denial of the
right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” State-sponsored crimes
include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment…persecution
on political, religious, racial and gender grounds.”
the “many parallels” between North Korea and Nazi Germany, Michael
Kirby, chairman of the UN panel, concedes, “I never thought that in my lifetime
it would be part of my duty to bring revelations of a similar kind.”
China also ranks in the very worst level on USCIRF’s review. According to
USCIRF, “Independent Catholics and Protestants face
arrests, fines and the shuttering of their places of worship.” Tibetan
Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, practitioners of Falun Gong, folk religionists and Protestant
house-church attenders are subjected to “jail terms, forced renunciations of
faith and torture in detention…Protestants and Catholics who refuse to join the
state-sanctioned religious organizations continue to face severe restrictions…and
what’s happening in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China “known for its relaxed ties between church and state,” as The New York Times reports.Too relaxed, it turns out. Xia Baolong, a regional Communist Party
leader, saw a massive spire atop a new church and ordered government
authorities to bulldoze the church. A dozen other churches in the region were
then forced to remove their crosses or face demolition.Importantly, Xia is a close ally of Xi Jinping, China’s president.
Or consider the story of Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang, who
recently died after being held 60 years in
His crime: Refusing to renounce his allegiance to the Vatican—and refusing to bow to Beijing’s illegitimate form of
to a 2015 Freedom House report, “hundreds of thousands” of religious
adherents—many of them guilty of “simply possessing spiritual texts in the
privacy of their homes”—were sentenced to labor camps or prison.
to the State Department, Beijing bars teachers and
civil servants from worshipping at mosques, fines individuals “for studying the
Quran in unauthorized sessions” and positions the Chinese flag on mosque walls “in
the direction of Mecca so prayers would be directed toward them.”
Moving from an atheist dictatorship to a fundamentalist theocracy, the picture
is not terribly different. Iran also is ranked in the lowest tier on the
USCIRF’s review of international religious freedom. The Iranian regime is in
the midst of what USCIRF describes as “systemic, ongoing and egregious
violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture and
According to the State Department, the Iranian government “deems
conversion from Islam to be apostasy” (punishable by death);bars non-Muslims
from engaging in public religious expression (punishable by death); bans the
Bahai faith from public pensions; and imprisons Christian church leaders for
spreading “anti-regime propaganda.”
Considered “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda
institutions” by Tehran, house churches are regularly raided. According to USCIRF,
“Christians, particularly Evangelicals and other Protestants, are subject to
harassment, arrests, close surveillance and imprisonment.”
theocrats and Sunni autocrats may have different interpretations of the Koran,
but the results are the largely same. Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is consigned to
the lowest tier on USCIRF’s survey. Saudi Arabia is a place where “not a single
church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists,” where promoting “unbelief”
is a crime, where even private religious practice is not protected, according
to USCIRF. Worse, high-school textbooks “teach hatred toward members of other
religions,” promote violence “against apostates” and label Jews and Christians
According to USCIRF, religious freedom in Pakistan has “hit an all-time low due
to chronic sectarian violence” targeting Shiites, Christians, Ahmadis and
Hindus—actions for which the Pakistani government is not necessarily
responsible—and due to the fact that “the Pakistani government failed to
intervene effectively” to protect these groups—inaction for which the
government is very much responsible. For example, when suicide bombers attacked
a church in Peshawar, killing 100 people, and mobs rampaged through Christian
villages in Punjab, destroying at least 100 homes, “Few, if any, perpetrators
were held to account.”
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a second-tier regime
on the USCIRF rankings, among the 26 worst governments when it comes to
religious freedom. The State Department cites
Russia for “imprisonment, detention and degrading treatment of members of
religious minorities.” The Russian government arbitrarily imposes restrictions
that infringe on the rights of various Muslim sects, Christian denominations
and other religions.A new blasphemy law
curtails “the freedoms of religion, belief and expression,” according to
USCIRF, which adds that the Russian government prosecutes Muslims without
evidence, issues baseless fines against Protestant churches, and denies
permitting to Mormon, Armenian Catholic and Muslim houses of worship.
Inboden’s “correlation between religious
persecution and national security”
is striking. The unsavory regimes discussed above—along with the transnational movements
discussed below—represent some of the Pentagon’s gravest worries.
U.S. is just a hair-trigger away from renewed hostilities with North Korea.
China (in cyberspace and the South and East China Seas), Russia (in cyberspace
and Central and Eastern Europe) and Iran (in the Persian Gulf, Damascus,
Baghdad, Manama and Sana) are waging proxy wars against the U.S.
sure, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are technically, nominally, allies. But it
pays to recall that Saudi Arabia is “the most significant source of funding to
Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according State Department cables; Osama bin
Laden hid in plain sight in Pakistan; and Pakistan’s intelligence agency midwifed
the Taliban, which made common cause with al Qaeda.
brings us to transnational groups that target faith freedom.
The Afghan Taliban, for instance, ordered Hindus
to wear special identity labels, destroyed ancient statues of Buddha and
executed those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, considered evangelism a
“severe crime” and imprisoned foreigners who talked about Christianity. The
Pakistani Taliban has targeted Christian churches. A 2001 attack killed 15; a
2002 attack killed five and wounded 45; a 2013 bombing killed 81.
short, no one should have been surprised when the Taliban allowed bin Laden to use
Afghanistan as a launching pad for his war against civilization. September 11
was the natural endpoint for such a monstrous movement—or perhaps we should say “midpoint.” After all, ISIS has pushed the
jihadist war on civilization to new lows.
ISIS (whose adherents are Sunni Muslim) has summarily
executed hundreds of Shiite Muslims in Iraq; set
fire to “apostate” homes across Syria and Iraq; executed independent imams and Yazidis; subjected Yazidi and Christian women to mass-rape
and sex slavery; orchestrated mass-beheadings of Egyptian Christians; seized
Christian homes; razed and plundered ancient Christian churches; and targeted Assyrian Christians for abduction. As it
carries out what the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea describes as “religious
genocide,” ISIS has given Christians a choice to convert to Islam, pay
extortion to remain Christian or face execution. In its self-styled capital of Raqqa, Syria, ISIS has
installed sharia law, complete with public executions in the town square.
the enemy America has been fighting—not by proxy but at close range—for 14
years. But America is not at war with Islam. After all, in the past quarter-century,
U.S. forces have rescued Muslims in Kosovo and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra,
Kuwait and Kabul. However, the U.S. is at war with those who would force people
to submit to Islam or any other faith. Now, as in FDR’s day,
Americans long for a world where neither government dominates religion (like
the People’s Republic of China) nor religion dominates government (like the Islamic
State or Islamic Republic of Iran).
There’s a paradox at
Regimes that have no respect for religion naturally see no limits on their
power and no moral constraints on what they do. Since they believe nothing is
above the state, they can rationalize everything they do in the name of the
state or the fatherland or the revolution. Consider Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the
Kim dynasty. Yet regimes and groups at the opposite end of the spectrum—those that
see themselves as exponents of a religion and instruments of their god—end up
at the very same destination. Since they believe they are acting on behalf of
their god—and since nothing is above their god—they can rationalize everything
they do in the name of their god. Consider ISIS and al Qaeda, Hezbollah and
This isn’t to suggest that America should go to war against every enemy of
religious liberty, but Washington needs to be on alert when interacting with
the enemies of faith freedom, because even on those occasions when they share
America’s interests, they never share America’s values. They are not friends of
America and are not to be trusted.As
President Ronald Reagan concluded, “It is difficult to imagine that a
government that continues to repress freedom in its own country, breaking faith with its own people, can be trusted
to keep agreements with others.”
Put another way, now is not the time to cut
deals with Tehran, take Putin at his word, avert our gaze from the latter-day
gulags in North Korea and China, or breezily conclude “We’re turning the page on a decade of
given that the enemy in this war is still viciously fighting and still
violently opposed to religious pluralism.
Instead, leading policymakers should draw
attention—relentlessly and repeatedly—to assaults on religious liberty. “The
most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking
out for the cause of religious liberty,” Reagan said, echoing FDR. The purpose is not be to shame the enemies of religious liberty—for
the shameless cannot be shamed—but rather to isolate them, challenge their
enablers and offer a platform to their victims.
“A little less détente,” as Reagan concluded, “and
more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored
A World at War, p.899.
and http://www.leics.gov.uk/the_nazi_master_plan.pdf and
Garon, "State and Religion in Imperial Japan, 1912-1945," Journal of
Japanese Studies, Summer, 1986.
 Paul Johnson,
Modern Times, pp.180-181.
Inboden, “Religious Freedom and National Security,” Policy Review, October 2,
“Christians of Mosul find haven in Jordan,” New York Times, October 26, 2014; Nina
Shea, "For Christians and Yazidis Fleeing Genocide, the Obama
Administration Has No Room at the Inn," National Review, Sept. 22,