Religious Liberty, Violence, and Tolerance: Lessons for Africa from the Americas

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 30, 2016

On August 4th, the United States is hosting a first-ever “Africa Summit.” African heads of state are visiting Washington, DC to engage in discussions about US-Africa relations and common concerns. However, issues of human rights violations, especially in the realm of religious freedom, will not likely be on the agenda. On Cornerstone, we use the occasion of the Africa Summit to reflect on the dire state of religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa.

By: Anthony Gill

As the first-ever Africa Summit gets underway in Washington, DC this month, Fr. Robert Dowd does an excellent job outlining the contemporary challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to religious tolerance and violence. The problems seem intractable, and indeed they may be for the foreseeable future. While not an expert in the African situation, I nonetheless can offer some observations from other times and places regarding the troubled waters that may lie ahead and signal hope for the calm seas that lie beyond.

If there is one thing that the study of history can teach us, it is that human nature runs constant over the ages and many of the problems we see today actually have been encountered (and often overcome) in the past. To wit, an examination of our own history in the United States and our neighbors in Latin America to the south can offer some useful context in which to understand the difficulties facing Africa. 

Perhaps the biggest and most difficult lesson is that while religious tolerance is needed to sustain religious liberty over the long haul, the introduction of greater religious freedoms is likely to exacerbate religious intolerance in the short-term. Such intolerance may likely promote violence. This is not to say that religious liberty should be abandoned as a policy goal in order to mitigate violence, but rather the promotion of religious freedom should be tempered with an understanding that certain individuals and groups may lose out under such policies and that these people may react in less than civil ways. Steeling ourselves to this harsh possibility can help us offer better policy advice. 

Consider the history of the United States. During the mid-late nineteenth century, an influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe spurred more violence from Protestants (my distant relatives bore the brunt of some of this activity). Catholic attempts to educate their children in separate schools (as the public schools were dominated by Protestant theology) resulted not only in physical attacks against “papists,” but a series of laws (Blaine Amendments) that severely disadvantaged these religious newcomers. Fortunately, these laws were not enshrined federally (though they still exist in some states to this day) because of political pressure by businesses who understood the benefits of having immigrant workers in their industries. Eventually, we elected a Catholic president and Catholics co-exist peacefully side-by-side with Protestants today. Similar stories can be told about Jews, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Further south, the expansion of Protestantism in Latin America during the mid-late twentieth century also resulted in social unrest and violence. Pressured by economic circumstances to open up to trade in the early 1900s, laws governing religious minorities were liberalized and Protestant groups were able to expand rapidly over the next few decades. Catholics, led by parish priests and zealous lay members, responded violently towards Protestant clergy as they proselytized. The expansion of Pentecostalism in southern Mexico meant that fewer individuals were contributing financially to the local Catholic feast days, and those who were in charge of running those festivals often called out gangs to extract money from Protestants. Today, however, much of this violence has subsided as governments have been quicker to police human rights abuses in a context of growing religious pluralism. 

In each of these situations above, we witnessed not only a clash of theological worldviews, but direct threats to the institutional power of entrenched religious leaders and their lay associates. Religious freedom chipped away at their congregations and constituencies, leaving them with less control over the population and fewer financial resources. In all cases, the short-term reaction was to coercively eliminate this threat. However, over time and with government officials willing to enforce basic laws against violent behavior, these previously hegemonic confessions were able to adapt to the new pluralistic environment. Indeed, in Latin America, the Protestant challenge has even helped to re-energize the evangelization mission of the Catholic Church. 

In the case of Africa, we are seeing some seismic shifts in the religious landscape that threaten traditional religious groups and leaders. Christianity is spreading rapidly in a region where the vast majority of the population is already spiritually active. This means that the gains of Pentecostals and Catholics may come at the loss of Muslims. Those losses have institutional consequences for Muslim religious leaders who will, like their American counterparts in days gone by, react in a less-than-civil fashion. Religious liberty, whether it comes de facto or de jure, will invariably create winners and losers in the religious marketplace, and the losers will attempt to stem their losses in the quickest way possible. This has led to violence against Christians as well as attempts to prevent apostasy, which in turn may come at a great cost to an individual’s right of conscience. 

African governments will soon realize that such a chaotic environment is not only bad for economic growth, but it will threaten their own tax revenue and political survival. A serious effort to monitor and punish human rights violations, no matter how small, will be needed in the short term. Fr. Dowd is correct that this will require more state capacity and willpower than some of these nations now possess. But simply emphasizing state enforcement of order raises the specter of authoritarianism, which is rarely (if ever) beneficial to religious freedom. 

Enforcement of human rights must be tempered with an understanding that religious liberty will alter the social balance of power. In this scenario, losers must be convinced that social instability is not in the long-run interest of anyone. In the United States and Latin America, all parties involved in the shifting landscape eventually learned that intolerance was disastrous for all. Hopefully, we who have experienced this history in our own path can effectively communicate the brighter future that exists if tolerance and liberty flourish.

Anthony (Tony) Gill is a professor of political science and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Washington, a distinguished senior fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project. 

This piece was originally authored on August 5, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.