Notes on imperium and libertas from the International Religious Freedom Summit.
The fall of Babylon, or Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army, by John Martin, 1819/1831. (Wellcome Library, London via Wikimedia Commons)
In the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Judea was in war with Babylon. The empire’s forces laid siege twice to Jerusalem as the Jewish capital. However, the unruly vassal refused pay tribute to pagan power. The second siege ended when Nebuchadnezzar and his armies destroyed the temple and tore down the walls of Jerusalem. They also took the captives, starving and besieged, back to Babylon.
The ensuing exile has held a key place in the historical consciousness of Jews and Christians for 26 centuries now. The most memorable episode was when three Jews, Meshach and Shadrach, refused to worship the Nebuchadnezzar-made golden idol. The king ordered the dissidents to be cast in a burning furnace. An angel of the Lord intervened and saved them.
When Nebuchadnezzar died at the impressive age of 80, the Jews remained in exile in Babylon. Three kings followed him in quick succession before Nabonidus’s rise brought a modicum of stability in the year 556. Off in the west Nebuchadnezzar faced troubles in his kingdom. Astyages was the elderly sovereign of the Median empire and was fighting for his grandson. Some say he was a brutal and unjust ruler. The Median King had envisioned in a dream many decades ago that his daughter would eventually take the throne. His general Harpagus mutinied; the Median soldiers switched allegiances en masse. Astyages was defeated after three years of conflict.
But the new king had not yet had his fill of conquest. Upon winning Media in 550 B.C., he turned his sights westward to Lydia, a small but very wealthy kingdom in western Asia Minor. It was especially brutal. After the conquest’s first phase, the country’s treasure had been seized by Lydian allies. They took the money and sent mercenary troops to help them. Rebellion was met by the king of Medes. He had brought the land to heel by the year 542.
A year earlier, Nabonidus returned from exile to Babylon. He may have been a religious pioneer and got into conflict with the clergy. It would not be long before the empire was defeated again. Babylon was the only power that could challenge the empire’s rise. Conquering armies pushed quickly south, and by 539, Nabonidus’ kingdom had fallen, a generation after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. Astyages’ grandson stood on his own in Western Asia, the greatest conqueror that the world has ever seen.
The story of his rise to power is one of bloody, with all the deaths and treachery of war. He is still remembered as a compassionate ruler. After his last conquest was completed, God’s chosen people were sent back to their promised land. This allowed them to continue to practice the religion of the fathers, just as all others under his control. The long process of rebuilding Jerusalem’s temple started in Jerusalem. In Babylon, the new Emperor inscribed on clay a decree declaring that captives would be returned to their homelands, and their national traditions will be restored. Cyrus, the great magnanimous conqueror was, naturally.
The 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit convened in Washington this past week. Katrina Lantos Swett, co-chair of the summit, invoked the Persian King’s legacy at a kickoff function on Monday morning. (Swett, the daughter of Holocaust survivor and U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, graduated from Yale at 18 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history in Europe before embarking on a career devoted to the defense of human rights.) She interpreted Cyrus’ declaration in a way that dates back to at least the past century. It was a precursor of modern religious liberty and universal human rights.
Meanwhile the summit’s other co-chair, Sam Brownback, described in his Monday morning remarks an innate hostility between government and religion. The genial, disarming Ambassador Brownback introduces himself to the summit as “Sam”. He was a Kansas senator and a governor before accepting the appointment of President Trump as ambassador-at large for religious freedom. The ambassador stated that religion is natural opposition to government because it provides people with something to believe that transcends and precedes state. He reiterated the point in front of the full summit crowd on Tuesday, with the additional prophecy that, “Ultimately the kingdom of God will not be subdued by the kingdom of man.”
Does the history of free religious practice stretch back to the establishment of the world’s first imperial superpower, or is government by nature an enemy of religion? Because empire by design eliminates sectarian or ethnic conflict that can endure without a unifying force such as Cyrus, the former appears more plausible. In fact, it could be argued that a genuine liberty is only possible in the presence of a Cyrus figure, who dispels anarchy and furnishes the necessary conditions for freedom in practice. Although religious freedom sounds very libertarian in its language, it is not possible to achieve religious freedom without a powerful state and an active government.
This is only one of many tensions religious-freedom activists are trying to resolve, with the chief speakers and conveners being religious-freedom advocates. It is a tension between an abstract philosophy about rights and freedoms and the real-life urgency of persecution. Nigeria is the country where Islamic militants continue to commit horrific genocide of the Christian population, particularly the Catholics. This case may be the most urgent.
Like Jews in Babylon and other religious minorities, oppression today may only be solved by an actual counterforce. Frank Wolf, a former U.S. Congressman from Virginia understands the situation and calls for an authorized special envoy of the U.S. Government to deal with the Nigerian crisis. At present, however, the U.S. Department of State does not even list Nigeria among the Countries of Particular Concern.
Though the human cost of genocide is more than enough to demand our attention, Nigeria is especially important in light of discussions of empire and religion, and of geopolitical realism. The conquest by radical Islam of this democratic but still-diverse nation would allow it to bypass the Sahara Desert and open up sub-Saharan Africa. It is hard to overstate the potential of such a route to change global power balances and improve world affairs.
Another key question is whether freedom of religion also entails freedom from religion. In as many words, one speaker said it. Some were subtler, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken who, in video remarks, celebrated freedom to “follow whichever belief systems we choose, or not to follow them at all.” This comment also raises fundamental concerns. It would be inconsistent to say that a solid doctrine of religious freedom is founded in man being directed toward God.
In remarks that are heavy on foreign policy, Mike Pompeo said Alexis de Tocqueville’s quote: “Liberty considers religion its companion in all of its battles. And its triumphs.” This would lead to a shallow understanding about “liberty,” which Tocqueville regarded as the foundational aspect of the American character.
Other speakers were much more forceful in their defenses of public religion as a necessary aspect of true freedom. Yasonna Laoly (Indonesia’s minister for law and human right) seemed to defend his country’s blasphemy laws as “intended to maintain harmony” within a pluralistic society.
Alejandro Giammattei Falla, president of Guatemala, likewise presented somewhat unorthodox remarks. The president used a translator to talk about his attempts to preserve life, from conception through natural death. International organizations have compared Giammattei to leaders from countries like North Korea and Cuba, who were denounced for violating human rights, the right to abortion.
Yet Giammattei remains unshaken and insists that “I will do whatever my conscience tells me” in order to live a life of liberty. True religion should be permitted to operate with all its force on the streets. What he seeks is both justice and social peace in a complex, potentially divided modern world, and “only principles and values based in God can guarantee that peace.”
He seems to understand, like Cyrus, that liberty requires a strong hand. “If I’m named a dictator for the sake of religious freedom,” Giammattei announces, “I’m okay with that title.”
about the author
Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and has been a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine.