In the Decalogue, the moral heart of the Law in the Old Testament, the first commandment reads, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Shortly after explaining what the Lord means by this, he self-describes as a “jealous God, punishing the children of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me, and keep my commandments.”
Jealousy, love, and punishment are not bad ways of understanding the rise in both government-based religious discrimination (GRD) and societal religious discrimination (SRD), as Jonathan Fox shows in his newest book, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me: Why Governments Discriminate against Religious Minorities (Cambridge Press, 2020). Using his newest datasets—the Religious and State Minorities (RASM3), itself a module of the larger Religion and State (RAS3) dataset, including 771 religious minorities in 183 countries and independent territories—Fox has done it again: produced a new, standard work of quantitative research on religious discrimination that experts cannot miss. His findings, foundational for the conversation on religious freedom as they may be, come with startling and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions. The book is neither fast, easy, nor cheap to read, but it is absolutely worth the price of admission.
Readers of Providence will not be surprised the study finds that from 1990 to 2014 GRD and SRD are both on the rise pretty much everywhere. GRD in 2014 was 23.6 percent higher than it was in 1990, and SRD was 29.6 percent higher. Yet while GRD is on the rise, it is also unequal. Countries that do discriminate single out some minorities more than others. GRD is rarely equal opportunity. Reasons for this vary. Fox offers a range of possibilities, from more general ones—like ideologies, whether religious or secular, (religious) monopolies, regime types, and world region—to causes of unequal discrimination—like nationalism, anticult policy, anti-Semitism, history of conflict, perceived threat, minority size, and catalyst-links between SRD and GRD.
SRD is a reasonably good predictor of GRD, though only when some external factor—whether a perceived threat or challenge—triggers the SRD-GRD relationship. Interestingly, the link between SRD and GRD doesn’t seem to exist strongly for Jews (131). In European and Western non-Orthodox Christian-majority democracies (EWNOCMD), “Jewish minorities, by far, experience the highest levels of SRD” (136), but not nearly as high GRD. Muslims, on the other hand, experience the highest levels of GRD (139). The most common areas of restriction are those over dress (head coverings), restrictions over ritual slaughter (kosher and halal), and restrictions over the circumcision of children.
Without needing to indulge in discrimination Olympics over whose favorite minority is more oppressed, it is nonetheless worth a pause to wonder why the alarm over anti-Semitism isn’t ringing a bit louder in the Western world. Certainly, we know very well the tensions and challenges around GRD for Muslim minorities in France, Quebec, even the United States, and elsewhere. Are we as clear on the discrimination Jews face? Across the whole study, Jews are almost twice as likely to experience SRD as Christians (who are the second most likely to experience SRD).
Fox singles out the West for probably the most counter-intuitive claim of this study, what he calls the “flawed assumption of low discrimination in the West” (159). He argues that this study falsifies the long-standing assumption of secularism and religious freedom in the West. The assumption that the Western world, the heartland of liberalism and secularism, has the highest tolerance and the lowest discrimination is, sadly, false. Fox offers a variety of caveats, including that the comparative wealth of those states gives them more opportunity to regulate and legislate GRD than lesser developed states (“economically developed states discriminate more,” 192). Perhaps most persuasively, he cites climactic conflicts between religious and secular ideologies in the West, a competitive trajectory that may be producing more SRD and more GRD over time.
“The secular Gods are also… jealous of those who follow ideologies, including religious ideologies that contradict their secular ideals,” he writes. “Thus, the liberal idea of religious freedom is often trumped by secular ideology and beliefs” (7).
It is a careful and controversial claim. He does not dispute that modernity or the political and social forces of secularization are unimportant, nor does he dispute that democracy tends to support toleration. But rather he argues that the religious-secular competition is heating up and that collateral social and political forces are being marshaled. These historical assumptions about secularity and liberalism leading to tolerance may even be true, to an extent. But in the West, complex and crosscutting causes of discrimination are beginning to overshadow them.
“Liberal ideology, as interpreted by many in Western democracies, tends to support secularism as well as religious freedom,” argues Fox. “Yet there may be some tension between these two principles… Religious freedom is guaranteed but only if the use of this freedom does not contradict secular liberal ideals” (251).
Given this, do we need to ask “whether religious freedom is truly an integral element of liberal democracy or whether those countries we consider liberal democracies are truly liberal democracies” (214)? Fox insists we must.
These data pair rather ominously with other cultural conversations of late, about whether liberalism is under duress or, as one commentator famously puts it, has failed. What if, as Fox suggests in this book, we were never as liberal as thought we were? What if the turn from liberalism in pockets of the United States, and other states like Hungary, Brazil, India, and more, isn’t some dramatic betrayal of the recent past, but drilling down on core elements that always existed? What if the aspirations of liberal equality always coexisted uneasily alongside exclusive ideologies of varying kinds, whether religious or secular? While this religious-secular battleground expands (as Fox argues in Political Secularism, Religion and the State, 2015), what if the confrontation edges more and more into, on top of, and over a liberal consensus we mistakenly thought was rock solid?
All of this might suggest liberalism is a bit more hegemonic than it actually is, a patchwork political consensus built on many plural foundations. Fox importantly presses readers to consider those plural foundations, and if a majoritarian, muscular secularity is squeezing minorities in ways that are already measurable. American evangelicals, in particular, might be a little overeager to endorse this conclusion, but this proportionally enormous community is hardly the focus of Fox’s study. By the time majority evangelicals feel the pinch of religious discrimination, Jews and Muslims would have long been crushed.
The study concludes with practical prescriptions, though obviously there are no easy fixes. First, democratization will only substantially improve religious freedom in some countries. It is not the panacea, and in some cases, Fox explicitly cites the West, democracy seems to have a minor impact on levels of GRD. Second, while SRD generally triggers GRD, generic public campaigns for tolerance are unlikely to achieve much. The SRD-GRD relationship is triggered primarily when minorities are seen as existential threats, so such securitization of minorities should be the primary focus. Third, states with strong ideologies tend to have higher GRD. Religious freedom, in other words, is best husbanded by governments that are non- (or weakly) ideological but have a positive attitude toward religion. Fourth, indigeneity, or the perception that a presence in a state is illegitimate or non-indigenous, is a major factor in GRD. Yet trends in nationalism seem to be pushing more toward categories of indigeneity than against, a cause for concern. Fifth, the perception that minorities are a threat is one of the most potent motivators of SRD, and a key catalyst to triggering the SRD-GRD relationship. Finally, argues Fox, “if the West wants to promote religious freedom, it needs to clean up its own house” (268). While not true of all Western countries, many of whom have low levels of GRD (only Canada engages in none, he says, though the study ends in 2014), the best foreign policy is based on coherence and integrity domestically.
There is a great deal more, from chapter length studies of the Muslim world (and a rich engagement with Daniel Philpott’s Religious Freedom in Islam, 2019), to Orthodox, Buddhist, and Communist states. Anyone working in any of these regions will find invaluable data. But Fox’s analysis truly shines in the comparisons and renders its most startling conclusions, ones which we may not like but will be hard to disagree with. The gods are, indeed, jealous gods, and we in the West are no exception, punishing the children of rival gods, and showering blessings on those who love our majoritarian ideologies. We could do much worse than to listen to the voices of our own religious minorities as a measure, and a warning, for how well, and how liberal, our liberal democracies are managing.