Thoughts on Religion and Democracy

Religious tensions in the Middle East are a palpable truth of the region’s realpolitik. Frequently, atheists or humanists (or people adhering to both views) will contend that religion is the source of much (if not all) of the unrest in the world’s political makup, and that, if only religion would be abolished, the world would be a better place. Such arguments are made on the back of claims that religion is either wholly or for the most part irrational, untestable, unverifiable, and a uniquely potent driver towards violence. In short, a mechanism by which people drive themselves to conflict with others, rather than a force for harmony. The argument is interminable and often misguided. But regardless of whether either party is right, which one that may be, or whether both are mistaken, a related problem remains.

The United States is unique in that it is the sole country on the planet (and readers may correct me) in whose constitution the separation of Church and States is enshrined as a principle by which the affairs of the nation ought to be run healthily. The violation of that is in evidence with every word a US political figure utters in public support for his religion (invariably Christianity) and with the never ending court cases relating to the Decalogue being proclaimed on court walls and the teaching of “intelligent” design in schools. So it is a far from perfect system, even by its own criteria. But at least the sentiment is there in that political scripture: state and church are not to mix.

In countries permitting rule based on religious ideology, things are seen to faulter. An obvious example is the Taliban, whose fundamentalist Islamic actions represseed women, freedom, education and so many values that sane and rational people would hold dear. In Saudi Arabia, religous expression through government leads to a totalitarian rule. Note, incidentally, the hypocrisy of the western “liberators” and democracy bringers: they side with Saudi against terrorism, neglecting to mention that Saudi is itself implicated in it. This is not a staunch defence of democracy, but a staunch defence of the west interests. One fundamentalist group may be sacrificed and another befriended.

George Bush’s religious convictions may play to the tastes of his right-wing conservative god-fearing fans, but the rest of the world is worried, not only on account of the violation of the Church and State principle the US is failing to uphold, but also on account of the unaccountability of God. Democracy’s most treasured principle relates to the accountability of leadership and representation; people are to decide and it is to people that leaders are supposed to be accountable. Yet a leader who elevates God above the electorate surely sacrifices democracy at the same altar. No longer does the popular will suffice – policy decisions are to be ratified in a dialogue with the divine.

And in this way, religion undermines political ideals. American conservatives will shout at this till they’re blue in the face, but it is a fact. A president accountable only to the Lord, puts the people he serves second.

In Britain secular tradition extends deeper, despite the lack of a constitutional divide between faith and government. Britain has never shied away from producing the likes of David Hume, Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins as intellectual luminaries. It is for this reason that it was all the more shocking to discover, part-way through Blair’s premiership, that some of his convictions had their origins in religious belief. To appeal to religion for guidance is, however wise the passages of holy texts may be, to appeal to a source whose reasons are not accountable to the public will. And therefore, it is to mimic the retrograde ideologies of the very religious extremists modern US-UK policy seems bent on destroying (it’s link to such regimes as Saudi notwithstanding), and to undermine democracy.

Religious influence over political affairs and the ideal of democracy are not compatible.

Please watch the BBC’s coverage of Tony Blair’s admission that God guided him through parts of his own decision making processes during the last 10 years. Of particular interest should be his conviction that he will be judged by “other people” at the end of his tenure (perhaps on earth). Since the end of his premiership, speculation has arisen on Blair’s intention to convert to Catholicism.

All Change: David Cameron vs. Tony Blair