Get Out of Babylon – The American Conservative
In the early years of the 6th century B.C. BC Judea was at war with Babylon. Twice Imperial forces laid siege to the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, when the disobedient vassal refused to pay tribute to the encroaching pagan power. At the end of the second siege, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar burned the temple to the ground and demolished the city walls, dragging the starving and siege-weary Jews back into captivity back to Babylon.
The exile that followed has occupied a central place in the historical consciousness of Jews and Christians for 26 centuries now. In perhaps the most famous episode, three of the Jews – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – refused to worship a golden idol set up by Nebuchadnezzar. As the king had the recusants thrown into a blazing furnace, an angel of the Lord appeared to protect them from the flames.
When Nebuchadnezzar died at the impressive age of 80, the Jews in Babylon remained in exile. Three kings succeeded him in quick succession before Nabonidus’ rise in 556 brought some measure of stability.
Far to the west, Nebuchadnezzar’s brother-in-law faced difficulties in his own kingdom. Astyages, the aging sovereign of the Median Empire, was at work against his grandson. According to some accounts, the king of Median, a cruel and unjust ruler, had dreamed decades earlier that his daughter’s son would one day ascend to his throne. His general Harpagus mutinied; The median soldiers switched allegiances en masse. After three years of war, Astyages lost his kingdom.
But the new king wasn’t tired of conquests. After he 550 B.C. Having won Media, he turned his gaze westward to Lydia, a small but very prosperous kingdom in western Asia Minor. The campaign there was particularly ugly; After the first phase of conquest, a Lydian ally, entrusted with the country’s confiscated treasure, took the money and hired a mercenary army. The king of the Medes met the rebellion in the same way. By the year 542 he had hunted down the country.
Just a year earlier, Nabonidus had returned to Babylon from a self-imposed exile. (As a zealous religious innovator, he may have come into conflict with the clerical elite.) The return would be short-lived. Babylon was the last power in the region to rival the nascent empire. Conquering armies were rapidly pushing south, and by 539 Nabonidus’ kingdom had fallen, a generation after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. Astyages’ grandson stood alone in the field of power in western Asia – the greatest conqueror the world had yet seen.
The story of his rise is bloody, filled with the death that comes with war and the betrayal that comes with government. Yet he is largely remembered as a merciful ruler. After completing his final conquest, he sent God’s chosen people back to the land they had been promised—allowing them, like all under his rule, to practice the religion of their fathers freely. In Jerusalem began the long work of rebuilding the Temple; In Babylon, the new emperor wrote on a clay cylinder a decree announcing the return of captives to their homelands and the restoration of their national traditions. The magnanimous conqueror was, of course, Cyrus the Great.
The 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit took place in Washington last week. At a launch event Monday morning, summit co-chair Katrina Lantos Swett invoked the legacy of the Persian king. (Swett, the daughter of Holocaust survivor and US Congressman Tom Lantos, graduated from Yale at 18 and then earned a doctorate in history in Europe before embarking on a career dedicated to defending human rights.) In one interpretation Dating back at least to the last century, it presented Cyrus’ declaration as a very early precursor to the modern tradition of religious liberty and universal rights.
Meanwhile, the summit’s other co-chair, Sam Brownback, described an innate animosity between government and religion in his remarks Monday morning. (Ambassador Brownback, kindly and disarmingly, introduces himself as “Sam.” He represented Kansas in both the House and Senate, then served as the state’s governor before accepting President Trump’s appointment as Ambassador for Religious Freedom.) Government is against religion, of course, the ambassador said, because it gives people something to believe in that transcends and precedes the state. He reiterated the point Tuesday before the full crowd at the summit, with the added prophecy that “the kingdom of God will not ultimately be subdued by the kingdom of men.”
Does the history of religious freedom stretch back to the founding of the world’s first imperial superpower, or is government inherently an enemy of religion? The former seems more plausible, not least because empire by design neutralizes (as best it can) the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that persist without a unifying force like Cyrus. In fact, one could argue that freedom is real only possible in the presence of a Cyrus character who disperses the anarchy and creates the necessary conditions for freedom in practice. Although the language of religious freedom is very libertarian, the reality of religious freedom requires very high state capacity and strong activist government.
This is just one of many tensions that religious freedom activists, including the conveners and keynote speakers at the summit, are still trying to resolve. This is accompanied by the tension between the abstract philosophy of rights and freedoms on the one hand and the incarnate urgency of persecution on the other. Perhaps the most pressing case at present is Nigeria, where Islamist militants are committing a horrific and ongoing genocide against the Christian, particularly Catholic, population.
Like the Jews of Babylon, oppressed religious minorities today may only be freed by actual counter-violence. Frank Wolf, the retired US Congressman from Virginia, understands this and is calling for an authorized US government special envoy to address the Nigerian crisis. Currently, however, the US State Department does not even list Nigeria among the countries of very high concern.
Although the human cost of genocide is more than enough to warrant our attention, Nigeria is particularly relevant given discussions of empire and religion and geopolitical realism. A conquest of the democratic and still diverse country would offer radical Islam a bypass of the Sahara and thus a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. The potential of such a passage to reshape the balance of power and the global state of affairs can hardly be overstated.
Another key question is whether freedom from Religion also means freedom out Religion. A speaker actually said this in as many words. Others were more subtle – including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who in video annotations celebrated the freedom to “follow the belief system we embrace or choose not to follow any belief system at all.” Aside from the fact that “not following any belief system at all” is a nonsensical claim, this comment raises significant concerns. If a sound doctrine of religious liberty is rooted in man’s calling to the divine, would it not be contradictory to propose an implicit right to non-religion?
In foreign policy remarks, Mike Pompeo quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “Liberty looks to religion as its companion in all its struggles and triumphs.” To swap “irreligion” for sentiment would lead to a rather superficial understanding of “freedom” – certainly not to what Tocqueville considered fundamental to the American character.
Other speakers were much more forceful in their defence Publicity Religion as a necessary aspect of true freedom. Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, even appeared to offer a measured defense of his country’s blasphemy law, saying it was “intended to preserve harmony” in a pluralistic society.
Alejandro Giammattei Falla, President of Guatemala, was also somewhat unorthodox. With the help of an interpreter, the President spoke about his efforts to protect life through law from conception to natural death. For this protection of human life, Giammattei has been denounced as a human rights violator (the alleged right to abortion) by international organizations on par with the leaders of nations like Cuba and North Korea.
But Giammattei is unshakable and insists: “I will do what my conscience and faith dictate.” Under his vision of freedom, true religion must be allowed to operate with full force in the public square. What he aspires to is both justice and social peace in a complex, potentially fractured modern world, and “only principles and values grounded in God can guarantee that peace.”
He seems to understand, like Cyrus, that freedom needs a strong hand. “If I’m made dictator for the sake of religious freedom,” Giammattei declares, “I’m fine with that title.”