Saturday, March 26, 2016

Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Religious and political diversity can be either an asset or liability.  Diversity brings new ideas, strength and energy to a nation, but it can also breed fear, hate and hostility and invite demagoguery.  That is especially true when fundamentalist believers assert their religion to be the one true faith and condemn all others.  Such exclusivity breeds an us versus them mentality that is often exploited by political demagogues to identify and motivate their constituencies.

            The exploitation of religious and political differences is evident in the bigotry and nativism of both Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.  In their campaigns to be the GOP nominee for President, they have exploited fear and anger among religious fundamentalists who claim to be evangelical Christians, and in so doing they have  undermined the legitimacy of the Republican Party and exposed a dangerous weakness in American democracy.

            The U.S. has experienced populist demagogues in the past, like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman in S.C. and “Kingfish” Huey Long in Louisiana.  While we have not yet experienced a populist demagogue as President, Kathleen Parker has pointed out that Trump looks a lot like the fictional Senator Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip who became President in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.  So does Cruz.  Their popularity is based on fear, anger and hatred—the us versus them mentality.  The fabric of American democracy depends upon rejecting such demagoguery.

            The American democracy includes a diversity of religious and cultural groups, so that its stability depends upon a majority sharing common ideological beliefs; and since most Americans are religious, they must share a common word of faith.  The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—including those who have different religious and political beliefs—is such a common wordof faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

            The threat of diversity and demagoguery to democracy is not unique to the U.S.  Israel is experiencing a similar threat based on fear among Israeli Jews that Palestinians may become a political majority.  Fundamentalist Jews and Palestinian Muslims are exacerbating that fear with violence.  The challenge for the U.S., Israel and other libertarian democracies in a globalized world is to reconcile growing political and religious diversity with common ideals.         
            Religion is a big part of the problem and must also be part of the solution.  Political and religious leaders must acknowledge the interwoven relationship between religion and politics and seek to reconcile the two.  It is a widely held misconception in America that the First Amendment to the Constitution requires the separation of religion and politics; while it prohibits government from promoting or establishing any religion, it does not prohibit religion in politics.

            In fact, any religion that divorces itself from politics in a democracy is impotent.  If the greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is to have any meaning, it must be applied to our politics, where all of our decisions relate to our neighbors; and for Christians those decisions should be based on love.  Love is not just about being nice to others; it requires that we use the powers of government to protect ourselves and others from those who would do us harm.

            Religion can and should play a positive and constructive role in politics.  America is a religious nation, and its diverse religions shape our politics, despite the fact that many Americans consider the discussion of religion and politics taboo.  Unprincipled politicians often exploit religious differences to motivate their constituents, creating negative public attitudes that poison politics as well as social relationships.  That is the nature of political demagoguery.

            Our religious beliefs shape our moral and legal standards of legitimacy—that is, our concepts of right and wrong.  In a democracy of diverse religions, there is a need for consensus on fundamental standards of legitimacy.  The purpose of politics is to make and enforce laws consistent with prevailing moral standards of legitimacy, protect fundamental civil rights, and provide for the common good—and religion is relevant to all of those political objectives.

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—even our unbelieving neighbors—is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  If most Jews, Christians and Muslims were to embrace that moral imperative of faith, our religious differences would no longer threaten the stability of our democracy, and would-be political demagogues would have little fuel for their destructive fires.  Let’s make our politics reflect our religious belief that we love our neighbors—all of them—as we love ourselves.

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity, July 12, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015;  Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; and Religion, Democracy and Human Depravity, March 19, 2016.

On Kathleen Parker’s comparison of Trump with Sinclair Lewis’ fictional “Buzz’ Windrip, see

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