Does Religion Kill Democracy?

Several commentators (such as the book-writing team of John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge) have documented the recent rise of religion across the globe. The resurgence of religion is a direct challenge to the “secularization thesis,” the idea that as enlightenment, scientific knowledge and technology spread, the force of religion contracts. Other writers (Larry Diamond, for example) have called attention to the decline of democracy on a global scale, and in particular the “democratic deficit” in parts of the world where religion remains a powerful force.

Is there a relationship between these two trends? Does religion undermine democracy? There may be a statistically significant, inverse relationship—as political scientists are wont to say—between the two but it is not clear if, how, or why religion and democracy are incompatible.

Of course many try to explain the democratic deficit, and the role religion plays in it, through extensive empirical study and statistical analysis. But this approach is unlikely to work for two reasons.

First, one must identify and parse the numerous plausible alternative variables to religion. For example, does the society in question have a history of authoritarianism? Does it suffer from sectarian conflicts? Does it show an overreliance on natural resources? Does it lack basic infrastructure?

Second, even if such a study were undertaken, and well carried out, it would still not answer the question of why religion may be unsafe for democracy. Couldn’t some religious doctrines and ideas—like equality or cooperation—even be helpful to a democratic society? No merely quantitative analysis will serve up answers that satisfy.

Perhaps, however, if we engage the question on the level of theory, examining the compatibility of the perennial principles of religion with those of liberal democracy, we might arrive at the explanations we were looking for. J. Judd Owen’s Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville does precisely this.

In the words of Owen, an Emory University political scientist, liberal political theory “is not well equipped to confront a world of resurgent religion, particularly religion that is uneasy with or rejects liberal democratic principles.” Contemporary liberals no longer know how to speak the language of religion. But earlier, Enlightenment liberalism grew out of conflict with religion, so Owen’s method is to take us back to this first great confrontation: the clash between Enlightenment liberalism and Christianity. He speaks to us through great Enlightenment thinkers—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville—who not only thought and wrote about this confrontation, but to a considerable degree shaped it.

The force of Christianity has waned, Owen argues, since this initial clash in significant measure because of the efforts of Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson. Yet the democratic world that Tocqueville experiences is one where religious zeal is rare, at least relative to 18th century Europe and the Founding period in America. Following this religious transformation, and the philosophical narrative that underpins it, we can see clearly what is at stake in the relationship between religion and democracy.

The book begins by presenting the principal theoretical divide on the question of religion during the period of the American Founding. Separation of church and state was the order of the day, but this separationist movement contained strange bedfellows. The “Enlightenment” separationists (represented in America by Jefferson) sought toleration and a weakening of religion in the public sphere. The Protestant evangelical separationists (represented by Calvinist-Baptist Isaac Backus) supported religious freedom in order to protect the church from the state; it would, Backus believed, “lead to revival and the spread of the true church (Calvinist-Baptist) throughout New England and the New World.”

In other words, the evangelical Protestants wanted freedom to practice religion; liberal philosophers like Jefferson—and Hobbes and Locke before him—wanted freedom from oppressive religious sects and practices, and believed that separation would tame religion over time. Owen is clear that it is the Jeffersonian notion of separation that has largely triumphed in America. But to understand this massive change one needs to go back to Hobbes.

The philosophy of Hobbes starkly advances the “secularization thesis.” Through an adept, close reading of Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), Owen uncovers the radical Enlightenment project that sought a gradual weakening and eventual abolition of religious belief. Hobbes’s philosophic materialism and authoritarian political science collaborate to extinguish the “dark,” “imaginary” superstitions of supernatural religion and “awaken human beings to the natural primacy of their worldly material concerns,” in Owens’ words.

Over time, this will lead not to unbelief, Owen shows, but to indifference to the concept of belief. The religious drive is very powerful indeed, according to Hobbes, and a greater power—the mighty Leviathan—is required to stamp this drive out. Those familiar with the basics of Hobbes’s philosophy won’t find much that is new here, but it will be helpful to the uninitiated.

While the author’s interpretation of Hobbes is both faithful and, at times original, he does fail to note the importance of historical context to Hobbes’s project of suppression. Hobbes wrote in the wake of the Thirty Years War, the deadliest religious conflict in Europe’s history, which influenced his political philosophy and political theology alike. Surely, this struggle led Hobbes to see the need for a “mortal god” (authoritarian government) to replace what had become an extremely problematic and troublesome immortal God. Still, the chapter is thorough, and Owen persuasively exposes Hobbes’s theory of a neutered Christianity, a “minimalist” theology that is later inherited by Locke and Jefferson.

I found the following chapter—on Locke and toleration—to be meticulously researched and profoundly compelling. It is twice as long as any other chapter, and in it Owen mines major portions of the Lockean corpus to unearth his teaching on religious toleration. In particular, Owen demonstrates how Locke’s ideas on epistemology, politics, and religion, which are spread across several of his works, can be made coherent. Owen further explicates how these dimensions of Locke’s philosophy culminate in a defense of toleration.

I will only make a few brief remarks about religion here, but the chapter is well worth the read for anyone who wants to know how Locke’s thought fits together as a whole. For Locke, religion will always serve a vital social function; it cannot be abolished entirely. Religion undergirds morality in society; only the few can understand morality through reason alone. For the vast majority of human beings, both religious custom and belief in a supernatural order are necessary for moral commitments. Yet religious belief will still come in the form of a minimalist theology, as we see in Hobbes. Owen further shows that, paradoxically, Locke does not believe the religious drive to be as powerful as Hobbes believes it is. Oppression breeds fanaticism, while toleration reduces it. Hence, the way to tame religion and make it safe for democracy is through toleration, not religious suppression, which view is taken up directly by Jefferson a century later.

Making Religion Safe for Democracy culminates in a chapter on Tocqueville, who discovers in the 1830s an America where the minimalist theology of the Enlightenment has taken hold.  Religious fervor is largely absent, and democratic individualists are free to pursue material well-being. But while religious practice is relegated to the sidelines (relative to the earlier enlightenment period), there is an “uncluttering that allows religion’s natural power over the human soul to be strengthened,” writes Owen. Tocqueville does not believe that religion must be snuffed out or tamed; he finds democracy and religion to be mutually supportive.

In particular, religion counterbalances some of the pernicious forces of democracy: emphasis on narrow pursuits of material gain; vulnerability to a soft tyranny due to individualism and loss of recognition of one’s place in the greater social whole; and a leveling of ambitions, tastes, and moral sensibilities. Religion can refocus the soul on more elevated or nobler goals than those which democracy sets for us. Americans, Tocqueville argues, seem to understand the need for religion on a cultural level. While separation of church and state remains the institutional form, religious associations and private beliefs provide nourishment to a culture left empty by a liberal political order.

The book’s treatment of Tocqueville is superb, and I was impressed with Owen’s grasp of the entirety of Tocqueville’s project. While the focus on religion is interesting, what is most remarkable is the introduction to Tocqueville’s thought as a whole. As someone who has published work on Tocqueville and is familiar with the literature, I cannot think of a better entry into his thoughts on American society than that provided here.

The conclusion largely restates the lessons derived from the Tocqueville chapter: namely, the insight that democracy is not only compatible with but, in fact, needs religion for cultural, moral, and spiritual health. Yet the conclusion appears shockingly short (it is a mere three pages), and upon reflection I came to view it as a missed opportunity. After deftly weaving a coherent narrative—one spanning three thinkers and as many centuries—about the dynamic tension between religion and democracy, Owen fails to draw any practical conclusions or pose any salient questions.

Given his sensible method of remaining at the level of theory, we might forgive the author for not delving too deeply into empirics. The philosophical conversation carried on throughout the book would have been unnecessarily interrupted by searching for empirical examples, of which any number could be given. But that there should be no discussion whatsoever of the practical consequences, or possible practical consequences, of this theoretical investigation—the natural place for which would be in the conclusion—is a cause for regret.

Foremost in many readers’ minds will be the role of religion in Europe versus its role in America. Europe appears to be where the “secularization thesis” is most fully entrenched. There we see not only the prominence of secular worldviews, but even open hostility towards religious belief, both in cultural practice and institutional forms (for example, the ban on religious symbols in public spaces).

To borrow from Owen, the European approach to religion appears Hobbesian.

America, on the other hand, appears Lockean, at least institutionally. Separation of church and state has not led to a similar degree of animosity or hostility in America, but rather a relatively stable, tolerant relationship between church and state. Culturally, however, America may be more Tocquevillian, with citizens who check the dangers of secularism through religious belief and engagement with religious associations.

All of which prompts certain questions: Is Europe Hobbesian, and to what extent? Would it be  accurate to call the church/state relationship in America a mixture of Lockean institutions and a Tocquevillian religious culture, and is this mixture smooth enough? When all is said and done, which continent is better off? Which, if any, could serve as a model for others?  Are the experiences of Europe and America since the Enlightenment clear enough to adjudicate the claims made by these thinkers?

Owen’s lessons could also be applied to Islam, and the movement of Muslims in the non-Muslim world. For the conscious, dedicated liberal, should the response to the presence of Islam be Lockean toleration or Hobbesian suppression? Is there, or should there be, a Tocquevillian response to the geographical spread of Islam?

These are just some of the tantalizing threads of inquiry left untouched, despite the fact that the preceding pages render Owen particularly poised to take them up.

His book does nevertheless provide us with the philosophic understanding necessary to make these inquiries ourselves. It prods us, moreover, to question the role of religion in American society today, almost two centuries after Tocqueville. Material well-being is much more widespread than it was in the 1830s (rampant allegations of inequality notwithstanding), but it does not seem as though happiness and spiritual fulfillment are equally ubiquitous. It is not clear that in America democracy has been sufficiently ennobled. The greater question, which Owen poses through Tocqueville, is whether it is just as important to make democracy safe for religion as it is to make religion safe for democracy.

Whatever one’s answer to that question, the virtues of Making Religion Safe for Democracy are many, and it should satisfy a wide range of readers. For those whose interest in religion is mild, it is an excellent entry into the political philosophies of three crucially important liberal thinkers—certainly three of the most important for understanding American liberal democracy. And for those interested precisely in the questions of religion’s role in society, and the compatibility or incompatibility of resurgent religion and spreading democracy, this volume is required reading.

Reader Discussion

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on April 25, 2017 at 15:34:25 pm

Prof. Pittz,
I am simply a political science student, lacking any notable credentials or prestige, but still believe I have found a more satisfying conclusion on this topic that I can back up with convincing evidence provided by Hobbes. I am fully prepared to accept there is a fundamental flaw I overlooked in producing my argument, but have yet to discover it. Furthermore, the acceptance of my political theory makes Hobbes' ideals uniformly more applicable and eliminates a fair number of contradictions with the new context. Would you be willing to discuss this further?

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Zachary Herr
on April 25, 2017 at 18:30:59 pm

If your curious, my claim is Hobbes named his masterpiece not to criticize religion, but instead to dismiss it as a threat to society. I arrived at this conclusion based on the following premises derived from the well supported assertion Hobbes uses the Leviathan as a metaphor for society.

1.The Leviathan is stated to have it's mortality tied to human existence itself within the bible.
(This would sufficiently infer the impossibility of the State of Nature without undermining the basis for the social contract)
2. If you accept the opinion Hobbes was indeed a "Hobbist" his seemingly contradictory premise of laws lacking any divine legitimacy becomes true out of absolute necessity. Laws are not absolute in authority because humanity retains free will and the ability to ignore the demands of society on the basis of self interest.
3. Religion, especially Christianity of which he was familiar, necessitates the potential to act against one's interest if it conflicts with dogma. Hobbes lacks any credible argument without accepting self-interest as the preferred motivation for one's actions.
4. If there is not a God, nor life after death, there is only life and death. Hobbes is unrepentant in his concern for personal safety. The understanding that life itself is the only real property guaranteed to humanity outside of that which the Leviathan protects, (Almost as if Locke just recycled this premise and adapted it to conform with Christianity) makes it beyond reasonable to give up rights in the interest of denying those rights to others.
5. There is not morality without divinity. (The intentional exclusion of strict morality in favor of a model based solely on interests makes for a comprehensive world view consistent in relation to individuals and aggregates alike)
6. Hobbes still has faith and life still retains purpose. The progression of humanity, in aggregate of all individual efforts, is the fundamental purpose for human existence. This allows for the unwavering adherence to the pursuit of self interest as motive without trivializing individual existence. (a preemptive alternative to embracing the absurdity of existence without a divine plan) Ironically granting Hobbes life after death through his contributions to society.
7. The Leviathan can only be killed by god, and the Leviathan itself knows this. The Leviathan, which is described at every opportunity as otherwise invulnerable, is stated to be fleeing as God cuts it down on "that" day. The actions of the Leviathan seem out of place for an otherwise unstoppable creature. In fact, this action implies the understanding of it's vulnerability. Most interestingly, such a calculation demands the utility of reason. Note, the Leviathan does not convey a sense of certain death, it actively attempts to avoid it's assailant implying at least the perception it may succeed.
8. The Leviathan sees God as a threat, and the bible affirms this as God ends both the Leviathan, and time itself in The Deliverance of Israel. Because the Leviathan defies its divine fate, in favor of reason, it is punished by God which represents an interesting distinction that lends credibility to this being intended by Hobbes as a warning.

If God does not exist, the Leviathan lives, existence continues, and society remains.

This conclusion makes "The Leviathan" a far better understanding of human nature, the function of society, and rejects the depressing pessimism of humanity as merely lucky benefactors in evolution. Instead, through reason, logic, and cooperation society has given humanity true superiority over nature. This, not the endowment of natural rights, separates humanity as the security in which to protect rights is what gives them meaning. We have agreed to the social contract, and that is the only uniquely human experience of which makes all the difference.

Hobbes, unlike so many other political philosophers, does not seek to explain a phenomenon or predict a better tomorrow. Hobbes is a fundamental realist in the most basic sense, he accepted the reality of the situation, and identified the most worthwhile pursuit possible. When you apply these understandings you come to the only possible conclusion. Without these understandings, your left with only contradictions. Hobbes necessitates the exclusion of god to reach the best potential understanding, without this The Leviathan dies, and his philosophy suffers.

Psalm 74:14
You crushed the heads of Leviathan; You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

C: Nature and society cannot co-exist in the same state without conflict

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Zachary Herr
on April 26, 2017 at 01:33:17 am

It seems to me that there is one flaw in the original thesis of these philosophical examinations, and it is the idea that the term "religion" should be thought of as an overarching categorization of every religion on earth. Considering the vast differences between the different theologies running about in our world, to think of them as some monolithic force is rather foolish. If the same term is used to cover such disparate theologies as, say Wahabism and Quakerism, the philosopher is guilty of a gross oversimplification. If one religious founder teaches his followers, "Love your enemies," while another teaches his disciples, "Make constant war upon all infidels," one can hardly believe that their influence on democracy could be in any way held to be similar.
Such a treatment of the subject puts one in mind of the "sky-is-falling" alarmism of several years ago, when the demon cholesterol was attacked on all sides as the greatest health risk since - well, the last greatest health scare. Eventually, further research uncovered the fact that some cholesterol is good for the human body while some is bad.
Perhaps philosophers could skip the embarrassing interim of the health professionals, and realize without delay that some religions are inimical to democratic ideals, while others are quite good for it. Indeed, some of the Founding Fathers thought that the American experiment would fail once religion lost its power over the American mind.
The author of this article seems to have a grasp on this fact. But the way he speaks of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Toqueville, it seems like they might have seen little difference between Parson Weems and a Barbary sheikh. I hope that is not so, but I have a feeling that these great thinkers got caught up in their own agnosticism and viewed all religions as a more or less unified opponent to their anti-religious ideals - ideals that they thought were the foundation of democracy.

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J.L. Schallert
on April 27, 2017 at 16:02:39 pm

The secular Nationalist Socialists quashed religion and ended the Democrat Republic of Germany. The secular Communists destroyed religion and ended any chance for Democracy when Russia went from having a King who didn't care about the people to a totalitarian ruler who simply killed millions of them. You could examine the rise and fall of freedom as the result religion without finding one enduring causal relationship. Good and Evil use the tools they have at their disposal.

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Constance Underfoot
on April 27, 2017 at 17:02:47 pm

Religion is usually associated with the devine, but really it is just a set of beliefs and practices. I think government in general and democracy in particular is just another religion. You just remove God and the Bible and replace it with whatever the majority decides. Rights and morality and legality are all just social constructs and change as opinions and demography change. Back when the majority of Americans were highly influenced by the Bible and the government was more a constitutional republic and less a democracy, there was less conflict. As we've gotten away from the Bible and the Constitution, the competition for men's hearts and souls between government and more traditional religions has been exposed. Government seems to be winning since it is more or less obligatory but much less demanding. Back to the original question: Do traditional religions kill democracy? When the majority try to obey the 10 Commandments (or Sharia law), no. When the majority are no longer bound by God's law, no but democracy will kill the traditional religions with which it competes. The majority, acting as god, will have no false gods before them.

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J. Tokarsky
on April 27, 2017 at 17:52:32 pm

These convolutions of what are really simple notions is part of the turmoil the world faces today. In a fine work on the American Civil War, which I read some time ago and don't happen to have handy, so excuse the lack of detail, there is an essay that refers back to roundheads and cavaliers as a factor in the war. The South, folks like Jefferson, were deeded huge tracts of land by the grateful and newly restored King Charles II following a war between Parliament and his father, King Charles I. The Puritans (most famously, Oliver Cromwell) played a major role in that conflict, which cost the King his head. Since the Church of England could no longer restrain the populace, religion was favored less and less by elites--hence, the Enlightenment and the desire for Separation of Church and State for different reasons. The one to protect elites from the People's religious fervor and on the other hand to preserve religion's purity from government corruption.

Christianity, for the most part, agrees that God has given humanity the freedom of choice, so it is not a significant factor against democracy. A religious people simply prefer to be defined by religion. I predict religion will make a comeback and that will be the case again.

Also useful to consider, religious activism has been a major force in American politics--democracy. Abolitionists were typically Christians. So was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which wielded political power well before women had the vote. Religion stands for human value and as such is always relevant and quite compatible with democracy.

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Israel Martinez
on April 28, 2017 at 00:14:09 am

The argument "Religion", as a term, should not be understood as it fundamentally applies, is not a logical one. Religion is a category of like things, and as certain as a vulture remains a bird, conflicting beliefs are not excluded from categorization simply because you find them uncomfortable. This is not complicated, it is a transparent representation of the nature inherent in shared beliefs asserting divinity, further simplification was never merited. Democracy inherently suffers from the assertion of any belief, as individually recognized , as superior by the state. To suggest otherwise requires the rejection of fundamental principals of the constitution, are you asserting this logical implication as it is written, or implying the Constitution is to be regarded with favorable applications only based on unstated prejudice? The founding fathers who believed that were wrong, as required by the continued enforcement of their doctrine as law to this very day. Literally for the entirety of the documents existence, those who you suggest were suspicious of religious inclusion as disruptive, were proven fools and that is actually embarrassing. The reason you lack this understanding is the point of which Hobbes alludes to: Religious belief fundamentally requires you act against your own interests, and thus cannot be depended upon to act self-interested. I am not insinuating you ought to agree with his conclusion, but you ought to judge it on it's logic and merit. To not believe in religion inherently requires you to be disinterested, to call that Anti-religious lacks an understanding of "motivation".

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on May 02, 2017 at 00:01:27 am

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Does Religion Kill Democracy? - The Aquila Report

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The End is Nigh

The students’ very language deficits show us how seldom they are taught any higher conception of man’s purpose in being.