Democracy and Religion

Debates about the viability of pairing democracy with religion have been rampant since the so-called Enlightenment in Europe, vaguely traced to movements that opposed the idea of the divine right of kings and the power of the Catholic Church. Even before that, religiously themed rebellions resulted in new Christian orders and consequential civil and international wars revolving around the modern United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. Democracy is often defined in terms palatable to Western cultural sensitivities and values as critics of modern policies to spread democratic principles to non-Western countries have charged. This debate has picked up steam since the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the subsequent American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In American discourse, the concept of democracy has been associated with the so-called "separation of church and state." The idea originally gave no preference to religious institutions from the point of view of government. Additionally, separate ideas such as the "freedom of religion" and "freedom from religion" have grown around the separation when individuals have debated the intention of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of religion guarantees the free practice thereof, uninhibited by the policies of national or local governments that cannot prevent its practice. Others contend emphasis should be placed on freedom from religion, whereas the intent might have been to let Americans be free from the imposition of any one religious sect on the entire population and the need to pay homage to such sect by directive of the government.

The phrase "[wall of] separation of church and state" is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, though he is thought not to have been the only person to use the terminology in his time. However, given his written record of usage in a letter, the letter itself has been quoted by relevant Supreme Court decisions in 1878 and 1947. The concept of separating any religious institution from official status in the government or government coercion of religion has been attributed to the views of John Locke, a prominent 17th-century English political philosopher who advocated that common people should have the freedom to reason for themselves and thus not be bound to any one religious institution by law. His views are seen to have been born out of the European Enlightenment. Other philosophers associated with the period include Baruch Spinoza and Sir Isaac Newton. Spinoza is also said to have advocated the prevention of religious institutions' interference in the legislative process and, therefore, he promoted the idea of a formal separation.

Other countries, namely Turkey and France, have instituted their own versions of separation. In other parts of the Western world, there is a de facto state religion, but there is little more than a ceremonial role for the country's major religion. The Church of England remains official in the United Kingdom and the religion of the Royal House of Windsor. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate conducts the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister. In Israel, a Chief Rabbinate officiates matters of civil concern like marriage, divorce and religious conversion. Because of the ambiguities certain countries present for themselves, such as Westernized Israel or several Muslim-majority states that declare themselves "Islamic Republics," the extent to which religion dominates the state or is separated from the state is not defined. That has led to the argument that Western thinkers make a distinction between religion and state that is not a priority for other people around the world. That also points to religious political movements in Western countries like Germany's Christian Democrats or the various activist causes of Evangelical Christians in America and the advocacy of a "Christian America" that chooses to de-emphasize or repeal elements of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It has also been argued that the separation of religion and state is part and parcel of the conditions of true democracy. One criticism to this and a point related to the lack of emphasis on the concept outside the West -- sometimes said with the nuance of contempt for Islam and sometimes with sympathy for the religion -- is that such policies ignore the elevated status of religious figures and the learned elite who lead their pilgrims. It is argued, not only for Islam but also for other faiths, that submission to the perceived will of God, who is legislative, cannot be compatible with the will of the people.

This criticism, particularly in Iraq, is based on the long and bloody history of conflict between the central government in Baghdad (led by secular Sunni nationalists) and the religious leadership of the Shiite Islamic sect often headquartered in the holy towns of southern Iraq. Several rebellions where Shiites participated have padded the argument that the religiously devoted inscribe power to the representatives of their religion, which claims the right to teach and carry out the will of God.


Democracy and Religion: Selected full-text books and articles

Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy By Ronald F. Thiemann Georgetown University Press, 1996
The Religions of Democracy: Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism in Creed and Life By Louis Findelstein; J. Elliot Ross; William Adams Brown Devin-Adair, 1941
Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics By Christopher J. Eberle Cambridge University Press, 2002
Christian Democracy in Western Europe, 1820-1953 By Michael P. Fogarty University of Notre Dame Press, 1957
The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy By D. B. Robertson King's Crown Press, 1951
Christian Faith and Democracy By Gregory Vlastos Distributed by Association press, 1939
Secularism Is the Will of God: An Essay in the Social Philosophy of Democracy and Religion By Horace M. Kallen Twayne Publishers, 1954
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Democracy and Mediating Structures: A Theological Inquiry By Charles Peguy American Enterprise Institute, 1980
Islam and Democracy By John L. Esposito; John O. Voll Oxford University Press, 1996
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