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Faith and Democracy


Scholars examined how four of the world’s largest religions relate to the democratic model of governance during the "Faith and Democracy" panel discussion. Photo by Corrie Goldman

Scholars explores links between democracy and four of the world’s largest religions.

Although religion and democracy are often discussed in conjunction, their degree of relation is a perennial topic of debate.

During the “Faith and Democracy” panel discussion held earlier this month, four scholars delved into the historical, philosophical, theological and jurisprudential links between democracy and Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism.

The discussion was the third and last installment of the year-long “We the People: Islam and U.S. Politics” event series sponsored by Stanford’s Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.  The series has focused on the changing place of Islam and Muslims in contemporary American politics and its role in the future of American democracy, society and culture.  While the two past events focused more primarily on Islam in the context of mass media and art, the panel on “Faith and Democracy” examined how four of the world’s largest religions relate to the democratic model of governance. The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies-Middle East Fund, the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, the Department of Religious Studies, and Stanford Humanities Center.

According to Vincent Barletta, Professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures and interim director of the Abbasi Program, “Religion, like democracy, is an ongoing conversation.”

In his opening remarks, Professor Barletta said it was particularly pertinent to hold this discussion now, in advance of the upcoming U.S. election. “In an election year it's especially important to reflect in a collective and informed way on what it is we expect from our ongoing democratic experiment,” said Barletta.  “And Islam -- and religion in general – remains an important tool through which we might refine our notions of democracy to make them more inclusive and far-reaching.”

The panel discussion commenced with a presentation by Sociology Professor Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego who discussed Buddhism’s relationship to democracy.  With an academic focus on sociology in China, Professor Madsen provided the panelists and the audience with a discussion of the virtues and priorities of Buddhism and how, in some ways, they provide a good foundation for democracy.

Although Buddhism is not the main religion of the democratic world, Madsen said that Buddhism’s emphasis on “reaching out to others, changing consciousness, social awareness and compassion, play an important role in democratic societies.” 

Rebecca Lyman, Professor Emeritus of History of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific brought a more historical approach to the discussion.  Focusing on the historical and institutional flexibilities, she discussed the ways in which Christianity did and did not relate to democracy.

From the imperial courts of Constantinople and to the local tribal kings of Western Europe who participated in a more monarchical structure, she historically demonstrated that “Christianity has a flexibility to it that has allowed it to be a part of the different types political societies,” said Lyman.

Lyman argued that this flexibility stems from Christianity’s history and from the religion itself.  As an originally apocalyptic religion, Christianity had very little interest in political structures and instead emerged as a community around which the religion was centered.  “The structures of Christianity were hierarchical and charismatic,” she said.    

Next to speak was Professor Mohammad Fadel, a law professor at the University of Toronto, who changed the direction of the conversation.  While his talk discussed Islam’s interaction with democracy, he also focused on the idea that we should be more concerned with the influence on politics by institutions that discourage individual thinking rather than the influence of religious institutions. 

“If we all act as good citizens we will arrive at a decision that will be for the common good,” said Fadel. 

The final panelist, Stanford’s Steven Weitzman of the Department of Religious Studies, discussed Judaism’s relationship with democracy.  As a Jewish American, Professor Weitzman was raised to believe that Judaism and America were compatible, but with time, he came to realize that this was not always the case.

“As it happens, we are in the midst of Passover right now and for me, as a child, that holiday was as much about democracy as it was about Judaism, recounting the story of the Jews'--and humanity's--march toward freedom,” said Weitzman. “Only later did I come to learn that democracy is a very recent experience for Jews, and that the foundational text of the Jews, the Bible, is rather ambivalent about the rule of the people.”

These critical perspectives on four religions resulted in a thought provoking discussion of the challenges of the relationship between religious commitment and democratic values.  While the panelists brought up many positive relationships and correlations, they also highlighted many complexities and contradictions.

By Kelsey Geiser