God and Democratic Diplomacy


We can no longer afford to hang on to secularization theories as we design policy for nations from Libya to Egypt, Iran to Pakistan, Nigeria to Indonesia, and the numerous other societies being reshaped by the partisans of God in the 21st century. The second in a three-part series.

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It is no surprise that after a generation of political scientists was trained to ignore religion (as we argued in part I of this article), our current diplomacy takes a similarly myopic approach. On February 10th, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional committee that the Islamic Brotherhood is a “largely secular” organization. With equal glibness, other analysts have declared that the Brotherhood is a scary sect waiting to establish a violent theocracy. Others just can’t think calmly or coherently when any kind of religion appears on the horizon. When the Washington Post's David Ignatius was in Tahrir Square for the February 18th "Victory March," he found the mere sight of ordinary Egyptians staging mass prayers "unnerving." Such is the subtlety of our secularist outlooks, which regard religious people either as not really religious at all or else as necessarily irrational, violent, and frightening.

In God’s Century, we argue that if American foreign policymakers want to promote democracy and stability, they must come to realize that secularism is a poor analytical tool. The great surprise of the past generation of global politics is a resurgence of religion’s political influence across the world. Despite a powerful array of secularizing regimes, ideologies, and social trends, the self-proclaimed partisans of God outlasted and politically outcompeted the self-proclaimed enemies of God.

Part of what happened is that being a determined enemy of God, like Señor Canabal from Tabasco (described in part I), just didn’t turn out to be the growth industry it was supposed to be. If you were an investor in ideological movements at the beginning of the 20th century, all the trends would have told you to invest in atheism and agnosticism. But if you had done that, you would have lost a lot of money. According to respected religion demographer Todd Johnson, the proportion of the world’s population that was atheist or agnostic increased for much of the 20th century, but then peaked and declined around 1970. On the other hand, if you had invested in religion—say, dispersing your investment across a broad portfolio of the world’s largest religious communities—well, you would have done very well, and much, much better than Daniel Lerner and others would have predicted you would do for Islam. In fact, in terms of the sheer number of adherents, the world’s largest religions have expanded at a rate that exceeds that of global population growth. Consider the two largest Christian confessions, Catholicism and Protestantism, and the two largest non-Christian religions, Islam and Hinduism. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the most comprehensive and up-to-date publication on global religious demographics available, a greater proportion of the world’s population adhered to each of these religious systems in 2000 than in 1900. At the beginning of the 20th century, a bare majority of the world’s people, 50%, were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Hindu. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, nearly 64% of the world’s people belonged to these four religious groupings.

The Muslim Brotherhood stands as a perfect example of a group that defied the expectations of investors: it is a religiously based organization that faced decades of harsh repression and seemed finished in the late 1960s, yet today it represents perhaps as much as 15-20% of the Egyptian people. Nor is the Brotherhood an isolated case. Communities of faith everywhere—Buddhist monks in Burma, Hindu nationalists in India, Pentecostals in Brazil and Nigeria—are playing a critical role in defining the dominant patterns of world politics in the unfolding 21st century.

How did this happen? Ironically, the resurgence has been empowered by three trends that secularization theory predicted would bury religion. The first is modernization. Religion was supposed to wither as people became “modern”—i.e., socialized into an industrialized, urban society in which each individual would exercise control over his or her fate. In 1968, the great sociologist of religion Peter Berger predicted that communities of faith would dwindle and that the religious faithful would be left isolated, “huddled together [in small sects] to resist a world-wide secular culture.” Thirty years later, he retracted his thesis. Even among people in advanced industrialized countries, more than 60% claim that religion remains important to them.

A second trend is globalization. People and ideas now travel across the globe at much greater distances, at much faster speeds, and in much greater volume. As transnational actors, not confined to any single state, religious actors were well positioned to harness new technologies and innovations.

The third major trend is democratization, which took off in the early 1970s. In contrast to many authoritarian regimes that were sometimes self-proclaimed “enemies of God,” which sought to eradicate or subjugate religious actors, democracies usually gave religious actors some room to enter politics and compete for influence. As the norms and practices of democracy spread, religious actors were often seen as trusted authorities who could challenge repressive political orders.

This global resurgence of religion—until recently, either denied or ignored—is thus an established political reality. But this takes us to the big question: is, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s greater civic role in a more open Egypt to be feared or welcomed? Two factors are critical to arriving at an answer: The first is the political theology that religious actors espouse. Does it include the need or right to challenge political authority? If yes, does the group’s political theology make it legitimate to challenge that authority with violence? The second critical factor is the freedom that religious actors enjoy vis-à-vis state authority. Religious actors with some semblance of freedom have been able to play liberal, peaceful, and accommodating roles, both advancing democracy and building peace in conflict-ridden societies.

We will discuss the peaceful—as well as the violent—potential of religion in some detail in the third and final part of our Public Discourse article on May 20th. But let’s offer here a summary of what we argue in God’s Century about the relationship between religion’s political resurgence and democratization.

Part of the great surprise of religion’s resurgence is that it has been a forceful instrument of tearing down dictatorships. In the 78 cases of democratization since 1972, religion has contributed strongly in 48 of these cases. You may remember Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Communist Poland beginning in 1979, where he preached to hundreds of thousands. But this was not just any old homily; rather, in terms that were unmistakable to Poles, he challenged the legitimacy of the regime. You may also remember the Protestants who gathered in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig in November 1989. Or the Muslim leaders in Indonesia who helped to bring down Suharto in 1998.

This was not supposed to happen, according to the secularization thesis. Democracy, with its open debate and its popular control, was supposed to have exposed religion as a crutch for primitive people. Surprisingly, though, religion has profited precisely from the open debate and room to operate that democracy affords. The best squelchers of religion are, in fact, secular dictators.

Religious actors are not always supporters of democracy, though. Catholics in Rwanda were acquiescent and even somewhat participatory in the genocide of 1994. So what distinguishes the democratizers from the supporters of authoritarianism? The most forceful democratizers have been those religious actors who, often through determined resistance, preserved a measure of independence from the state. An example is the major Islamic movements under Suharto in Indonesia. Where religious actors remained cozy with the state, they had little incentive to support democracy. Examples include the Argentine Catholic Church in the late 1970s and the Buddhist sangha in Sri Lanka. In other cases, religious actors are so suppressed by the state that they simply lack power to act independently. The Orthodox churches in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe are illustrative.

We also found that religious actors who agitate for democracy are ones whose doctrines involve a political theology that supports democracy and human rights. A striking trend was what the late Samuel Huntington called the “Catholic Wave”—the preponderant role of the Catholic Church in the Third Wave of democratization. National Catholic Churches constituted 36 out of the 48 cases of religious democratizers. What motored this trend, we argue, was an important shift in political theology—namely, a full embrace of religious freedom and other human rights by the Church at the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965.

As for Islam, we find that democracy is still relatively rare. Only 3 out of 47 Muslim countries are ranked “free” by Freedom House. Still, Islam has had strong democratizers in places like Turkey and Indonesia—movements with independence from the state and a democratic political theology. It is these that hold promise for the future.

What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that in God’s Century, the unfolding 21st century of politically resurgent religion, we can no longer afford to hang on to the secularization theories that are the holdover of a long-gone era. They not only make us ignorant, they make us stupid. And stupidity is something we can ill afford as we design policy for nations from Libya to Egypt, Iran to Pakistan, Nigeria to Indonesia, and the numerous other societies being reshaped by the partisans of God in the 21st century.

Timothy Shah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, Georgetown University. Daniel Philpott is Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Monica Toft is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. They are the authors of the recently published God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics and continue to collaborate closely as associate scholars of the new Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University.

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