(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
“As the people who have experienced more religious oppression than any other in history [Jews] should certainly stand for freedom of people to practice their beliefs without persecution,” believes Dr. Daniel Mark, the only Orthodox member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
An assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, Mark joined the nine member commission, which serves to advise the American government on policy issues relating to religious freedom, last year.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of a conference organized by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies on the relationship among Judaism, Christianity, and human freedom on Wednesday, Mark opined on issues relating to his Orthodoxy and Israel’s religion- state balance.
“I don’t represent Jewish interests any more than a Christian on the commission represents Christian interests,” Mark asserted when asked if his Orthodox upbringing affected his performance.
He said that he does not see any contradiction between his fealty to Torah, which proscribes certain forms of pagan worship, and his promotion of the free expression of religious convictions worldwide.
There is no internal conflict, he said, saying that the “state of religious freedom in the world is so bad,” with people being killed for their beliefs, that his defense of such people in no way contradicts Orthodox religious values.
Besides, he said, “we don’t have any real avoda zara (idolatry) for the most part,” as defined by the Torah.
“There are no baal worshipers, but if there were we would defend them. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” he quipped.
Emphasizing that he was speaking in his private capacity and not as a spokesman for the commission, Mark said that, given the sorry state of religious freedom around the world, issues relating to religion and state in Israel are “not currently on our agenda.”
“Israel is a free country and a fair country and has functioning democratic process whereby people can seek redress for their political problems,” he said. “With sufficient political organization, the Knesset or Supreme Court could change laws tomorrow, so [it is a] completely different category of problem than oppressive dictatorships.”
Being American, he continued, means that he has a different approach to the relationship between religion and state than many Orthodox Israelis, adding that he believes that Israel would “benefit from further separation of church and state,” although not to the degree to which the two are kept separate in the United States.
Israel will have to find its own balance, he explained.
The separation is not just about protecting the state from the church, but it is also about protecting the church from the state, he explained, stating that “the intertwining of religion and political power can have negative corrupting influence on religion.”
“This is a cardinal lesson of Europe,” he said, citing the weakness of religious practice in countries with established state churches as opposed to the higher rate of religious engagement in the US.
“America, which has had freedom of religion from very beginning, is a far more religious society than western Europe and I suspect this is in part because the church is operating free of the corruptions of political power,” he said.