Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Need to Balance Competition with Cooperation in Politics and Religion

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            This past week it’s been hard to ignore the Olympics if you watch TV, especially if you watch NBC.  Once again, images from the swimming competition (Phelps and King) reminded us of just how obsessed we are with competition and winning, whether in sports, politics, social activities, business or entertainment—even in religion—and how competition shapes our culture.

            Competition is a contest between adversaries with only one winner.  It ranges from simple games to violent conflict, where winning is everything (there are no silver medals in war).  By way of contrast, cooperation requires the reconciliation of adversaries to achieve a common goal that benefits all involved.  There are no losers when adversaries are reconciled.

            It is human nature to compete rather than cooperate with others, so that competition is pervasive in social institutions that base their power on their popularity, such as those of politics and religion.  Even though Christian teachings promote cooperation through God’s reconciling love for all people, the history of Christianity has witnessed more competition than cooperation with other religions, and there has been fierce competition among the many denominations of Christianity as well.  The same is true for other exclusivist religions like Islam.

            Democratic politics are inherently competitive, especially during elections.  A politics of reconciliation may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s essential for a democracy to avoid partisan gridlock.  The U.S. Constitution protects fundamental civil rights from a tyranny of the majority and provides a balance of powers (e.g. the executive, legislative and judicial), but it doesn’t provide a remedy for gridlock in Congress.  Where there are two evenly matched political parties that cannot compromise on major issues, a third party is needed to prevent partisan gridlock.  

            Socialism involves the public ownership and operation of the means of production and distribution rather than private ownership, with all members sharing in the work and the products (Webster).  Socialism is theoretically based on cooperation, but in practice it involves competition for power that can be oppressive without a democratic process, and in pluralistic cultures like the U.S., democratic processes notoriously resist altruistic and egalitarian socialism. 

            Theocracy is an authoritarian form of government ruled by divine authority defined in a holy book and interpreted and enforced by religious officials.  When religions have comprehensive and immutable laws—as in ancient Judaism and in modern Islamism—there can be no libertarian democracy or human rights.  Theocratic government is strictly by the book—the holy book.  There is no room for innovation, whether through competition or cooperation.

            Islamism is a theocratic form of Islam that can have some of the attributes of democracy so long as they don’t challenge the sanctity of religious authority and law.  Islamic law (shari’a) functions like a constitution and prohibits fundamental human rights like the freedoms of religion and speech.  Without human rights, democracy in Islamic cultures produces a tyranny of the majority with oppressive religious laws, like those that criminalize apostasy and blasphemy.

            In the U.S. libertarian democracy has evolved in the other direction, with individual rights expanded at the expense of providing for the common good.  Fundamentalist Christians have pushed to expand the freedom of religion to allow them to discriminate against homosexuals (who they consider to be sinners), denying them the equal protection of the law.

            Unprincipled political demagogues have seized upon this and other divisive racial and religious issues to exploit the fear and anger of voters to motivate them to support their populist campaigns.  This election year has witnessed partisan competition on steroids, exemplified by the divisive and narcissistic nihilism of Donald Trump, and politics as usual by Hillary Clinton.

            Competition is deeply ingrained in our culture and should be balanced with cooperation and reconciliation to support a healthy democracy and promote better interfaith relations.  As globalization makes America more pluralistic in race and religion, it must balance the polarizing effect of competition with reconciliation and cooperation to maintain political stability and avoid religious conflict.

            The moral principles of religion and politics are woven together; exclusivist religions are as divisive and competitive as partisan politics.  They can be reconciled by the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors—even those we would prefer to avoid—as we love ourselves.  It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that can transcend the competition and conflict of exclusivist religious beliefs and partisan politics and reconcile us so that we can live together in peace in a world of increasing diversity. 

Notes and References to Related Commentary:

On the differing views of Islamic scholars on democracy and human rights under shari’a, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights (pp 10-16) at                   

On Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, see

On Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, see

On The Greatest Commandment as a Common Word of Faith, see

On Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? see         

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