Sunday, August 11, 2013

Religion and Democracy

I’ve been working through a good book for an upcoming seminar class that I'm co-designing. The book is World Religions and Democracy, edited by Larry Diamon, Marc F. Plattner, and Philip J. Costopoulos (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

In the introduction, Costopoulos points out that, contrary to the expectations of many 20th century observers who thought that modernization would contribute to a lessening of worldwide religious belief, religion and religious identity have spread and strengthened during recent decades. At the same time, democracy has also increased; though democracy was mostly located in historically Christian plans prior to World War II, today democracy is found in places of many religious traditions (pp. ix-x).

Are religion and democracy compatible? Secularists have thought not, but Tocqueville thought so (p. ix). Always the go-to guy on issues such as this, Tocqueville described well the conditions in the U.S. that have made both democracy and religion thrive, and commentators afterward have built upon his insights. In this book's opening chapter, Alfred Stepan writes about the “twin tolerations” necessary for their compatibility: as Costopoulos puts it: “political authorities agree to allow free religious activity within broad and equally applied limits, while religious persons and bodies agree to relinquish claims to wield direct political power even as they remain free to use all available means of peaceful persuasion (including the votes of religious people) in seeking to shape public policy as they prefer” (pp. x-xi).

There is also the principle of “differentiation,” which is the “principled distinction between religious and political authority, based on the understanding that each belongs to a conceptually distinct (albeit interrelated) sphere of human life with its own proper aims, methods, and forms of thought, discourse, and action” (p. xi).

There are different social and governmental forms that reject differentiation and twin toleration. One is the kind of secularism represented by the USSR, Ba’athism in Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and classical Kemalism in Turkey. Another is the kind of religious authoritarism that we see in the heirs of Iran’s Khomenini and Saudi Wahabism. Costopoulos comments that part of the difficulty of democracy in the Middle East are the forces that, instead of creating a true liberal democracy, would instead inculcate a strict and punitive theocratic fundamentalism, “tarted up with populist slogans and a Potemkin parliament” (p. xi).

Many of us honor Martin Luther for his theological achievements; we even praise God for his insights and courage. But it’s good to be reminded of some historical contexts and tragedies. For instance Costopoulos points out that Luther was by no means a modernist; he wanted a united Christendom the same as the pope. Furthermore, the 130 years following the 95 Theses saw hideous violence and warfare throughout Europe. “Commentators who speak blithey today about how Islam needs its own Luther and its own ‘Reformation’ should perhaps be careful what they wish for” (p. xiii). Upon this bloody history saw the seeds of modern liberal democracy, but it would be preferable if democracy could characterize modern nations without something like the Thirty Years War.

Half the essays in the book consider the possibilities of inculcating the differentiation principle within Islam, thereby overcoming illiberal fundamentalism and illiberal secularization. Other essays examine the other religions of the book and also Eastern faiths. An interesting essay by Hillel Fradkin notes that the Torah is by no means a blueprint for democracy or differentiation, but there are seeds within the Torah---not to mention the experiences of Jews within the modern world---that have made Jews some of the world’s most eager democrats. Within Roman Catholic Christianity, Vatican II became a catalyst for more political involvement from the church in numerous societies, while within Protestantism, the 19th century advocacy of the elimination of slavery tended to be a very democratic force. But in our contemporary world, it remains to be seen how the growth of Protestant Christianity in the global south will encourage democratic movements or not. Within Hinduism, democracy has emerged from religious roots without, of course, the historical and theological background of Christian cultures where democracy became strong. In other Asian cultures, writers discern roots within Confucianism and Buddhism that are congenial to differentiation.

Finally, in the epilogue, we return to a basic tension between religion and democracy: the former’s tendency toward hierarchy and the normative aspects of past events and teachings, and the latter’s tendency to encourage a leveling of distinctions among persons and its connection to secularism and modernism. Tocqueville was cautious about predicting that the American form of democracy would work in other countries, but as the writer Hillel Fradkin puts it, “It may be the case... that over the long run other democracies will not thrive unless religion plays a role similar to that which it has played in America” (p. 252).

The book’s essays and authors are:

A Conceptual Framework
1 Religion, Democracy, and the “Twin Tolerations” by Alfred Stepan.

Eastern Religions
2 The Ironies of Confucianism, by Hahm Chaibong
3 Confucianism and Democracy, by Francis Fukuyama
4 Hinduism and Self-Rule, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
5 Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy, by his Holiness the Dalai Lama
6 Burma’s Quest for Democracy, by Aung San Suu Kyi

Judaism and Christianity
7 Judaism and Political Life, by Hillel Fradkin
8 The Catholic Wave, by Daniel Philpott
9 Pioneering Protestants, by Robert D. Woodberry and Timothy S. Shah
10 The Ambivalent Orthodox, by Elizabeth Prodromou
11 Christianity: The Global Picture, by Peter L. Berger

12 Muslims and Democracy, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
13 A Historical Overview, by Bernard Lewis
14 Two Visions of Reformation, by Robin Wright
15 The Challenge of Secularization, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
16 The Sources of Enlightened Muslim Thought, by Abdou Filali-Ansary
17 The Elusive Reformation, by Abdelwahab El-Affendi
18 The Silenced Majority, by Radwan A. Masmoudi
19 Faith and Modernity, by Laith Kubba
20 Terror, Islam, and Democracy, by Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand

Epilogue: Does Democracy Need Religion? by Hillel Fradkin

And on this same subject.... The New York Times today had an article about democracy in Egypt during that nation's current crisis.

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