American expert: religious freedom is fundamental principle

13184774_1228983643779784_764355170_o was lucky to interview an American political scientist, Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, an expert in the interaction of religious communities and the State Vincent Phillip Muñoz. As a student of church-state relations, which model of such relations would your consider to be the best?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: The fundamental principle is that people have the right to religious freedom, that is, to worship God as their conscience and convictions command. In the United States, this freedom is considered a natural right, one that emanates from human nature itself, not from the powers of the state. Therefore, it is the duty of the state to respect people’s religious freedom. In the United States, religion is not regulated by the government. No-one is obliged by the government to participate in religious practices, nor does the government use its powers to prohibit or restrict such practices in any way. There is no government intervention in the practice of religion, which is considered to be a natural human right. Religious organisations or the clergy do not have to register with the government. There is clearly a difference between Belarus and the United States in this respect. What about religious communities? Do they have to register?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Religious communities do not have to register. There is no such requirement. It is possible for religious communities to be granted tax-exempt status, which could be viewed as a registration of sorts. Churches that are tax-exempt do not pay taxes on profits from the sales of religious books or discs, or donations. Getting tax-exempt status requires an application. Churches, however, have no duty to apply.

In Belarus, there many Christians and followers of other faiths tend to think that politics is not for the faithful. Religious practice, prayer and charity are appropriate, but not politics, which they believe is ‘dirty business’. What is your reaction? Is it appropriate for someone to be religious and politically active?

Indeed, there are some groups in the United States that hold similar views, i.e. that politics is not for the faithful. Some religious communities, for example, hold strongly pacifistic views, objecting to any involvement in military action. Special arrangements are in place to accommodate the beliefs of such groups. One example is their full exemption from national service.

In my own opinion, politics can indeed be unprincipled, and pose numerous challenges for those engaged. But as politics should promote justice and serve the common good, citizens should be involved in it – believers and non-believers alike. The aim is to protect the common good – as they understand it. This will ultimately make politics more just, and more conducive to the common good. By abstaining from political participation, the faithful will effectively leave the room open to those whose main concern is not justice or the common good. This will be a major problem. All too frequently, In Belarus and some neighbouring countries, churches have found themselves deeply integrated in, or subservient to, the machinery of the state, or persecuted by the state to the point of physical extermination. What advice could you give to the churches faced by this challenge?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: This is indeed a difficult question, and I am not  sure if I have any good advice for the churches in Belarus, as I know very little about the local laws and regulations. There are examples of churches being heavily regulated, being denied registration or facing major difficulties in defending their freedom and autonomy from the state. I have no good answer for a specific religion or Church.

But I do have some general observations. In the United States, the churches that receive financial assistance from the government are at an elevated risk of giving priority to the commands of the state, rather than their own needs. Such supports sometimes makes it easier for the Churches to pursue charitable activities, caring for the elderly, the orphans or the sick. But there is always a danger when the money comes from the state. I believe that it is best for the Churches to remain independent. Anyone who gives you money will have influence over you. This is something that applies universally. It is always best to remain independent as far as possible. I understand this can be difficult in countries such as Belarus, where the government can exercise so much power of control. In this environment, churches have to exercise great care and wisdom. They have to have a very good understanding of their mission. They need to avoid being close, but also to maintain their ability to continue their existence beyond the political regime of the day. What about the United States – how religious are the people there?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: It depends. No-one can be made to belong to a religion. Everyone has a free to choice. Same as everywhere else, people who had grown up in a religious environment practise their religion less as young people, but become more religious after they have had their own children. This seems to be a natural tendency. Perhaps the reason for such resilience is the principle of church-state separation, practised in the United States, unlike much of Europe. Ironically, the independence of religion from the state makes religion thrive in the long-term. On the other hand, religion’s connectedness to the government may make it too politicised, thus creating disillusionment among at least some believers who may disagree with the policies of that government. Separation of religion from the state ultimately helps people stay religious. Is ‘Christian’ an appropriate description of the United States as a country?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Most people in the United States identify themselves as Christians. There are not special laws barring non-Christians to take official positions,  and so no formal connection of the state with Christianity. The official policy is that of religious freedom. Religious freedom is quite consistent with the advent of Christianity. Early Christians have suffered persecution from the Romans. Christians do have a long history of separation from the state and of religious freedom. Of course, it has not always remained like that throughout history, but Church-State separation is not alien to Christianity.

In the Bible, no one political order is described as more preferable over any other. As said by Jesus himself, give to the Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Naturally, this deals with more than Church-State separation, but proves that such separation – combined with religious freedom  – are indeed compatible with Christianity. It is certainly no coincidence, for countries with large numbers of Christians have extensive religious freedom. What are some of the challenges facing the faithful in the United States?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: There are many. Some have their origins in the society and culture, others emanate directly from the state. The Obama administration has introduced universal healthcare, known as Obama-care. Many people support universal healthcare. However, it also includes sensitive matters such as abortion and contraception. The government is not allocating funds towards such purposes, but has directed employers to pay for such services, which many faith-based employers are unwilling to cover or provide. Some Christians – groups as well as individuals – object to paying for abortions or the administration of abortive drugs. They are doing so because they believe that the law is forcing them too act against their conscience. Challenges such as these are the inevitable result of increased government involvement. The more extensive the involvement, the greater the probability of tension between the church and state.

Regarding challenges from the society, let me start by saying that the American society is dynamic and fast-evolving. There are many issues that are divisive. Same-sex marriages is one of the most recent examples. Traditionally, people with strong religious views tend to be on one side, while non-believers and liberally-minded believers on the other side of the divide. An intense debate us under way, but religious conservatives seem to have been on the losing side in recent years. The challenges that they are facing are very different from the ones they had dealt with previously. Can any of the political parties in the United States be said to represent the interests of the Christians?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: This is a difficult question, because Christians do not speak with a single voice. There are a large number of Christians in the United States, with many conservatives and also many liberals among them. An issue that has divided the two wings ever since the sexual revolution of 1968.

Liberal Christianity puts great emphasis on charity, including government services for the poor. Liberal Christians thus tend to favour the Democratic Party as the party that generally supports extensive provision of social services by the state. Liberal Christians attach less importance to sexuality.

Since 1968, traditionally minded Christians, who have made greater focus on sexuality have tended to support the more conservative Republican Party. This is the only party that is sympathetic to these traditional views. But this is true for some, not all Republicans. The proponents of the traditional idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and of conception as the beginning of life – the views consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and shared by most Christians – belong to the conservative wing of the Republican party. How present are religious liberty, abortion, and same sex marriage among the themes of the ongoing presidential election campaign?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: These themes were fairly prominent in the campaign of Ted Cruz, who recently lost his race for Republican nomination. While still a candidate, he focused on religious freedom extensively. But he is out of the race now. Donald Trump, who is still in, is quite unpredictable. There is no way for us to know how he will be dealing with those matters if elected. Although he has pledged to protect religious freedom, he has also made so many other statements that nothing seems to be clear so far.

As regards Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, she is an active proponent of same-sex marriage and the right to abortion. Many of her dedicated supporters are single women, who also favour the legality of abortion. To me, it appears that she will be the least prepared to make concessions to the religious groups.

I believe they will have some of the most difficult times during her presidency. As for Trump, his term in office will be the least predictable. Statements and actions of Donald Trump have been strongly criticised both by the Catholic (including the Pope), and by the Protestant clergy. Can these criticisms discourage Christians from voting for Trump?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Such criticisms indeed can be seen to be damaging for Trump. But for Donald Trump, nothing can be predicted. The main question is whether the practising Protestants or Catholic will vote for Trump. They will probably not vote for Clinton, but are even more likely not to vote at all. The main uncertainty is whether the practising Christians will vote for Trump, or stay at home. We have no answer to this question so far.

It is also in question whether Trump will be able to attract enough supporters elsewhere so that he will not need the practising Christians. There may be some other groups of voters, who had previously stayed at home, would turn out and vote for Trump. Traditional democrats, however, are almost certain not to vote for Trump. Nobody can predict Trump. Everyone expected that his statements would hurt him eventually, but now he has almost won the nomination of the Republican Party. Nobody knows what will happen next. How strong is the influence of the Clergy on the electoral choices of the rank-and-file voters?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Based on the previous elections, frequent church goers tend to vote along conservative lines, typically the Republicans. To what extent have these positions been influenced by the Clergy? Some influence is possible. But it is also possible that their vote reflects their own views –  that they do not need the clergy to act and vote as they believe. The true extent of the clergy’s influence is thus very difficult to assess.

A pastor or a priest may be influential for some believers. However, I do not know of any examples of any individual priests directing the votes of the individual believers. Some may have been influenced, but this does not been that such influence is very common.

The people who go to church already have their own ideas. I am therefore not convinced of the clergy’s ability to influence electoral choices.

There are large numbers of Protestants in the United States, and Protestantism is highly decentralised. Even the Catholic Church, with is more hierarchical structure, has many different bishops with their own political views. Religion is a powerful force, but no religious organisation in the United States possesses overwhelming power due to the high degree of decentralisation and fragmentation. What is your reaction to the idea that the entry of migrants and refugees from foreign countries should be restricted?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: I do not think that this question has a straightforward answer. The specific contexts and situations may differ greatly. As a general principle, I believe we should be generous and accommodating towards people who have become displaced and are fleeing from the horrors of war. We should provide care and support for women, children and refugees. We should respect the fundamental rights and basic human needs. The question is – how can this be implemented in practice? How are the people entering the country, in what numbers, from which places? The questions are numerous, and there are no simple and straightforward answers. There is a strong need for political wisdom and discretion. And there are no solutions that would be easy to implement. The best solution would be to end the war and corruption that give rise to such crises. But this will also be difficult. In general, I favour openness and transparency of the borders – but this is more a philosophy, which may be hard to implement in each particular situation. What is your view of the reasons for religious extremism –  Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc.?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: There is no single answer for all cases. Rebellion against modernity can be a part of the answer. Injustices – real or perceived –  could also be one of the roots. Manipulation of young people – especially those who feel disenfranchised and without hope – is also one of the causes. People would be prepared to fight for something that could give them a sense of security. People who are young and poorly educated are susceptible to manipulation and religious fundamentalism. But these are not all the answers. Can Islam be integrated in the Western Society. Could it be de-radicalised?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: This is a difficult question. The United States may have had more success in this regard. We have a lot of Muslims (albeit no as many as in Europe), and they are fairly well integrated in the American society. For example, there are no Muslim Ghettos to the extent that can be encountered in countries such as France. Perhaps it’s because Muslims are less numerous, and those that have immigrated to the United States have better education, and are finding it easier to integrate.

I do not have a simple solution for Europe. I am not even sure that it would make sense for Europe to look to America for answers. Integration in the United States seems a lot easier for any new immigrant – Muslim or non-Muslim. America is built on the idea that everyone is equal –  equal in the eyes of the law. That freedom is a natural right. There are not distinct ethnic or religious identities. Anyone can become an American. Europe seems to have more difficulties along these lines, all of which are acting as constraints to integration. Do you have any ideas on how religious extremism could be avoided?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: I believe that political corruption is a major and universal problem – as it creates a lot of injustices felt by many people. The desire for justice may lead to extremism. Eliminating corruption is not easy.

I am deeply convinced that respect by the governments of human rights offers hope for Middle East and the rest of the world. But this requires great virtue and strength on the part of the national leaders. Finding virtuous leaders and civil servants, however, may be very difficult. We realise the problem, but are unsure how to deal with it. Its difficulty was well illustrated by Plato as early as 2.5 thousand years ago.

That same question came up in 2010, as I was giving a lecture to a group of students at Erbil University in Iraq. They asked me what could be done to ensure respect for the Constitution and to eliminate government corruption. I gave an answer which did not fully satisfy them, I am afraid. I said that we in the United States were very fortunate to have George Washington as our leader. He was our first president, and Americans could trust him. How could they trust him, even though he had so little power? They could, because Washington was a field leader during the revolution, and he resigned from power after defeating the British – the most powerful nation in the world. He only became president because the people had asked him to. An he resigned from power again – after winning two elections. Where else would you find a military genius, and a political leader who would willingly give up power? My answer to the Iraqi students was: you need a George Washington. But leaders such as George Washington could not be manufactured en masse. George Washington was a blessing for America. What’s needed is an outstanding political leader with virtue and courage, who would promote the common good, install an effective government, and give up power. But leaders such as this are difficult to find. What is your vision of the future relationship between the church and state?

Vincent Phillip Muñoz: Each country will be different. I believe that religion has something important to offer any government. Any faith – Christian or non-Christian – is an explication of virtue and worth in a human life. It is an offer of hope. Religion is here to stay. I hope there will be more religious freedom – including in Belarus. I hope that governments worldwide – including in Belarus – will respect the religious rights of their citizens and give them more room to exercise religious freedom.

But religion, which is so much a part of human nature, will always be a threat to the government. It will always command a special attitude,  which I expect to last indefinitely. In general, I believe that better church-state relations could be achieved if the state intervened less in the lives of the people and showed more respect for their freedom. Again, this would require a political class, a generation of leaders who value freedom over power. This is a daunting task, as powerful leaders often crave for more power to direct and shape the lives of the people as they please. This will always remain a human temptation.

Interviewer: Maksim Hacak

The editors of would like to thank the embassy of the United States of America for its help in arranging this interview.

Photos by US embassy

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