In the early years of the 6th century B.C., Judea was at war with Babylon. Twice the forces of the empire laid siege to the Jewish capital at Jerusalem, as the disobedient vassal refused to pay tribute to the encroaching pagan power. At the end of the second siege, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies burnt the temple to the ground and razed the city’s walls, dragging the starved and siege-wearied Jews in captivity back to Babylon.
The ensuing exile has held a key place in the historical consciousness of Jews and Christians for 26 centuries now. Perhaps its most famous episode saw three of the Jews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refuse to worship a golden idol set up by Nebuchadnezzar. When the king had the recusants cast into a blazing furnace, an angel of the Lord appeared to preserve them from the flames.
When Nebuchadnezzar died at the impressive age of 80, the Jews remained in exile in Babylon. Three kings followed him in quick succession before Nabonidus’s rise brought a modicum of stability in the year 556.
Off in the west, Nebuchadnezzar’s brother-in-law faced trouble in his own kingdom. Astyages, the aging sovereign of the Median Empire, was in arms against his grandson. By some accounts a cruel and unjust ruler, the Median king had foreseen in a dream decades before that his daughter’s son would one day take 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 had not yet had his fill of conquest. Upon winning Media in 550 B.C., he turned his sights westward to Lydia, a small but very wealthy kingdom in western Asia Minor. The campaign there was particularly nasty; after the first phase of conquest, a Lydian ally to whom the country’s seized treasure was entrusted took the money and hired a mercenary army. The king of the Medes met the rebellion in kind. He had brought the land to heel by the year 542.
Just a year before that, Nabonidus had returned to Babylon from a self-imposed exile. (A zealous religious innovator, he may have come in conflict with the clerical elite.) The return would be short-lived. Babylon was the last power in the region that could rival the rising empire. Conquering armies pushed quickly south, and by 539, Nabonidus’ kingdom had fallen, a generation after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. The grandson of Astyages stood alone on the field of power in Western Asia—the greatest conqueror the world had seen so far.
The story of his rise is a bloody one, full of the death that comes along with war and the treachery that comes along with government. Yet he is remembered largely as a merciful ruler. Upon the completion of his final conquest, he sent God’s chosen people back to the land that had been promised them—allowing them, like all under his rule, to freely practice the religion of their fathers. In Jerusalem, the long work of rebuilding the temple began; in Babylon, the new emperor inscribed on a clay cylinder a decree announcing the return of captives to their homelands and the restoration of their national traditions. The magnanimous conqueror, of course, was Cyrus the Great.
The 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit convened in Washington this past week. At a kickoff event on Monday morning, summit co-chair Katrina Lantos Swett invoked the Persian king’s legacy. (Swett, the daughter of Holocaust survivor and U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, graduated from Yale at 18 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history in Europe before embarking on a career devoted to the defense of human rights.) In an interpretation stretching back at least to the last century, she cast Cyrus’ declaration as a very early predecessor of the modern tradition of religious liberty and universal rights.
Meanwhile the summit’s other co-chair, Sam Brownback, described in his Monday morning remarks an innate hostility between government and religion. (Ambassador Brownback, genial and disarming, introduces himself as “Sam.” He represented Kansas in both the House and the Senate, then served as the state’s governor, before accepting President Trump’s appointment as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.) Government is naturally opposed to religion, the ambassador said, because it gives people something to believe in that transcends and precedes the state. He reiterated the point in front of the full summit crowd on Tuesday, with the additional prophecy that, “Ultimately the kingdom of God will not be subdued by the kingdom of man.”
Does the history of free religious practice stretch back to the establishment of the world’s first imperial superpower, or is government by nature an enemy of religion? The former seems more plausible, not least of all because empire by design neutralizes (as best it can) the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that endure in the absence of a unifying force like Cyrus. In fact, it could be argued that a genuine liberty is only possible in the presence of a Cyrus figure, who dispels anarchy and furnishes the necessary conditions for freedom in practice. Though the language of religious freedom is intensely libertarian, the reality of religious freedom requires very high state capacity and a strong activist government.
This is just one among a number of tensions that religious-freedom activists, the summit’s conveners and speakers chief among them, are still trying to work out. Hand-in-hand with it is the tension between the abstract philosophy of rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the flesh-and-blood urgency of persecution on the other. Perhaps the most pressing case at present is Nigeria, where Islamic militants are committing horrific and persistent genocide against the Christian, especially Catholic, population.
Like the Jews in Babylon, it may be that oppressed religious minorities today can only be delivered by actual counterforce. Frank Wolf, the retired U.S. congressman from Virginia, understands this, calling for an empowered special envoy from the U.S. government to address the Nigerian crisis. At present, however, the U.S. Department of State does not even list Nigeria among the Countries of Particular Concern.
Though the human cost of genocide is more than enough to demand our attention, Nigeria is especially important in light of discussions of empire and religion, and of geopolitical realism. A conquest of the democratic and still-diverse country would provide radical Islam a bypass around the Sahara Desert, and thus a gateway into sub-Saharan Africa. The potential for such a passage to reshape balances of power and the global state of affairs can hardly be overstated.
Another key question is whether freedom of religion also entails freedom from religion. One speaker actually said so in as many words. Others were more subtle—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who in video remarks celebrated the freedom “to follow whichever belief system we embrace, or to choose not to follow any belief system at all.” Beside the fact that “not to follow any belief system at all” is a nonsensical proposition, this comment raises substantive concerns. If a sound doctrine of religious freedom is rooted in man’s being ordered toward the Divine, would it not be contradictory to suggest an implicit right to non-religion?
In remarks heavy on foreign policy, Mike Pompeo quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs.” Swapping “irreligion” into the sentiment would render a rather shallow understanding of “liberty”—certainly not the one Tocqueville observed as foundational to the American character.
Other speakers were much more forceful in their defenses of public religion as a necessary aspect of true freedom. Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia’s minister of law and human rights, even seemed to offer a measured defense of his nation’s blasphemy law as “intended for maintaining harmony” in a pluralistic society.
Alejandro Giammattei Falla, president of Guatemala, likewise presented somewhat unorthodox remarks. Making use of a translator, the president spoke about his efforts to protect life from conception to natural death by means of law. For this protection of human life, Giammattei has been denounced as a violator of human rights (the supposed right to an abortion) by international organizations, on par with the leaders of nations like Cuba and North Korea.
Yet Giammattei is unshaken, insisting, “I will do what my conscience dictates, and what my faith dictates.” Under his vision of freedom, true religion must be allowed to work with full force out in the public square. What he seeks is both justice and social peace in a complex, potentially divided modern world, and “only principles and values based in God can guarantee that peace.”
He seems to understand, like Cyrus, that liberty requires a strong hand. “If I’m named a dictator for the sake of religious freedom,” Giammattei announces, “I’m okay with that title.”
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