Written by Sam Logan
Tuesday, 29 January 2013 00:00
In my previous blog (published yesterday), I indicated that I would be making a few comments and asking a few questions about Nader Hashemi’s book, Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy.
I concluded that blog by asking that readers write out their answer to this question: “What is the exact definition of democracy?”
I ask this question in the context of my increasing belief that there may be (I did say MAY be) an inherent contradiction in any attempt to create a democratic, religious state. And Hashemi raises this issue himself. Early in his book, he cites the famous comment of Alexis de Tocqueville from 1831: “The organization and the establishment of democracy in Christendom is the great political problem of our time.” Hashemi goes on to extrapolate from Tocqueville’s comment: “This observation, although 178 years old, reminds us that the problem of religion’s relationship with democracy is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon but one that other traditions – Christianity in particular – have had to struggle with. “
Why is the relationship of ANY religion with democracy a “problem?” That brings me back to my original question – what do we mean by “democracy?”
Of course, definitions of democracy abound. Some are simple – democracy describes political authority which rests on “the consent of the governed.” Immediately, the problem is obvious. A nation may be established as “Christian,” but if its identity genuinely is democratically determined and if the population turns away from Christian belief, then it will no longer be Christian. Conflict arises when those who remain Christian find the Christian identity of the nation being changed. But that seems to be an inherent possibility if the nation is originally established as a Christian democracy.
The January 19, 2013, issue of “The New York Times” contained a fascinating article which captured this kind of tension quite well. The article was entitled “New Northern Ireland Violence May Be About More Than the British Flag” and it dealt with recently resumed “troubles” in that part of Great Britain. As before, the conflict pits Protestants against Catholics, especially in terms of whether the province of Northern Ireland will remain part of Great Britain (regarded as Protestant) or will seek union with the Republic of Ireland (regarded as Catholic). Here is the telling paragraph:
The most recent census results, released last year, showed that 48 percent listed themselves as Protestant or brought up Protestant, down 5 percentage points from the 2001 census, while 45 percent of the population listed themselves as Catholic or brought up Catholic. In Belfast, many say, Catholics are already a majority or nearly so and could form a majority across the province within a decade.
This presents a challenge because the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought the earlier troubles to an end specified that the province would remain part of Britain “as long as a majority of the province’s people and the population of the whole of Ireland wished it to be,” a solidly democratic proviso. So long as the majority remained Protestant, all seemed well . . . for the Protestants in Northern Ireland. But now, precisely because of that democratic proviso, the fundamental religious identify of the province seems to be shifting and that is not acceptable to many Northern Ireland Protestants.
How different is this from the perception by many evangelical Christians of the direction being taken by the United States?
And the question is, should we be surprised that the religious identity of our nation is changing when our nation seeks to be a democracy and the religious commitments of a majority of our citizens are themselves changing? Is there ANY way to be sure that religious commitments are upheld if the fundamental identify of a nation is its democratic character?
And, to get back to the real subject of the book I mentioned above, should we in the West be at all surprised when committed Muslims in places like Egypt don’t jump at the chance to see democracy installed in their countries?
But all of this is based on the "simple" definition of democracy which I suggested above. Are there any other possibilities? More on this in my next blog.
Sam Logan is Special Counsel to the President and Professor of Church History at Biblical. He also serves as the International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship (www.wrfnet.org). He is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is President Emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia).. He is married to Susan and they have two sons and two grandsons. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/samuel-logan