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Secularism Before Democracy
by david   January 30, 2006

secularism before democracy It's true, to an extent, what the neocons say: democracy breeds liberty, which breeds an environment under which societies can begin, if they choose, to treat their ills -- poverty, racism, exploitation of the weak by the powerful on all levels. Not every society chooses to do these things, and sometimes societies change their minds mid-stream (welcome to modern America), but history has shown us that true long-term positive social change is best achieved through democracy.

The problem with the neocons' plan to spread democracy in the world, by economic pressure, political pressure and, if need be, by force of arms, is that not every nation, not every people, is ready for true democracy. Every human being deserves to be free from totalitarian rule, deserves democracy. But not every society is ready for it. This is especially true in parts of the world where public and private lives are defined by strict, fundamentalist religion, or are dominated by conflict between two or more of these religions. Institutionalized fundamentalist religion is, in a very real way, an enemy of democracy. Institutionalized fundamentalist religion, whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any other such animal, robs free people of choice, and places the power to make honest, informed life decisions in the hands of unelected clergy.

What we've done in Iraq, despite what proponents of the war will say about the recent elections, has set back real democracy there 50 years or more. By enshrining religious law in the constitution and electing religious leaders to head the government and playing the politics of religious identity, the Iraqi population, with our eager help, has destroyed real democracy in that region, at least for now.

In real democracy, the laws of society can be challenged and voted upon by that society -- in that way, they are continually shaped and reshaped as society grows and changes. In the case of the United States of America, even our constitution can be changed (though it is, rightly, a difficult process). When religion is enshrined as law, a population loses the democratic ability to challenge that law -- fundamentalist religious doctrine states that man cannot challenge or redefine laws created by God. Further, depending upon the religion in question, even interpreting the laws of God is the special province of religious scholars and clergy. By enshrining religious law, political authority of a very high level is automatically bestowed upon these unelected clergy, and the ability of a free people to choose its society's rules is superseded by fatwah or canon law, or the declared rules of whatever religion is in question.

So, what you end up with is a society where fundamental law is dictated by men (prophets, apostles, etc., writing as proxies for one god or another) who lived hundreds of years ago, and that law cannot be changed or even re-interpreted except by unelected religious leaders. How can democracy exist in such an environment, when the population can only vote on those items not covered by their religious laws, especially when their voting is further determined by the dictates, urging or other unofficial rule-making of their religious leaders? Even if a majority of a population is of a particular religion, and chooses, democratically, to officially enshrine that religion, democracy is lost -- the majority loses its democratic power as soon as it places religious leaders above their own democratic powers. And the minority, who may be of a different religion and believes in a different set of laws, loses its voice entirely.

There is an argument I hear whenever I write or talk about this issue: that the fundamental laws of the United States are based upon a Judeo-Christian ethic (specifically, the Christian bible); therefore we are a nation founded upon religion and god, so how can I argue in this way? It is true that our founding fathers were, mostly, Christians (though the Deist beliefs of leaders like Franklin and Jefferson would scare the poop out of modern Evangelical Christian leaders), and our basic societal laws, such as the criminalization of, say, murder and theft, can be found in the ten commandments. But those fundamental laws are common to almost every human society, regardless of religion -- they exist in the Bible and the Torah and the Koran as they did in Hammurabi's code (which predates any of them) because they are common human law. Our constitution does not offer punishment for those types of crimes based upon any religious law, nor does it say that such crimes should be punished according to religious law. In fact, our constitution specifically removes religion from the legal consideration of the state, and does not name or reference any god in the body of the constitution or its first ten amendments, because our founding fathers, having seen theocracies in action, knew what havoc religious law wreaks upon society. Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about freedom of (and from) religion as it relates to our nation's fledgeling government, including "...our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinion in physics or geometry..." (Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, 1779). Those who argue that democracies can exist with religious law as a foundation, or that America should "return" to a nation of fundamentalist Christian religious ideals, would do well to read all of his writings on the subject, in their original context.

Before a society can be ready for true democracy, it needs to possess a secular ideal. All societies should respect all of the religious beliefs of all of their people -- religion is a basic unit of societal structure and has been since the beginning of man. But democratic societies must, at their core, believe in the people's fundamental right to freely set their own laws and elect their own leaders, and to, through democratic means, continue to shape those laws and leaders as their society changes and grows. Societies constitutionally tied to a fundamentalist religious identity cannot, by definition, do this. Therefore, while democracy is important to the positive growth of human society, secularism, at a state level, is the most important precursor to democracy.

We cannot force any society to be free before it is ready, no matter how many sanctions we put in place, or how many bombs we drop on their men, women and children. And, elections or no, a nation which enshrines religious law into its constitution is no less totalitarian than one which enshrines a human dictator. As we have seen in theocracies across the world, god is seldom a benevolent dictator for very long. A society must learn, must be encouraged, to think freely before it can be free.


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