Religion Today

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Democracy, Civil Society, and Religion

Fidel Castro, who has led Cuba for more than four decades, has announced that he will step down from his ruling position. United States President George Bush greeted this news by saying that now "ought to be a period of democratic transition" for Cuba. Since the term democracy can be applied to many things, President Bush went on to indicate that he meant free elections.

"And I mean free and I mean fair, not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy," the president said.

This is good as far as it goes. But the democracy our American forefathers created was much more than that, however, and that is what we should want for "unfree" nations. Our founding fathers envisioned democracy as the practice of an open and egalitarian civil society. As codified in our Bills of Rights, such a civil society includes freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, and of assembly. It also includes freedom from government intimidation, from unlawful seizure and imprisonment, and to be secure in one's own home.

The whole point of elections, as Abraham Lincoln later said, is to establish a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." The freedoms codified in the Bill of Rights are thus best preserved by the people to whom those rights belong.

But what if a people have lived in a country without such rights? If such a country lacks a civil society where men and women practice their religious beliefs in peace, where they freely express their opinions (even opinions critical of their government), where the press reports without censorship or government control, and where people gather together and form political or religious associations without fear of intimidation from others, can it become democratic? If it holds elections, will its people gain the freedoms needed for a civil society?

Not necessarily. Democracy does not automatically lead to egalitarian respect for people. As we have seen for Eastern Europe, for the countries of the former Soviet Union, for the Balkans in southeastern Europe, and even for Iraq and other Middle Eastern democracies, lack of a secure civil society is highly damaging.

While thugs and gangs can intimidate individuals locally, the assassination of government officials can have a national chilling effect. Both of these stifle people's willingness to participate in public affairs. Only when large numbers of people band together, as happened in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-5, do individuals feel safe to call for their rights. Unfortunately, this is usually an extreme action that indicates the lack of a functioning civil society on a daily basis.

The place of religions in a civil society requires special treatment. While members of democratic political parties accept the existence of other parties (if only so they can trounce them in the next election), members of one religion often do not accept the validity of other religions. In fact, members of one branch of a religion often find members of another branch suspect, defective, or sometimes even unacceptable, as is evident in the southern evangelicals' rejection of Mitt Romney's Mormon beliefs and the Catholic Church's view that the Protestant "communities...are not Churches in the proper sense."** Similar views are held by Orthodox Judaism in its view of Reform Judaism (especially as evident in the Law of Return), and in Sunni Muslim discrimination against Shiites (and vice versa).

Peaceful coexistence of different religions and different branches thus requires that a society and its individuals recognize that acceptance of any single religion requires the acceptance of all religions. For freedom of worship to exist in a civil society, there can be no truth test, no evaluation of each religion's claims. Even if one believes that one's own religion is absolutely true while all others are absolutely false, one's free ability to follow one's religion requires the acceptance of the equal rights of those "false" religions (or "false" branches) to worship and speak. Moreover, the same right must apply to those who are non-religious.

In some ways, freedom of religion is a litmus test for measuring how truly democratic a country is, or more accurately, for measuring the strength of its civil society. Countries that lack free civil societies do not allow free expression in matters of religion. Cuba, for instance, has long restricted the activities of the Catholic Church, preventing the operation of schools, the publishing of religious materials, and the training of priests. In Iraq and Afghanistan, by contrast, restrictions target individuals, for instance, with fundamentalist men harassing women who do not conform to traditional Muslim ideas of modest dress.

So in the end, it is not just democracy that needs to be created in countries like Cuba, but free egalitarian civil societies, where all adults have equal rights and equal protections. The bell-wether for the existence of such rights and protections is the extent to which members of all religions can freely and openly follow their beliefs about religion.

** The original column had the following remark which is incorrect. See the comments below. To prevent further misunderstanding, I have replaced it with an accurate observation. " the Pope's July 2007 affirmation that Catholicism provides the only path to salvation. "


  • This article unfairly represents the teachings of the Catholic church. The Pope did not affirm in 2007 "that Catholicism provides the only path to salvation."

    The statement in question can be found here:

    It quite clearly says that other faiths can be “instruments of salvation”.

    There are many flaws in the Vatican statement, and with religious tolerance in the US today in general. The point that religious acceptance is not ubiquitous can easily be made without slandering a religion.

    I believe that ecumenicism and the kind of religious tolerance which this article propounds are all too rare today. People of many faiths (including Catholics) are called to do more far than tolerate their neighbors - we are instructed to love them.

    True religious freedom does not come from a politician's pen or rigorous separation of church and state. Instead, open and honest dialog from all points of view is needed to create a society where anyone can freely and openly follow their beliefs.

    By Blogger chemista, at 2/28/2008  

  • This is a fair comment.

    At about the same time this post was written, I received the following email, which I was given permission to post.

    I was disappointed by your characterization of the Catholic Church in your current Religion Today column. The overall intent of the article is good and its main point is sound. It is true that democracy needs a stronger foundation than simple elections. Your use of the Catholic teaching on salvation is not necessary to support your argument. It is also incorrect, mischaracterizes Catholic teaching and perpetuates religious misunderstanding and prejudice.

    After some initial checking, I assume that the statement you attribute to Pope Benedict in July 2007 is based on the document “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” This document was picked up by elements of the media and characterized as making the claim you repeat. In fact, the document makes no such claim and neither does the Catholic Church. To quote one section of the document, which can be found at the Vatican website (, “It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are found in them.” This obviously does not affirm Catholicism as the only path to salvation! The Catechism of the Catholic Church (also available at the Vatican website) has a discussion of the issue in #846-848 under the heading, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/01/2008  

  • While the above two posts were being written, I realized the problem and wrote my own correction, which follows.

    I have now studied the text of both “Responses to some questions regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church” (2007) and “Dominus Iesus” (2000) and the problem becomes clear. I wrote “…in the Pope's July 2007 affirmation that Catholicism provides the only path to salvation.” It turns out that although the literal meaning of my statement is correct, its broader implication is not—and that implication was being used to support my paragraph’s point.

    The implication is wrong because Dominus Iesus 17.3 recognizes that “separated Churches and communities…have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation...” This means that the oriental churches (and the Christian “communities” spawned by the Reformation (the document specifically says they are not churches but only communities) are also ways through which people can achieve salvation.

    It is the way by which these other institutions share in the “means of salvation” that actually makes my remark accurate in a literal sense. Dominus Iesus 17.3 continues by saying that these bodies “derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” This was already said in 16.3, and quotes Vatican II’s document on the matter. I understand this to mean that all “paths to salvation” (to refer to my own wording) go through the Catholic Church. Thus while salvation can occur to Christians outside Catholicism, and specifically to people in the “ecclesiastical communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate...” (17.2), it only comes about because the “Church of Christ” subsists in the Catholic Church and therefore salvation, which comes about through Christ’s Church, necessarily happens through the efficacy of the Catholic Church. So while these non-churches can play a role in salvation, they are not the ultimate means through which the Church of Christ grants individuals salvation—that is granted solely to the Catholic Church.

    So my statement’s implication, which is that non-Catholics are barred from salvation, according to these texts and thus the Pope’s affirmation of them, is incorrect. Instead, non-Catholic Christians find their salvation through the Catholic Church (i.e., the Church of Christ).

    So my statement’s implication, which is that non-Catholics are barred from salvation is incorrect. Instead, non-Catholic Christians find their salvation through the Catholic Church (i.e., the Church of Christ). This fall short of the column’s standards for accuracy and fails to meet its goal of describing religious phenomena neutrally and correctly. If I have needlessly offended any of my readers by this mistake, I apologize.

    I am unfortunately not alone in this misunderstanding, if my search for explanations of the July “Responses” document is any indication. I consulted a number of both scholarly and popular summaries of the 2007 document, and they all said essentially what I did. I presume that there are church explanations of these two theological documents, but they are not readily available.

    The attitude in Dominus Iesus towards the Protestants, in the end, emphasizes the point I was making in that paragraph of the column, namely, that sometimes branches of one religion do not accept the validity of other branches. Since the document refuses to accept the Protestant “communities” as churches, which it is willing to do for the eastern churches, it illustrates the character of religions in their attitude towards other groups within the same religion. The Catholic Church has certainly encountered the same attitude from other Christians, both in the Greek Orthodox unease about rapprochement or even just for a visit by the Pope, and in certain Protestant groups’ refusal to recognize Catholics as Christians.

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/01/2008  

  • The first email on the problem with my comment about Catholicism appears below. It was the one that tipped me off to my mistake.

    Really appreciate the ideas you develop in your piece this week on democracy and the relatively minor role elections play in recognizing a vigorous, just, democracy.  I had never thought about how the tolerance for diversity in religious expression can act as an indicator of the depth and rigor of a democracy.  However, your argument is a strong one and, along with your points regarding the diversity of press, rigor of nonreligeous gatherings, etc. should cause some pause as we  consider  the status of our political dialogue.

    Paragraph 8 in your piece seems out of place given the strength of the arguments throughout the remainder of the neat piece.  I'm currently reading a book by Ron Rolheiser, the holy longing.  His description of Christian, and particularly Catholic theology reads 180 degrees from your interpretation of the Pope's 2007 statement regarding salvation.  I'm wondering if the Pope's statement could be interpreted differently.  My understanding, and clearly Rolheiser's as outlined in the book, is that the Catholic church abandoned that concept of salvation long ago.  I especially note Rolheiser's statements regarding the salvation of persons who have actively turned away from ALL CHURCHs but are still touched by love.

    This paragraph aside, like most of your writing, I learned a great deal and thank you for taking the time and energy to craft the weekly essays.

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/01/2008  

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