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The Positive Potential of Religion for Democracy

The following paper was originally prepared for the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.

In this paper, I will try to show the positive potential of religion for democracy in light of some theoretical and practical considerations. At the theoretical level, a debate on the proper relation of religion to politics has taken place between certain “liberal” political theorists who are suspicious of religion for good historical reasons and a number of Christian authors who argue that religion can enrich our public life.[1] One such author, David Hollenbach, S.J., bases his argument on an approach to the common good—defined in Catholic teaching as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment”[2]—that he discerns at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and calls “dialogic universalism.”[3] In Hollenbach’s view, this approach

is universalist, for it presumes that human beings are sufficiently alike in that they all share certain very general characteristics in common and that the same general outlines of well-being are shared in common as well. For example, the good of all human beings requires that basic bodily needs be met, that intelligence be developed and educated, that freedom of conscience be respected, and that participation in social and political life be a real possibility.[4]

At the same time the approach to the common good is dialogic. As Hollenbach explains:

Cultural differences are so significant that a shared vision of the common good can only be attained in a historically incremental way through deep encounter and intellectual exchange across traditions. It is also dialogic because it sees engagement with others across the boundaries of traditions as itself part of the human good.[5]

Hollenbach acknowledges religion’s problematical political record, but he argues that it can help people to get engaged in a positive way in their communities and thus contribute to the broader common good. Thus Hollenbach does not envisage a “theocracy” in which the church—or any other religious body—constitutes the state or plays an established or direct role in affairs of state. Rather, he envisages a separation of church and state, as taught at Vatican II, whereby the church, like the other bodies of civil society, influences the state indirectly through lobbying, contributing to debates of various issues, etc. In other words, he argues that religion can enhance democracy by way of its role in civil society.

Hollenbach also claims our religious beliefs inevitably play a role in our public lives; it is just impossible if we are Christians or Jews or Muslims to compartmentalize or “privatize” our deepest beliefs about life. For this reason, the “liberal” attempt to keep religion private risks undermining the very dynamic (of dialogue) that can lead religious believers to develop or change their convictions. In fact, the “liberal” view ironically risks precipitating the very kind of fundamentalism, intolerance, and conflict that it expressly seeks to avoid! As Hollenbach puts it: “Religious convictions are potentially explosive when confined to small spaces.”[6]

Hollenbach’s very practical point here reflects the insights of Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, who have asked why some so-called religious actors fly airplanes into buildings while others strive to build peace and democracy, likewise in the name of God. These authors argue that the answer to this question rests on two factors: (1) the set of ideas that a religious community holds about political authority and justice (its political theology); and (2) the mutual independence of religious authority and political authority.[7] This second factor is compounded by whether a religious actor’s independence is “consensual” or “conflictual.”[8] But these two factors taken together explain a great deal about the kind of politics that religious actors adopt.

Regarding the global spread of democracy between 1972 and 2009, for instance, Toft, Philpott, and Shah show that the role of religious actors was massive. “Remarkably,” they write, “in about 62 percent of the world’s democratizing countries, at least some religious actors actively aligned themselves with democratization.”[9] More than this: religious actors played a leading pro-democratic role in 30 of the 48 cases in which religious actors played some democratizing role.[10] But if, as Toft, Philpott, and Shah show, religious actors were on the side of freedom in 48 of the world’s 78 cases of democratization since 1972, what about the remaining 30 cases? Why did religious actors fail to rally there?

According to Toft, Philpott, and Shah, religious actors are far more likely to be pro-democratic when they enjoy some institutional independence from the state and when they hold a democratic political theology.[11] In fact, religious actors that support democratization tend to enjoy “conflictual independence” from state authority; they live under an authoritarian regime that strives to deny them their freedom but they have fought back to the extent that they can exercise their own affairs—worship, education, official appointments—and mount resistance against the regime. Examples are the Catholic Church in Poland during the Communist era and major Muslim movements under Suharto in Indonesia.

What motivates religious actors to strive for democracy? It is their political theology. Notably, in three-quarters of the cases where religious actors played a role in democratization between 1972 and 2009—36 of 48 countries—at least one of the pro-democratic actors was Catholic. In 18 of 48 cases, the only religious actors that played a leading or supporting democratizing role were Catholic actors. Toft, Philpott, and Shah attribute this “overwhelmingly Catholic wave” (Samuel Huntington’s term) to the Church’s embrace of human rights (particularly the right to religious freedom), peace, and development at Vatican II.[12]

But we can say more. Philosopher Jacques Maritain cites the labor movement of 1848 in France in order to make his case that the roots of democracy lie in the Gospel and that there are dire consequences when this point is forgotten. The movement was inspired at least in part by Christian ideals, but it was smothered by the bourgeoisie who appealed to religion as a means to defend their interests under the guise of public order. As a result, the working classes drifted away from Christianity and allied themselves instead with the labor movements of the late nineteenth century. To the extent that conservative Christians continued to scorn the temporal exigencies of justice and love, moreover, democracy and Christianity proceeded to go their separate ways. Nevertheless, Maritain argues, the democratic ideals that human history has an “end,” that the human person transcends the state, that dignity resides in all people, that authority has its source in God alone and thus more immediately in the consent of the governed, and that politics depends ultimately on brotherly love are all to be found in the gospel.[13]

Peacemaking serves as a practical example of brotherly love. From a Christian standpoint, Jesus Christ forgives sinners and reconciles them to God the Father. Consequently, discipleship necessitates a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, which can be highly significant politically. As Scott Appleby points out regarding Northern Ireland, the “top-down” structural processes worked out in the political arena are unlikely to succeed without “bottom-up” cultural initiatives designed to build the social infrastructures of peace. “Early attempts to end the Troubles through structural political and economic measures failed,” he writes, “in part because they were not accompanied by the mobilization of cultural actors at the grassroots level.”[14] In fact, religious actors can be highly effective as cultural peacemakers because of some peculiar resources: a zeal for justice coupled with a willingness to forgive; patience, restraint, and persistence in the face of setbacks; and a vast supply of hope—virtues rarely seen together and nurtured by religious communities.[15]

This effort will often entail a re-mythologizing project: the replacement of narratives of righteous revenge with stories and practices that can bind historically divided peoples in new patterns of active tolerance. The dismal state of public education in Northern Ireland—for example, the prohibitive class structure of the system and the low incidence of “mixed” schools—has been an enormous impediment to the realization of this goal. As Appleby notes: “The debunking of ideologically loaded ‘histories’ is therefore a priority of educators who are challenging the manipulation of religious symbols by sectarian propagandists, textbook writers, and others who seek to reinforce and augment destructive cultural myths. Unfortunately the myths are deeply ingrained.”[16]

I observed this kind of work recently while teaching in the Balkans. Franciscan peacemaker, Fr. Ivo Markovic remarked to my class that national identity there is not cultural but religious and that it is very important, therefore, to differentiate between the two in order to save religion from being manipulated by nationalist interests. One of his goals is to protect the Church from such manipulation by maintaining its independence as advocated by Toft, Philpott, and Shah. More generally, Fr. Ivo pursues interfaith collaboration to sustain a pluralistic Bosnia. As he said: “Identity must be open.” His point recalls Hollenbach’s theory of dialogic universalism. Fr. Ivo also said: “Bosnia can be a model for uniting Europe.” If that ever happens, we really would take religion seriously!


1. See David Hollenbach, S.J., “Religion and Political Life: Theoretical Issues,” in Hollenbach, The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights, and Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown UP, 2003), pp. 99–123. Hollenbach characterizes the debate as between liberal theorists such as John Rawls (who, in his early work, excludes religion from the culturally embedded “overlapping consensus” of “public reason,” but then includes it on the grounds of civility provided public reason is strengthened), Richard Rorty and Kent Greenawalt, and Christian authors such as Michael J. Perry (who believes that liberal neutrality about competing conceptions of authentic human existence cuts off liberal thought from some of the richest resources for thinking about human life, namely, those of the great religious traditions), Robin Lovin, and himself.

2. Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), no. 26.

3. Hollenbach, “Faith in Public,” in The Global Face of Public Faith, pp. 3–18. See also Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 152.

4. Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics, p. 152.

5. Ibid., p. 153.

6. Hollenbach, “Religion and Political Life: Theoretical Issues,” p. 118.

7. Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), p. 9.

8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. Ibid., p. 95.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., pp. 82–120.

12. Ibid., pp. 111–13.

13. See Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).

14. R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), p. 170.

15. Ibid., p. 171.

16. Ibid.

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