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. "

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Picking a Prophet

A guest blog by Dr. Quincy Newell.

Picking a Prophet
Quincy D. Newell

Following the death two-weeks ago of 97-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as the LDS or Mormon Church), the Church had to elect a new President, someone who would guide the Church as an administrator and as a Prophet. Many people might have initially been reminded of the recent election of a new Pope in the Catholic Church, following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Certainly, Gordon B. Hinckley and John Paul II occupied similar positions in their respective churches. Both led flocks that spanned the globe, and members of each church saw their respective leader as God’s spokesman on earth. However, the prolonged uncertainty that preceded the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as the new Pope was completely absent from the aftermath of President Hinckley’s death.

The highest levels of leadership in the LDS Church are called the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The First Presidency consists of three men: the President of the LDS Church and two Counselors. The President serves until he dies; then the First Presidency is automatically dissolved and the two Counselors are absorbed into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (which then has fourteen members). This group of fourteen men governs the Church until they choose a new President by unanimous vote in a process that Mormons believe is divinely guided. By tradition, the man who has served in the Quorum of the Twelve the longest is selected as the new President. For this reason, Mormons and non-Mormons alike knew years ago that, barring some unforeseen circumstance, Thomas S. Monson would be the next President of the LDS Church.

Nevertheless, until it was made official on Monday, both the LDS Church and lay Mormons used language that made it clear that Monson’s election was not a done deal: since Mormons believe that God selects the President of the Church, they wanted to leave open the possibility that God might call someone else to that office. While the utter predictability of this process might make it seem more mechanical than divinely guided to non-Mormons, the LDS Church pointed out in an official press release that the process “happens in an orderly way that — remarkably in today’s world — avoids any trace of internal lobbying for position or rank. . . . [I]t is devoid of electioneering whether behind the scenes or in public.” This language suggests many Mormons saw the selection of President Monson as a stark contrast to the conclave that resulted in the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Roman Catholic Cardinals from around the globe gathered in Rome after the death of John Paul II to select a new Pope in a process that Catholics believe is divinely guided. Many of these men had never met each other, so talking to one another about the strengths and weaknesses of candidates was virtually required for the group to come to a decision. While Mormons might see this activity as “electioneering,” Catholics view it as an integral part of how God selects the leader of their church.

Monson, the sixteenth President, Prophet, and Seer of the LDS Church, will have enormous shoes to fill. Gordon B. Hinckley was President for about thirteen years, but his service to the Church spanned several decades. After serving as a missionary, he worked in the Church's newly-created Public Affairs office, and helped both to standardize Church materials such as Sunday School curricula and to improve the Church's public image. As President, Hinckley continued this effort, taking the Church from the margins to the mainstream in American society. Hinckley also presided over a rapidly internationalizing Church. At his death, the LDS Church claimed over thirteen million members worldwide, more than half of whom lived outside the United States. In part to make the rituals of the LDS Church more accessible to members in other countries, Hinckley initiated an ambitious temple-building plan that more than doubled the number of LDS temples worldwide. By building smaller, less expensive temples under Hinckley's direction, the Church made temple rituals like sealings (the rituals that Mormons believe bind families together for eternity) available to more of its members.

What will a Monson presidency mean for the Church? While Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope heralded a shift toward a more conservative Roman Catholic Church, President Monson will probably continue to lead the LDS Church on the course that his predecessor charted. Given Monson's extensive business experience, including work with the Deseret News, I think we can expect continued attention to the Church's public image. Monson has also been active in the internationalization of the Church, particularly in the former East Germany and the former Soviet Union. I think we are likely to see the Church under his leadership continue their efforts to evangelize around the world, perhaps with a greater emphasis in areas like Eastern Europe and regions that have previously been closed to LDS missionaries.

Newell is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming, a specialist in the religions of the American West.