Democracy and Religion

Ali at Free Iraqi has a perceptive post on Islam and Democracy. Here’s the comment I left on his site.

Ali said :

What I’m trying to say is that no religion in its present form is compatible with democracy and both democracy and religion can only co-exist if that religion is marginalized.

You are correct that questions of the sort, “Is religion X compatible with democracy?” are the wrong kinds of questions. As a Christian pastor, I’d like to see democracy prevail AND see the Christian faith NOT be marginalized. We who are interested in both religion and democracy have a number of problems.

1. Power. People who are leaders in religion think they need to rule, i.e., exercise power over people. Constantine thought that in the 4th century and from what I’ve read of Islam, “ruling” is intrinsic to at least some interpretations of Islam. Since we’re “of God,” or so we think, it is righteous to do so – and good for the people whether they know it or not. But power gtes us in trouble. I don’t know about Islam, but in Christianity power receives a powerful critique in the cross of Jesus. In Jesus we see one who has God in the flesh most deserves to exercise power over people. Instead he submits to the (evil) powers of the world and is crucified. When we Christians set ourselves up as The Power, we are putting ourselves in the place not of Jesus, but of those who killed him.

2. Democracy. Those who know something about Christianity and Islam know that each of those words represents diverse and complex social movements. If we look at the different manifestations of Islam around the world – and through time – we don’t see just one thing. We grossly oversimplify when we think we do. It’s the same way with democracy. Democracy is not just one thing. It is a complex set of ideas. Elections alone don’t make a democracy – we all know that much. But when we identify democracy as a good to be pursued, we also don’t mean everything that can go by that name. Does democracy require radical individualism? Does democracy require the privatization of religion? Does democracy require a divorce between morality and legislation? Does democracy require a “naked public square”? If all these are of the essence of democracy, then I’m not sure it’s something I want after all. But I believe there is plenty of evidence in America alone to demonstrate that what we tend to call democracy is much more than what we see in a snapshot of contemporary America (or other western nations). There are, in other words, different ways to practice democracy. And we’re still trying to figure out not only which model (or set of models) to pursue, but how to do it well.

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