JFK's call for religious freedom can transform places like Pakistan

On the anniversary of JFK's assassination, the world should heed his call for religious freedom. It is the best way to counter religious extremism in places such as Pakistan, where the Taliban has chosen a new leader, as it compels intolerant forms of religion to face competing beliefs.

Jessica Rinaldi/AP/File
Malala Yousafzai speaks at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Sept. 27. The Pakistani Taliban, responsible for an October 2012 attack on Ms. Yousafzai, have chosen Maulana Fazlullah to replace their leader Hakimullah Mehsud who was killed by a US drone strike last week. Op-ed contributor Katrina Lantos Swett writes: 'It is where religious freedom is most dishonored or repressed that the forces of violent religious extremism are likely to thrive.'

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, much can be said about his focus on freedom. In speeches both before and after he became president, Kennedy championed human rights around the world and called out the Soviets and their satellite states for violating these liberties.

One aspect of his views bears particular mention: the roles of religion and religious freedom as engines and emblems of progress, roles that have particular resonance across the globe today.

In an Independence Day speech in Boston in 1946, Kennedy cited the 19th-century French nobleman and author of “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that “unless religion is the first link, all is vain.” On the presidential campaign trail in September 1960, speaking at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Kennedy lamented that “we have become missionaries abroad of a wide range of doctrines – free enterprise, anti-Communism and pro-Americanism – but rarely ... religious liberty.”

And in his inaugural address, he stated that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

Allowed to operate freely, religion can be a force for good, transforming cultures and countries. A prime example took root during Kennedy’s lifetime – America’s civil rights revolution, which sprang from the nation’s churches. It was the churches that presented a prophetic vision that confronted governmental and societal injustice, while offering moral and spiritual resources for the leaders it reared and nurtured. 

It was in the churches that Martin Luther King Jr.’s generation developed and tested its message, energized its followers, and propelled them to action. It was in the churches that the movement cultivated the moral and spiritual discipline needed to dismantle Jim Crow and advance racial justice and equality.

America’s civil rights experience highlights how religion and the leadership it fosters can unleash positive change. True, religion has been used to fuel humanity’s darker impulses, and examples abound – from old Europe’s religious wars to early America’s witch hunts to modern terrorism. But it also can brighten pathways to better outcomes. It can appeal to allegiances higher than those of any state or society, calling on people to raise their sights, heal yesterday’s wounds, right today’s wrongs, and aspire to greater things.  

Both before and after the 1960s civil rights struggle, examples around the world underscore religion’s role in moving societies forward. In the first half of the last century, during Kennedy’s lifetime, Mohandas Gandhi’s Hindu-centered strategy of “satyagraha,” or nonviolent civil disobedience, galvanized India and its people, leading to independence from Britain.

In the 1980s, in words reminiscent of Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church deemed Soviet tyranny an affront to human dignity and demanded change, initially through supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement. The pope and the Vatican played a vital, encouraging role in the rending of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the democratizing of Eastern Europe.

During that same time, South Africa saw the collapse of its apartheid system, thanks not only to the political leadership of Nelson Mandela, but to the decades-long work of religious leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and also laypeople such as Alan Paton, author of “Cry, the Beloved Country” – who spoke truth to that society, confronting the pro-apartheid views of other church people. After apartheid’s collapse, national reconciliation was achieved by the efforts of many, including people of faith, to embrace and receive forgiveness for past wrongs.

Yes, religion can assume toxic forms, but the way to fight religious ideas that harm is with ones that heal. The way to combat expressions of faith that dishonor some people is with ones that honor all people. The way to counter the religious extremism of some is by affirming religious freedom for all. 

It is where religious freedom is most dishonored or repressed that the forces of violent religious extremism are likely to thrive. Indeed, of the four nations that hosted Osama bin Laden  – Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Pakistan – each is an incubator of violent religious extremism.

Religious freedom helps create not only the civic space for religious leaders and movements working for peaceful change, but a genuine marketplace of ideas – compelling extremist, intolerant expressions of religion to face competing ideologies, religions, and beliefs.

Because of religion’s unique role in tackling ultimate questions, it retains a special place in the lives of billions. Because of its unique appeal to humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations, it can create both the impetus and the leadership for positive transformation. And because of this unique potential to bring constructive change, it should be allowed to operate freely and peacefully in the world.

For these reasons and more, today’s leaders here and abroad can honor Kennedy’s memory and advance progress and freedom by echoing his words and thoughts in this critical arena.

Katrina Lantos Swett is vice chairwoman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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