Religion and Democracy – an Explosive Mix

As Egypt’s democratically elected regime teeters on the brink of collapse this morning, I am left wondering whether democracy can work in a country so divided by religion. And I wonder, too, whether politicians who use religion to build a power base are endangering America’s democratic system.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill observed, is the worst possible form of government – except for all the other systems. Despite democracy’s obvious shortcomings and vulnerabilities, I have to agree. I can’t think of a better way to run a country.

But when politics and religion merge, the result can be explosive.

Religion is not democratic. By definition, the belief in a higher power and a hierarchy of angels and archangels is autocratic. You don’t get to vote in Heaven. Or in Jannah, the Muslim paradise. Or in the Hindus’ Svargam. Or in the Buddhists’ Nirvana

Submission to authority – obedience – is at the core of every religious faith.

In countries like Egypt, where the division is not just between different religions but between different interpretations of the Muslim religion, acceptance of dogma is especially crucial. The vast majority of people in the Middle East are Muslim, but some are Shia and some are Sunni. And the two sects are bitter political rivals.

That tends to sabotage democracy. If all Sunni Muslims vote one way, and all Shia Muslims vote the other way, elections become irrelevant. Whichever sect has the most followers will inevitably win.

As a legacy of British rule, Egypt’s government had been secular  – but certainly not democratic – until the Arab Spring swept the region in 2011. Dictator Hosni Mubarek was overthrown and democratic elections were held. The previously banned Muslim Brotherhood – suspected in the West of being Islamic extremists – was voted into power. Its leader, Mohamed Morsi, became president.

The vast majority of Egypt’s voters are Sunnis and the Brotherhood leans toward the Sunni. That’s probably why the party won control of Egypt. The choice was primarily religious – not political.

In the election’s aftermath, the minority Shias and the nation’s Coptic Christians suffered under a Sunni regime. And Egyptian revolutionaries who favor a secular government viewed with alarm the autocratic imposition of Islamic ideas. As I write this, protesters are massing in the streets, demanding Morsi’s ouster, and the Egyptian army is stepping in to restore order.

Remember what happened in Iraq? The United States intervened to overthrow a Sunni dictator, who was a longtime ally of the West, and gave the Iraqis the vote. Since there are more Shia Iraqis than Sunni Iraqis, the Shia politicians won control of the country. Naturally, the Sunni have refused to accept this outcome. They waged a civil war to regain power. And the war is still raging.

In this kind of political environment, it is the mullahs who dictate policy, not the representatives elected by the people. Iran,  for example, is ruled by the Ayatollah, not by its recently elected president.

Throughout history, religious leaders have tried to wield political power. And they often succeeded.

Some religious leaders are obviously trying to dictate public policy in America today. If their followers vote the way these spiritual leaders demand, democracy in America could some day go the way of the Arab world as rival religious factions make the ballot box obsolete.

I think the safest path is the one Jesus indicated. Asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman Caesar, He advised them to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” To me, that is clearly an admonition to keep religion out of politics.

Click here for the situation in Egypt.

Click here for more on religion in Egyptian politics.