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Faith in 21st Century Politics?

Winter 2011 Query

Faith in 21st Century Politics?

queryfaithReligion, artificially divorced from the public sphere, makes for an impoverished politics at best, and a benighted political class at worst

There is, in today’s politics, an unfortunate and frequent misappropriation of the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’ – a turn of phrase and concept first developed by the late American political scientist and Carter-era security adviser Samuel Huntington – to raise the spectre of the nefarious influence of religious faith in politics. Such a misappropriation betrays an ignorance of the role of religious faith in society, in politics and in the lives of many citizens on the part of officially and predominantly secular, humanist, political elites in Europe and in the Americas.

This obsession with a ‘clash of civilizations,’ when applied to the relations between the Islamic world and the secular Western world, is increasingly informing a growing distaste for any religious presence in politics or public life. The ignorance of the role of religious faith is reflected in two ways: first, through a misunderstanding of the role that religion plays in non-secular political cultures like that of Saudi Arabia, and in quasi-secular political cultures like that of Turkey – countries historically viewed as ‘other’ in Western European and Anglo-American thinking; and second, through inadequate appreciation of the position of religious faith in the political life of these same secular, Western European and Anglo-American liberal democracies.

The en vogue pronouncements of Christopher Hitchens (including in his recent famous debate with Tony Blair in Toronto) and other so-called neo-atheists that point to violent campaigns undertaken in the name of religious faith throughout history as a principal illustration of how religious faith and violence are inextricably linked help to further entrench an ignorance of the positive role of religious faith in society in general, and in politics in particular. And yet, it is worth being reminded again and again that the greatest genocides and mass slaughters undertaken in history were committed in the 20th century in the name of secular ideologies, as witnessed by the purges of Stalin and the Khmer Rouge, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Rwandan and Armenian genocides. To paraphrase a popular American axiom: religion does not kill people; people kill people.

In a religious political culture like that of Saudi Arabia, where a religion – in this case, Islam – is intrinsic to the state’s identity, and where all political actions are informed by that faith, one clearly finds a political culture that could not be more different to those of the liberal, secular West. Much has been written in the last quarter century on Wahhabi Islam and its role in shaping Saudi domestic and foreign policy; however, it can be argued that Western political leaders still have a general ignorance of this golden thread that weaves itself through, and indeed fundamentally defines, Saudi political culture. In order to properly engage Saudi Arabia in dialogue on a whole range of issues, from human rights to economic, foreign and defence policy, it behooves policy-makers in Europe and the Americas to confront their own presumptions that religion and politics cannot and should not mix. In other words, while not necessarily defending Saudi policies that are contrary to Western liberal democratic values – and avoiding the descent into ideological relativism – Western political actors must aim to stand in the shoes of the Kingdom’s Wahhabi elites, so as to better understand their actions, right or wrong.

While Turkey is officially a secular state, its politics have been marked by thwarted and frustrated attempts to advance the position of Islam in the public sphere. Ataturk’s rigid secular legacy – the preserve of Turkey’s dominant civic and political institutions: the military, the courts, the educational establishment and the Kemalist political parties – has been refashioned by the AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With its Islamist roots, the AKP has steadily fought against the Kemalist sacred cows – including the ban on women wearing the headscarf in universities and other public buildings – so as to give Islam greater public presence. Against Turkish secular nationalists’ dire warnings of the coming of an Iranian-style theocracy, the liberal and democratic AKP has successfully enabled a more public expression of Islam in Turkish politics and society in general. Still, despite the AKP’s democratic credentials and its continued, dogged pursuit of EU membership, Turkey’s EU campaign continues to face stiff opposition from key member-states, such as France, Germany and Greece. While there are many challenges on the path to Turkey’s EU membership – including the status of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and religious freedom – the clear ‘elephant in the room’ of Turkish-EU relations is Islam.

The persistence of an ‘at-the-gates-of-Vienna’ mentality among the staunchly secular French and the Germans belies not only a fear of a massive influx of Turkish migrants into Europe, but also fear of the ‘other’ – of Islam. Does this play to the fears and misapprehensions arising from a ‘clash of civilizations’ world view? Indeed. Islam is a defining feature of Turkish culture, and now an increasingly important force within Turkish politics. However, a deep appreciation of the generally moderate and democratic character of Turkish Islam – shaped by the Sufi tradition – is perhaps what is lacking in European approaches to contemporary Turkey.

Furthermore, the almost fundamentalist secular culture of France and the post-Christian cultures of much of central Europe are stumbling blocks toward a much fuller and more nuanced appreciation for the role that religious faith can play in politics. While framed by the laudable principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Western European political cultures have increasingly sought to constrain the free and equal expression of religion – certainly not in private, as this is deemed to be religious faith’s proper place – but publicly, where religious faith is wrongly seen as being exclusive, as making objective truth claims, and as being decidedly non-pluralist. These countries, the political, judicial, and educational institutions and guiding liberal democratic values of which were shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs, have forgotten their foundations. Indeed, in the service of a pluralist, relativist and secular faith, the Western European and, to a varying extent, Anglo-American political cultures have altogether sidelined religious faith from politics.

This post-Enlightenment relegation of religious expression strictly to the private sphere of the home and the quasi-public sphere of the church, synagogue, temple and related charitable and benevolent institutions, is both unfortunate, short-sighted and – one might claim – unjust. Most of the world’s great faiths have been lived out in public spaces: city squares, riverbanks and seashores, parks and grand buildings. This is the case with Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, among others. The idea that an individual should park his or her religious faith at the door of the home and not express it in his or her public life – whether political or otherwise – is a constraint that goes against the spirit – if not the letter – of free religious expression. As is the case with what many would construe as similar rights, this freedom of public and private religious expression is not absolute; violence against others in the name of religious faith cannot be tolerated. Yet, it is likewise wrong to construe, as many secular humanists or neo-atheists might, that the profession of objective religious truth in the public sphere by a faithful believer is somehow inflicting intellectual violence against the other.

Enabling the expression of religious beliefs in public debates – in institutional fora, such as legislatures or around Cabinet tables, or in broader political discourse – needs to be accepted as legitimate once again in Western European and Anglo-American political cultures. The desire to suppress such expression or to belittle those who openly express their religious faith and apply it to political action is myopic, and again inhibits the ability to understand those political cultures where public expressions of religious faith are welcomed – if not, in fact, absolutely expected.

While the US, with its constitutional separation of church and state, has carved out the greatest space for religious expression in politics, it appears to stand alone. Public declarations of religious faith in American politics are not only accepted, but are, in a rather crass sense, politically necessary in order to gain political support from an electorate that remains broadly confessional in character. Increasingly, the opposite is true in countries like Canada and Australia, where public figures who publicly confess their faith, and emphasize that it informs their political action, are anathematized for having violated the purportedly official exclusion of religious faith from public life. While one can argue that this violates freedom of religious expression, and indeed pulls back the cloak to reveal the ‘official secular religion,’ it is even more unfortunate in that it deprives public political discourse of the valuable insights of religious faith. The same Judeo-Christian values of justice, tolerance and human dignity that shaped the political cultures and institutions of Western liberal democracies, and that are now supported by similar values from other faith traditions, can have a place in the contemporary political discourse, enriching it with morality and rendering it more human.

Expressions of moderate religious faith should rightly be accorded their public place within 21st century politics, so that both international and domestic political discourse can be enriched by their perspectives – perspectives, it must be said, that lie at the core of human development.


Andrew P.W. Bennett is Professor of Church History at Augustine College, a Christian, classical liberal arts post-secondary college in Ottawa.

(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

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