Religion: A Friend to Democracy

This blog conversation explores the relationship between religious freedom and political systems. Respondents discuss how citizens and governments benefit from robust religious freedom or, alternatively, suffer under religious restrictions. Additionally, they explore the unique contours of state-church relations, particularly in the United States.

By: Daniel Philpott

Is religious freedom essential to the success of free government? 

It is possible to have liberal democracy in most respects without religious freedom, but such regimes are less liberal for this lack. I have in mind Germany under Bismarck, which expanded the suffrage and other dimensions of democracy even while it managed or repressed religion. Today, Indonesia has made impressive strides towards democracy since the fall of the Suharto regime but has laws that restrict religious freedom significantly. In such cases the quality of democracy suffers not only intrinsically, but also because these arrangements tend to suppress the positive contribution to freedom that religion might make. 

Conversely, religious repression sustains authoritarian governments. The pathway of repression takes at least two forms. First, authoritarian governments straightforwardly establish and maintain their rule by suppressing religious organizations and communities that serve as a threat to their rule. One thinks of the Republic of Turkey prior to 2002, whose military and judiciary combined to prevent the rule of Islamic parties even when they had achieved victory in elections.

A second form is what might be thought of as a circle of repression. Governments repress religion; religion strikes back; and government represses even more. A common pattern in the Arab dictatorships is that they sought to control Islam sharply by establishing and upholding a moderate form of Islam as official and then suppressing more conservative forms of Islam. The result was a radicalization of the conservative groups and often a turn to violence, at least among some of their members. In response, the governments would repress further.

Religious freedom instantiates and strengthens liberal democracy and its freedoms through the kinds of activities that it allows. Several of these activities overlap with other freedoms and civil rights. Religious freedom unleashes religious organizations to engage in democratic debate; to gather both for worship and for political advocacy; to engage in political processes through lobbying, elections, and sometimes even forming a political party, as with Christian Democracy; and to promote civil society through schools, universities, hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages, and other sectors of society that exist apart from and serve as a check upon state power. 

Religious freedom also empowers religions to promote cultural and ideational influences that support democracy. Because religions stress the prime importance of a God, gods, or powers that transcend human affairs, they are more likely to stress the limited authority of government and to resist the totalitarian impulse. Because religions see a special role for a clerical caste or vocation, they have reason to protect clerics’ proper vocation and role from the consuming tendencies of the state and sometimes also to insist that clerics do not hold political office. Thus we get duality of authority and separation of religion and state, key features of liberal democracy.

It will be objected that not all religious groups will manifest these pro-liberal democratic tendencies. Indeed they don’t. Much depends on their political theology. Should illiberal ones then be suppressed? The impulse should be resisted as much as possible, for giving religious groups freedom to operate is likely to make them friendlier to democratic processes. They are less likely to be radicalized by resentment; they will have to build coalitions, which tend to be moderating; and they will have to argue, which allows others to challenge their beliefs and them to defend their beliefs more carefully. Moreover, the internal resources of religious groups for promoting democracy, or at least features of it, are wider than one might think. Islam, for instance, is often described as lacking a tradition of separation of religion and state, but in fact just such a separation between clerics and political rulers has been strongly endorsed through much of Islam’s history.

The independence of religious groups to operate can help to defeat authoritarian regimes. This independence may not be full religious freedom of the kind that is guaranteed by law, but when religious groups enjoy de facto independence under authoritarian regimes and when they are inclined to oppose those regimes, they can be powerful forces for democratization. Numerous examples come to mind, ranging from the Catholic Church in Poland, Chile, the Philippines, Malawi, and South Africa to the dissident pastors in the German Protestant Church to the Nadhlatul Ulama and Mohammediya parties in Indonesia. They help to promote these transitions through protest, through behind-the-scenes negotiations with authoritarian leaders, and through mediating peace agreements that end civil war and yield transition to democracy.

Scholars like Adrian Karatnycky and the team of Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have offered powerful evidence of the prevalence and power of non-violent movements in eliciting transitions to democratic rule. Some 67 people power movements have toppled dictatorships in the past generation or so. Religious groups have played a role in a strikingly large number of these movements. In some 48 out of 78 democratizations, Monica Duffy Toft, Timothy Samuel Shah, and I report in our book God’s Century (2011), religious movements played a significant role. In cases like those listed above, this role was more than significant but rather pivotal and powerful.

Daniel Philpott is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame (on leave fall 2015 and spring 2016).

This piece was originally authored on April 21, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.   

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/religion-a-friend-to-democracy