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Religion and Democracy

Arjun Narayanswamy

“[It is an error to say that] it is praiseworthy that in certain countries it is provided for by law that people who immigrate from outside may publicly exercise their own form of worship.”

“Socialism and democracy are pests.”

If I told you that the two quotes above were translations of an important religious document, which religion would you think that I was talking about? Consider the quotes: evidence of religious intolerance, a clear political agenda, and a vehement rejection of democracy. Which is the most intolerant, political and anti-democratic religion that you can think of today? Is it Islam? Hinduism? Christianity?

It may be a bit of a surprise that the two quotes above are taken from the Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular from the Syllabus of Errors [1864] and Qui Pluribus [1846] encyclicals of Pope Pius IX. They were promulgated at a time at which, believe it or not, democracy was the avowed goal of communists all over the world, and political regimes in Europe lived in fear of a proletarian rebellion. As a conservative social order, blind to all the political liberties of liberal democracy we now hold so dear, the Roman Catholic Church reacted as any self-respecting political institution would. Pope Pius IX essentially banned democracy as an “error”, and democracy nominally stayed banned in the Roman Catholic Church for a century, until Pope John Paul II and Vatican II [1964].

Religion is one of those phenomena that induce in people powerful self-justification. I remember one self-laudatory myth about Hinduism that I learned as a child. Visits to the historic stone temples of Southern India would often involved a “heart-broken” temple guide pointing to a broken stone pillar, or a defaced statue and talking, with stirring emotion, about the murderous “Muslim invaders from the north” who had stormed and wrecked these temples so many hundreds of years ago. I’m not sure if this story was reserved for Hindu tourists, but I went many years (and many visits to stone temples) without ever hearing of a Hindu temple-tyrant or idol-breaker. The subtext was always that Hinduism was a “peaceful, non-violent” religion -- Hindus just didn’t do that sort of temple-breaking thing.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon visiting Sri Lanka a few years later where I heard more or less the same stories, albeit with the word “Hindu” replacing “Muslim” and the word “Buddhist” replacing “Hindu.” Visiting the ancient Sri Lankan capitals of Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa, I listened in shock as my Buddhist travel guide pointed to images of defaced Buddhas and spoke with feeling about the marauding “Hindu invaders from the north” -- exactly the same stories I had heard so long ago! By that time, other incidents in India had shown me quite clearly that Indian Hinduism was anything but a non-violent religion, but to hear the stories from my youth recast as though in a mirror was eye-opening.

These anecdotes make two points. Firstly, the religious stereotyping that we seem to be practicing nowadays makes us sadly similar to history’s practitioners of the same. Overlying the fundamental and, truth be told, significant differences in the way the different religions of the world structure the world view of their adherents is a common thread of violence being perpetrated in the name of religion. Man has a way of working his will into the Word of God.

The second point is that organized religion acts as an important political entity. At this particular moment in history, this is trend appears to be global. Right-wing Christian movements, fundamentalist Islamic parties and right-wing Hindu parties are all different manifestations of the choice of religion as the primary determinant of political identity. The consequences of this polarization troubles democracy everywhere.

Fundamentally, democracy works on the basis of representation and competition. The citizenry of a nation elects representatives of their interests; the various elected interest groups compete to best represent their constituents. For example, it is natural for the steelworkers of a country to vote for a political party that favors strong labor rights. It is natural for this party to debate and represent the interests of their supporters in the offices of state. Compromise is sometimes necessary, often crucial.

The problem with representation on the basis of religion or indeed any other powerful identity marker like race, ethnicity, or language is that the mechanism of compromise that underlies democracy becomes unusable. While a compromise may be reached between a labor rights interest group and a capitalist interest group on the exact minimum wage in a country, that compromise becomes much harder to reach if the competing political groups are polarized on axes of religion. It is uncommon for a person to go from being Religion A to being Religion B; in most cases, the religion you are born with is the one you die with. Consequently, the issues at stake in democratic negotiation are no longer selected interests but the entire identity of a people. There is more at stake and less flexibility, and hence the game of political compromise is played more cruelly. Democratic systems struggle to handle pressures created when religion and politics conflict so strongly. The politics of identity degenerate not to compromise, but to conflict.

Holocaust, apartheid and ethnic cleansing have already taught us the dangers of race-based politics. As we return from church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, we need stay aware of the dangers of another brand of divisive politics as well.