Why you should care
Because even brutal emperors can have a soft spot for freedom.
Jack Weatherford is the author of Genghis Khan and the Quest for God.
George and Martha Washington kept a romantic novel about Genghis Khan in their Mount Vernon library. Benjamin Franklin advertised and sold a popular biography of the conqueror for shipment from Philadelphia. During the American Revolution, popular plays about Genghis were staged in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York.
It may sound odd for revolutionary America to have had much interest in a Mongolian warlord, but the rebels were searching beyond classical European and Christian history for models of how to create their new republic. The American colonies included a variety of religious sects and dissenters, but Genghis had ruled over an even more religiously diverse empire. His success in taming religious extremism made him an unlikely hero to one of our most influential early presidents, who championed his approach to religious freedom in a way that continues to affect our outlook today.
The First Law of Genghis Khan and the Virginia statute were similar in spirit.…
In 1204, Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire. It quickly grew into the world’s largest, with Genghis learning that one of the major sources of conflict and violence among diverse peoples is religion. Among his subjects were millions of Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians and animists, and they not only fought each other but among themselves. To stop the bloodshed, Genghis used a powerful two-pronged approach. He gave everyone the right to chose their religion while bringing every organized religion firmly under the rule of law. He offered freedom of religion, in other words, but no separation of church and state. To enforce his power over religions, he lured officials with exemptions from taxes as well as state duties like military service. He also offered financial support, freedom of belief and practice, and respect so long as they obeyed him. If they showed the slightest sign of defiance? Death. Genghis saw that in matters of religion there was no need to persuade, bargain or compromise. The reward was wealth and freedom; the punishment, death.
But the Genghis Khan fad among America’s founders led to serious consequences that survive even now. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s law of religious freedom, repeatedly ordered copies of the Genghis biography by French scholar François Pétis de la Croix, for his own library and as gifts, including one for his granddaughter, as well as copies that eventually ended up in the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia. Like most intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson, a deist, believed in religious freedom, but such liberal thinkers usually understood this as a freedom of different sects to operate unhindered. Genghis flipped that freedom, making it not merely about religious operations but also about individual freedom and the right to choose any religion. Jefferson, in turn, used this model when he composed the Virginia law of religious freedom, the country’s first.
The words of Jefferson’s statute closely parallel those of Genghis’ law, as recorded in the biography that Jefferson found so intriguing: Mongol law forbade anyone “to disturb or molest any person on account of religion.” Similarly, Jefferson’s law prescribed “That no man shall … suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” Genghis Khan’s law insisted “that everyone should be left at liberty to profess that which pleased him best.” Jefferson’s law echoed, “That all men shall be free to profess … their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Law of Genghis Khan and the Virginia statute were both similar in spirit to but different in wording from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Genghis Khan’s policy resulted in a century of peace known as the Pax Mongolica. The United States followed his policy of freedom of religious choice for every religion and freedom of taxation for religious institutions, but with a separation of church and state. Religious authorities sometimes interpret the separation as a license to do as they please. Government officials have such fear of criticizing religion now that zealots of various stripes are able to operate freely, and the president hesitates to label self-proclaimed Muslim terrorists as Muslims.
Jefferson learned only half the lesson of Genghis Khan’s wisdom — and that truncated understanding serves as the foundation for Americans’ religious freedom. But the extreme freedom offered by Genghis resulted in a century of peace only because the Mongols were willing to execute the rebellious caliph of Islam, wipe out the fanatical cult of assassins in the mountains of Iran and kill everyone who posed a threat to that freedom.