Religion a growing threat or enduring asset for democracy?

The largely affirmative response to the classic question of whether religion is good for democracy seems to have become more qualified over the last decade, articles in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy (October) show. In recent years, scholars studying democracies have sounded the alarm about a “democratic recession” in the face of such challenges as populism, the shrinking of civil liberties, and growing distrust in traditional forms of political leadership. Nilay Saiya of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore cites the rise of “theocratic democracy” as one factor in this democratic recession. He defines theocratic democracy as when dominant religious communities throw their support behind authoritarian political elites who, in turn, exploit religion to reinforce their rule, restricting political rights and quashing alternative sources of authority. In studying 25 of the most populous countries between 1990 and 2018, Saiya found that as religious majoritarian privilege increases “so too does repression of basic democratic rights.” He writes that over two decades, the world’s largest democracies, the U.S., India, Brazil, and Indonesia, have seen serious democratic recessions under the influence of “religious nationalism.” In India and Indonesia, Hindu and Muslim nationalists in government have sought to repress religious minorities, and even in Brazil and the U.S., Christian nationalists have supported efforts to discredit the electoral systems (and, in the case of the U.S. and the Trump administration, restricted Muslim minorities with an immigration ban). Saiya concludes, however, that recent research finds that state control of a religion can actually turn people of faith against the regime as they feel that the government controlled version of their religion is inappropriate and unauthentic.

Narendra Modi’s rally in Delhi, 2013 (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Another article in the issue offers a more positive take on the role of religion in democracy. Yale University political scientist Kate Baldwin focuses on democratic initiatives embraced by churches in sub-Saharan Africa, measuring civil society advocacy by both churches and trade unions in 34 countries between 2009 and 2018. She finds that the churches advocated for liberal democracy more often than the unions during that period. An example of church engagement in what she calls “narrow” democratic activism is the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops’ urging of the country’s parliament not to rush through changes to an electoral law that might have tilted the playing field in the president’s favor. An example of “strong” activism is when Tanzania’s Evangelical Lutheran Church charged in 2018 that the ruling party’s suppression of political opponents undermined the country’s democracy. Baldwin finds that unions did engage in more of the strong activism than did the churches. Catholic churches accounted for about two-fifths of pro-democracy activism; church councils (usually Protestant) accounted for another two-fifths; and individual Protestant churches accounted for roughly a fifth. Baldwin adds that the historic Protestant and Catholic churches with the greatest investments in education tended to have the greatest interest in preserving liberal-democratic institutions. The autocratic exposure risks that running schools create will ensure that these churches “have a greater interest in liberal-democratic protections to protect them from autocrats taking control of their educational empires.”

(Journal of Democracy,