Making Sense of Religion and Democracy.

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Posted on April 10th, 2013 | Filed under Community, Interfaith, Theology

'Religion and Democracy: Thursdays, 1:00-4:00 pm, Divinity School, 2nd floor.'

The title of this class sounded intriguing and right up my alley. We would study how religion affects democracy, and vice versa. Yet, sitting in lecture during week 3, I admit: I didn’t really understand the point of this class. What was the question we sought to answer? These two concepts seemed so vague and incomprehensible.

We started by discussing John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. In this book, Murray details his analysis of the first amendment in regards to religion, namely, that in a religiously plural democracy, although we cannot argue about conflicting convictions of ultimate truth (i.e. religious convictions), we, as citizens in a democracy, all agree to hold certain truths to keep civil order. We separate what Murray denotes the “spiritual order” from the “natural order”; that is, our beliefs about human purpose and our beliefs that help define natural law. Next we looked at Steven Smith’s Foreordained Failure, in which Smith denies the possibility of religious freedom existing in a religiously plural democracy. He believes that because we require “background” to agree on common principles, meaning that we cannot have a principle of uninhibited religious freedom because it will always require some sort of contingency. In our case, this is the agreement that we maintain order in our society under democracy. We put democracy above our religious convictions. So what? I thought. Maintaining order by agreeing to abide by certain laws didn’t seem all that difficult.

In the next part of the course, we discussed three thinkers that sought to deal with a similar problem in defining religious freedom under democracy. We began with John Rawls and a discussion of his Political Liberalism, moved to Jürgen Habermas’ Between Naturalism and Religion, and concluded with Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition. In putting these last three thinkers into conversation with one another, I finally began to understand the question we were trying to answer, or at least the one I kept asking myself: Can we, as citizens, truly practice our religious traditions without any restraints, under a democracy that houses religious pluralism?

Rawls, Habermas, and Stout each respond to this question in conversation with each other. To begin, Rawls introduces a theory of "justice as fairness," in which "freestanding principles of justice," or, a series of principles we as citizens in democracy all maintain. Rawls asserts that the idea of "freestanding principles of justice" outweighs religious conviction in public reason, and thus eliminates the possibility of using religious conviction in political decision-making. Public reason refers to a common mode of deliberation in public decision-making. Habermas, on the other hand, disagrees with Rawls in that he believes people can use religious convictions to make their own political decisions, because those who are religious live entirely devout to that worldview. Still, in public institutions, Habermas asserts that we cannot use religious convictions in public reason because it is impossible to reach an agreement, given our devotion to a comprehensive religious tradition. Thus, he suggests we translate religious reasons into secular terms for discussion in the public square. Finally, Stout argues that while we can use our religious conviction in public reason, we must reach an accordance to enter exchanges of ideas via the Socratic method with citizens who hold different worldviews. So, we can use our personal religious convictions to make political decisions, but we do so knowing those with different convictions will questions us and argue with us about them.

At the culmination of the quarter, it is difficult to say with whom I agree most. As long as I have analyzed my own version of religious freedom, I cannot find a way to define the principle without forcing citizens to agree on some common element in our society, even if it is simply the fact that we can and should argue about our religious convictions. Somehow, we reconcile our religious/spiritual/secular worldview with that of our democracy to maintain order. Yet, in thinking about this question even further, I cannot help but wonder if this forced agreement upon all citizens is actually a good thing. If we are forced to argue about our religious/spiritual/secular convictions with those who don’t share these beliefs, does this not force us to be self-reflexive, and in turn to be more knowledgeable about our own convictions?

After attending the last course lecture, I read a book by George Rupp, the current President of the International Rescue Committee called Globalization Challenged: Conviction, Conflict, Community. The short book includes an essay by Rupp that discusses issues of religious pluralism under globalization, three responses by scholars, and a response conclusion by Rupp. Including Rupp, these scholars use the foundational analyses laid by Rawls, Habermas and Stout to make their arguments. In Jagdish Bhagwati’s response to Rupp’s first essay, discussing the concept of humanity, he writes:

I frankly do not think we have any realistic choice except to opt for pluralism and that any religion that seeks to set itself up, and encourages its followers to think of it, as the only way to reach salvation lacks some of the humanity that it must have simply because it is likely to encourage dissension and strife (Rupp 105).

This is a powerful statement. On the one hand, I cannot personally say I agree holistically about religions that promise the true way to salvation being inherently dissenting. I believe on the contrary, that religions in certain ways must promise a distinct way to salvation in order to distinguish themselves, regardless of whether they confirm or deny that other religions might offer worthy alternatives. The importance of this statement to me lies in the fact that religions all seek to answer the question of what it means to be a human being. They offer a path to “salvation”, which to me means a set of values and or morals that allow us to live a fulfilling life. So, this concept of humanity is the foundation for our agreement.

I believe I finally understand the question this course Religion and Democracy has tried to answer. By living in a religiously plural society, we live amongst citizens who may not share our definition of what it means to be human. We engage in discussion, and we force ourselves to be self-reflexive about our convictions. Why do we believe what we believe? The question, then, is not whether we can define our democracy as a truly religiously free society, but whether it helps or hinders our own practices. I believe it helps. Further, if we begin to ask, “What does it mean to share our humanity?”, we may find that we share more convictions than those upon which we disagree.

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Jem is a first year M.A. student at the University of Chicago studying Islam and pre-Islamic religions in the Ancient Near East. She practices Mahayana Buddhism and interfaith activism.


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