Democracy, Civil Society, and Religion
"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. "...in the Pope's July 2007 affirmation that Catholicism provides the only path to salvation. "