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World Views: Allen Hertzke on the Intersection of Religion and Government (Jun 18, 2012)
University of Oklahoma political scientist Allen Hertzke argues the international consensus behind the idea of religious freedom is weakening, with evidence showing theocratic movements, secular policies, and authoritarian regimes all viewing religion as a reactionary force that creates conflict and dissension.  His book Freeing God's Children charts the rise of this faith-based movement for global human rights.



ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: Allen Hertzke, thank you for joining us on World Views.

ALLEN HERTZKE: You’re welcome.

MESSITTE: Your work looks at this intersection between religion and politics, and I read a paper you wrote and presented about a year ago in Rome, Italy, where you said the following: “At the very time that the value of religious freedom is becoming manifest, the international consensus behind it is weakening.”  Why is this happening, and why is it happening now?

HERTZKE: Well, first of all, it’s a fascinating moment in which events on the ground and empirical evidence are really corroborating this timeless notion that the freedom of conscience and belief really is a fundamental right, and it’s linked with flourishing societies and peace.  We now actually have good empirical evidence that that’s the case.  There are some studies we might talk about.  Why is the international consensus collapsing?  It’s collapsing because in some respects, secularization, especially at the elite level, has led to skepticism about religion in certain intellectual circles.  I think some people are unsettled by religion.  They see it as a reactionary force – something that creates conflict and dissension.  Especially among diplomats and the intelligentsia I think there’s a sense that we don’t really want to deal with this force.  But I also think that the rise of theocratic movements, of ethno-religious nationalisms, has led to more persecution of religious minorities.  Even authoritarian regimes are trying to reassert their control over societies by crushing the religious dissidents within their midst.  So we see it from the secular side, we see it from the theocratic side, we see it from an authoritarian side, but we even see it within European circles, where there laws in an effort to control religion.  The way I would describe this is that in a sense, religion is out of the box.  It’s a global player.  The natural default impulse of governing authorities is to try to control it, or contain it, or repress it, which actually results in exactly the opposite of what they want.  It results in more inflamed relations…

MESSITTE: And yet, though, and I read this in some of your work, 70 percent of the world’s people live in societies where this is the case.

HERTZKE: Absolutely.

MESSITTE: So why is there this paradox where it should be, this is what people want, and yet, 70 percent of the world’s population live in these societies where they cannot practice religious freedom or toleration?

HERTZKE: That is a fascinating thing.  In fact, the Pew Forum has surveys of global publics, and over 90 percent of all people on Earth say the freedom to practice religion is extremely important to them.  So it’s a near-universal value.  In addition to being recognized as a universal right by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, yet we do have a majority of the world’s population living under repressive conditions.  I hasten to say there’s some good news, too.  That 70 percent comprises only one-third of the countries, so in other words, progress in only two countries could result in a dramatic change.  So China, which has high governmental restrictions, if they relax those restrictions, you could see dramatic improvement.  India, which has high social hostilities and mob violence and repression, if they were able to clamp down on that, you could see some huge improvement in the on-the-ground conditions for religious believers.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Now, you’ve written also about how religious players are becoming major lobbying groups,.  Not only at the UN, but in Washington, D.C.  In what ways are we seeing the nature of politics change in Washington because of these lobbying groups?  What are they interested in?  What do they want?

HERTZKE: This is fascinating.  I did my dissertation back in the 1980s on religious lobbies, so we did a reprise of that at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life just last year.  We discovered there’s been an explosion of religious advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.  There are over 200 national religious groups that have a Washington office.  They don’t call themselves lobbies, but that’s what they do.  What we discovered is there’s been a tremendous globalization in the focus of this advocacy community.  So 70 or 80 percent of them focus on some international issues, and a lot of these groups are newcomers.  They’re religious exile communities, or immigrant communities that have ties to beleaguered, besieged believers around the globe, so whether it’s Baha’is concerned, or Iranian Baha’is or Ahmadis concerned in Pakistan, or Christians or Jews or Sikhs or Muslims or Tibetan Buddhists, they all have Washington advocates now, because America has such a big footprint on the world, every conceivable group has a stake in our foreign policy.  That is a big factor in the globalization.  The other is the globalization of Christianity.  We’re a predominantly Christian country by population, and Christian churches in America are increasingly small branches of global ministries.  Two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  They increasingly are communicating back their concerns about what America is doing in the world, about humanitarian concerns, human rights, human justice concerns.  So American church people are being drawn into this global engagement as well.

LANDIS: Is that changing the nature of American politics?  Let’s say you take the evangelical churches in Oklahoma, or around the Midwest – in the past, one presumes they’ve been fairly parochial.  Now, they’re part of this big, international ministry.  They’re listening to their cousins in Africa and Asia.  How does that change American politics?

HERTZKE: It is changing American politics, especially our focus around the world.  Evangelicals who have a reputation of being fairly parochial and conservative traditionally in the United States, associated with right-wing politics and so forth, around the world are involved in anti-trafficking campaigns, AIDS funding, poverty programs, health programs, human justice concerns and human rights and religious liberty concerns.  So around the world, they’re lobbying alongside lots of other progressive human rights groups and humanitarian organizations.

LANDIS: Give us an example.

MESSITTE: Yeah, there must be some spectacularly strange alliances here.

HERTZKE: One of my favorite things is strange bedfellow alliances.  So for example, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that passed in 2000, and then successive pieces of legislation, has created one of the most robust human rights programs that our government runs.  It’s against human trafficking, and it’s now become a global campaign.  That campaign was organized by an alliance of evangelical Christians, Jewish groups, and feminist organizations.  So you literally had conservative evangelical leaders like Charles Colson, who just died, working on the same legislation as Gloria Steinem.  Now that’s a pretty strange bedfellow alliance.  There’s been some very dramatic cases of that kind of thing on the Sudan, for example, where you had Franklin Graham’s group Samaritan’s Purse aligning with the Congressional Black Caucus for Sudan peace legislation.  There are just multitudes of unusual alliances between religious groups here and other actors around the world.

MESSITTE: You had reference early on this idea that there are some geographic differences in terms of religious freedom and openness.  When you look at those Pew studies, it’s very stark.  The Middle East is at the high end of the spectrum, followed only a little bit below by the Asia-Pacific Region, and then on the other side of the spectrum the Americas, Oceania, Sub-Saharan Africa even on the other side of that ledger.  Why?  Why is there that incredible geographic disparity between the two sides?

HERTZKE: Well, it has to do with a combination of repressive governments, authoritarian regimes, and the influence of radical Islamist movements, in some cases,  that have pressed for versions of Sharia that marginalize religious minorities and other unorthodox believers in Islam.  So it’s a combination of what some scholars call political theology.  One’s understanding of the right relationship between the state and religion, on the one hand, and then the nature of the state on the other hand – the repressive regimes.  Probably some of the competition between Shi’a and Sunnis creates a dynamic in which more pluralism and opening becomes difficult, because they’re vying for influence.

MESSITTE: And yet you pointed this out in your paper, and I thought it was very interesting: Two countries – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – right next to each other, both Sunni countries, share some heritage, but wildly different.

HERTZKE: Wildly different, and this suggests why essentializing Islam is wrong.  In other words, why those who claim just the problem is Islam, or the problem is Arab Islam, that’s why we have oppression in the Middle East, is inaccurate.  The regime of Qatar basically made a decision to relax its restrictions on worship by non-Muslim populations and allow other communities to build their houses of worship and to worship freely.  That decision actually led Qatar into a kind of a renaissance in terms of business, in terms of education.  The Brookings Institution has a branch there, Al Jazeera is there.  There’s a sense Qatar’s society is a more open society, and they have religious restrictions at the “Three Level”, where the Saudis has restrictions at the “Nine Level” on that 1-10 scale.  So the Saudis literally are at the top of the scale in social and political restrictions on religion, and Qatar is way down near the zone of France on political restrictions, and it’s off the charts on religious divisions.  So what’s happened in Qatar, by the government relaxing its own repression, that’s created more inter-religious harmony among the different religious groups.  That’s part of the logic of the research I’ve been exploring.  When regimes favor one faith over another, or one interpretation over another, that elevates the stakes, and makes a lot of people have grievances.

MESSITTE: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU, and we’re talking with Allen Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma about religion and politics.  I wanted to ask you about whether or not you think the evangelical movement can get behind Mitt Romney – a Mormon candidate, one who didn’t really mobilize this base during the Republican primary.  Many of them ended up voting for Rick Santorum.  Will they come out in November and vote for a Mormon candidate?

HERTZKE: Most will.  We do know that there is a segment, but we don’t know how large, of the evangelical community that will say they cannot vote for a Mormon for president.  On the other hand, Mormons and Mitt Romney have been very strong defenders of religious freedoms, so I think there’s an opportunity for Mitt Romney to actually connect with the broader religious freedom agenda that really resonates with evangelicals.

LANDIS: Let me ask you, what are the implications for the future of this rise of an evangelical, organized community in the United States?

HERTZKE: Well, it’s interesting, because a couple of scholars, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, have written a book called American Grace in which they argue that a lot of believers, including evangelicals, have been turned off by the politicization of religion.  They’re actually backing off of that.  So I think there’s a sense in which we may have reached the point where the overexploitation of religion by shrewd political operatives is actually turning people off.  And I see that with the young people here on the OU campus.  Students at OU who belong to evangelical churches are much more interested in joining the international justice mission and fighting against trafficking than they are in fighting the culture war battles.  So I think there may be a kind of generational shift with these global human rights and humanitarian issues becoming much more important to young evangelicals than the older generation’s culture war battles that have ossified into political allignments.

LANDIS: Are evangelical views of the poor, and social justice changing in the United States because of this globalized element?  Because they’re working in a place like Africa…

HERTZKE: Absolutely.

LANDIS: …where poverty is so much more important.

HERTZKE: What I like to say to my students is, “Look, because of the globalization of Christianity, most Christians today in the world live amidst poverty, exploitation, violence, war, and brutal conditions.”  Because of that, they’re bringing those concerns back.  They travel, they communicate with their fellow believers, so I do think that’s changing the way, especially a new generation of evangelicals, are thinking about these issues.  They’re involved in international development programs like World Vision…

LANDIS: So are they going to become Democrats?

HERTZKE: They may be less political in a partisan sense.  I think partisan politics is turning a lot of Americans off.

MESSITTE: How does the Catholic Church fit into this debate, particularly Pope Benedict and what he’s trying to do?  How do they fall into this?

HERTZKE: Well, the Catholic Church has always been interesting politically, because it doesn’t fit a neat, left/right configuration.  So the Catholic Church in America is very vigorous in its defense of immigrant populations, and has been pressing for a change in our immigration law to normalize the status of a lot of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.  They’re very strong on social welfare programs, but they’re more traditional on marriage issues, and life issues.  They’re a classic swing voter, or swing player in politics.  The bishops can be an ally on abortion and marriage issue on the right, and they can be an ally with the left on other kinds of issues.  I think that’s also the case on the global stage.  The Catholic Church has become a major defender of religious freedom, and has joined with a number of besieged religious organizations in communities and supporting their rights.  Today, the Tibetan Buddhists or the Baha’is, or the Sikhs, will see the Catholic Church as an ally in their cause.

MESSITTE: And Pope Benedict has been forthright on this?

HERTZKE: Absolutely.  He has spoken very vigorously that a principal tenant of human dignity, of the dignity of the human person as the right of conscience.  The right to believe and practice your understanding of the transcendent.  Now, he does have his own particular concerns, which is the status of Christians in the Middle East.  It’s a dwindling, very besieged minority community that used to be quite thriving, and is under siege of a lot of the turmoil of the Middle East.  The wars, the civil wars, overt attacks, so he’s basically saying we as a Christian community must defend fellow Christians in the Middle East, and ask for reciprocity if we’re going to accord Muslims the right to build mosques, and to operate in the West, shouldn’t Muslim majority governments offer the same?

MESSITTE: Well, Allen Hertze, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, thank you for joining us on World Views.

HERTZKE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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