Friday, July 20, 2012

Can Religion Co-Exist with Liberal Democracy in the West?

This week, the German Parliament passed a motion to protect religious circumcision of young boys, after a German Court had ruled against circumcision of young boys. The movement was endorsed across party lines and had the backing of Jewish and Muslim religious groups, stating "Jewish and Muslim religious life must continue to be possible in Germany. Circumcision has a central religious significance for Jews and Muslims." Meanwhile German doctors have since testified against male circumcision.

The incident is just the recent in a string of clashes between liberal democratic governments and religious groups. Similarly, Israel's coalition government came tumbling down amidst a divide between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz on the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs into the Israeli Defense Forces. Meanwhile, America experienced its own crisis in the lines between separation of church and state in the wake of the accessibility of contraception, with the Catholic church crying "war on religion" and many on the left crying "war on women." While there are always difficulties in pushing for liberal democracy and there should be robust debate, the year of 2012's socially political events must make one wonder if liberal democracy is compatible with faith.

The basic premise of religion-particularly religions of the Abrahamic tradition like Christianity, Judaism and Islam-is the idea that truth has been revealed to mankind by a divine being through His sacred texts, or adherence to certain practice, leading to an enlightened life, deeper understand of the higher being or the promise of a hereafter paradise. Consequently, this leads to unwillingness to compromise on said principles because of the fact that there is a feeling that a divine being, the highest authority of all, is the grounding for their value systems and compromising on said values means diluting the will of the supreme being.

Meanwhile, Democracy is predicated completely on compromise. It is predicated on differing parties coming together and making the necessary compromises in order to further the country's interest, be it maximizing the liberty of the individual, promoting economic growth or national security. But being fallible beings, it is impossible to get the entirety of what one wishes. Therefore, democracy is always an evolving process and one wherein one must be willing to accept compromises, or delay gratification. In a speech to the Constitutional Convention on September  17, 1787, Benjamin Franklin remarked:
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. 
Furthermore, the concept of liberal democracy-"liberal" as in classic liberalism not left-wing democracy-is a product of Enlightenment thinking, which rejected restricted thinking and promoted tolerance for others, and equality amongst men-albeit not necessarily practicing it. In addition it worked to promote the rights of the minorities or those who did not necessarily belong to those rigid ideologies. It was focused on ensuring that everyone would be able to enjoy a life of liberty and to choose their way of living. Hence there would be protections from democracy's worst abuses like the tyranny of the majority.

Part of this would also include working to promote religious freedom. The American Democratic Experiment worked to mitigate this contradiction by ensuring religious liberty for all people and creating a separation of church and state vis-a-vis the First Amendment. In Israel, the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel worked to achieve a Zionist dream by working to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."

Yet, in recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that these two concepts might be anathema to each other. One is interested in seeking the will of a deity or connection to something deeper while the other is focused on what is most effective for the populace, promotes liberty and prosperity. Case in point, with the aforementioned contraception debate, when President Obama worked to reach a compromise with Catholic hospitals, it failed to satisfy the Catholic hierarchy and when Orthodox Rabbis were chided by their more secular Jewish counterparts for their insulting of a Jewish girl, they cried out in persecution and had their children dress as Holocaust prisoners as a symbolic means of crowing persecution.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this clash, comes with same-sex marriage. In the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, same-sex marriage was seen to be a losing issue for anyone who supported it. President Obama famously opposed it. In California, Proposition 8 passed, amending the state's Constitution to limit marriage between one man and one woman, with broad support from Evangelical Christians, African Americans and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints only to be struck down on the Federal Level  by a judge appointed by President George Herbert Walker Bush, before it became aware that the jurist was gay.

However, as LGBT rights continues to gain traction and popularity both among private citizens and by corporations, religious groups have been seeing themselves in a state of flux. Either they continue to preach the same message that they spoke prior to public support for gay rights, or they do what many contemporary churches have done wherein they do not address how to live or how to react to the world but instead focus on the micro level between God and Man and how to worship but not necessarily how to correspond to the world around them.

All of this is not to say that religion and democracy will have to come to a war wherein democracy beats religion or religion trumps democracy. What it is to say however, is that there will inevitably have to be some adaptation for either force to survive. But the rub  is where do they adapt? If democracy adheres to one or more particular religion's demands, then it risks losing its ability to promote liberty in manners that may be contrary to one or more religions' particular demands and surrenders the concepts of equality; if religion changes itself to adhere to Democracy in the wrong way, it risks diluting its initial message and possibly misleading its masses.

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