When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks arrived in America recently representatives of the United States government did not greet him with a demand that Great Britain's former chief rabbi remove his yarmulke while in public. That's a good thing. But there are places -- France leaps to mind -- where this would not be the case. In fact, religious liberty is under siege in many corners of Europe, said Sacks, a member of the House of Lords.
"In Britain we have seen a worker banned from wearing a small crucifix at work," he said, after receiving the Becket Fund's 2014 Canterbury Medal for his work defending religious freedom. "A nurse was censored for offering to utter a prayer on behalf of one of her patients. Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close because they were unwilling to place children for to same-sex parents."
Elsewhere, Denmark has banned "shechitah," the kosher method of slaughtering animals by slitting their throats. A German court has banned infant circumcision. France has banned -- in public places -- Christians from wearing crucifixes, Jews from wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women from wearing hijabs.
"This is, for me, the empirical proof that ... the secular societies of Europe are much less tolerant than the religions that they accuse of intolerance," he said.
While praising America's strategic support for global religious liberty, the rabbi noted the many church-state fights here linked to same-sex marriage and other issues. Another group saluted in the black-tie dinner at the Pierre Hotel in New York City was the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that -- with Becket lawyers -- is resisting the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer employee health plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."
The Little Sisters merely want to serve the poor with "dignity and respect" while following Catholic teachings, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
"They don't need any interference from the government, they don't need people to come in and tell them what to do, because they're doing God's work," he told the audience. In America, freedoms "don't come from government. They come from who we are, they come from a mighty God and governments and courts are supposed to defend them and stand up for them and not take them away. ... This is a civil rights issue, this is a human rights issue."
When surveying the landscape of global conflicts -- from battles in Western courts to terror in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere -- Sacks argued that it's crucial for world leaders to realize that arguments in favor of "freedom of conscience" emerged from religious and secular thinkers, alike.
Nevertheless, the rabbi insisted that there must be a power higher than the state calling for the "priority of right over might," for "humility in the exercise of power" and, most importantly, for "moral limits" on government power. Instead of fearing faith, world leaders must understand that the only true response to hatred rooted in religion is found in love and tolerance rooted in religion, as opposed to regimes built on secularism.
"Rarely does history offer us a controlled experiment," but the impact of the four great upheavals that produced the modern world comes close, Sacks said, referring to the English, American, French and Russian revolutions.
Two of these revolutions were based on the Bible and two on explicitly secular philosophies, he said. In the first approach, a Divine Power grants citizens inalienable rights, while in the other all rights are bestowed through the "generosity of the state." How has that second option turned out in practice?
It is especially important for government leaders to fiercely defend the rights of religious believers to dissent from official dogmas, in word and deed, he said. Jewish tradition teaches that when one side of a debate is silenced, freedom and justice are compromised for all.
"It is that willingness to listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree that is being lost today," argued Sacks. "It's being lost in the media, it's being lost on university campuses, it's being lost in the Internet, where we can choose to listen only to the people we agree with. Broadcasting has gone. Narrowcasting has taken its place. ... The result is that society has been fragmented into sects of the likeminded and we all thereby suffer."