Waxing Faith, Waning Trust: Ethics in Government, Religious Persecution and Declining Religious Support

Article excerpt


"Religion counts." (1) This short declaration by former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright succinctly articulates the significant effect of religious values in today's national and international political environments. Why does it count? It does so, in part, because of the enormous influence that people of faith have on political processes including war, peace, conflict resolution, and humanitarian endeavors around the globe.

Whether Buddhist or Baptist, Muslim or Methodist, Hindu or Holiness, religious Zionist or Zoroastrian, or any one of scores of other faith perspectives embraced around the globe, faith matters in the public and private lives of individuals. It shapes worldviews, values, ethics, and politics. For many people, when their religion is at odds with other values competing in the marketplace of ideas, religion will be the standard by which all other expectations and experiences are judged.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly in Private and Public

Values have consequences. Whether private or public, personal or corporate, values inevitably are manifested in the lives of individuals, the legislation of lawmakers, and the actions of governments--be they dictatorships or democracies. It has been said that not to be fortified with good ideas is to be victimized by bad ones. (2) This is true especially in the realm of ethics where it applies not only to individuals but also to institutions and governments. But there are some differences. The individual who is not fortified by good ideas and falls prey to bad ideas--whether in politics, philosophy, religion, economics, or science--will reap the consequences of those bad ideas in his or her personal life, professional life, business, or relationships. The government, legislature or leader that is not fortified by good ideas and falls prey to bad ones will actively or passively inflict the consequences of those bad ideas on its citizens. Ethically bad ideas in the lives of individuals brings personal calamity. Ethically bad ideas in government brings catastrophe for the masses--sometimes for minority groups, sometimes for the majority, and sometimes for everyone.

Throughout the West in recent years there has been a decrease in religious enthusiasm for national governments (while in other parts of the globe, circumstances have been just the opposite). To be sure, the so-called religious right in the United States has maintained a strong presence in national elections, but even its prominence, power, and political enthusiasm has diminished. Elsewhere, especially in some non-democratic nations, there has also been a decrease of support from citizens.

This phenomenon is not explained by any single cause but, rather, by a combination of individual and community beliefs, dissatisfaction with present administrations and policies, unethical behavior by elected government officials, and in many cases, deliberate actions by governments to harass or suppress religious communities.

Although there are several global and religious trends affecting the ability of governments to maintain legitimacy internally and externally, this presentation focuses on one religious persecution. When religious persecution occurs, there is an ethical chasm created between the citizen and the state that can be bridged only with extensive effort and time. More often than not, the systemic effects of the persecution are long-lasting and may take decades to overcome, if they ever can be overcome.

Often when we think about ethics and government we focus primarily on the unethical behavior and acts and only secondarily consider the consequences of those actions for citizens under the authority of the offending government or leadership. Any government that functions within a culture of corruption will lose support from its constituents--especially those with strong religious beliefs and communities. Because unethical behavior also violates religious values, the unethical government or leader loses legitimacy both from its constituents as citizens and from its constituents as people of faith. …