Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

How Religion Can Save Democracy from Religion: Inclusivity vs. Exclusivity

Photo is from istock.
Photo is from istock.

Some students come to my classes convinced religion is to blame for murderous harm against the vulnerable. They may be right. Others argue that religion is an essential element for a morally well-constructed life that serves the vulnerable. They, too, may be right. But before we can adjudicate these claims, we need to make sure we are all talking about the same thing when we use the word “religion.” What exactly do we mean by religion?  

Oddly, when looking at a variety of traditions that we commonly think of as religions, they do not refer to themselves that way. Traditionally, Judaism doesn’t refer to itself as a religion, neither does Hinduism, nor Native American traditions. Rather, they see themselves as traditions asserting “this is the way we live,” creating collective security and social harmony, mooring the community to a shared way of life that avoids chaos. People are traditionally born into these traditions.

 Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, see themselves as religions with universal scope foremost. People may easily join these traditions. They’re not birth-based. Because of their geopolitical power, they not only enforce their religious beliefs, but even more powerfully have used themselves to define what a religion is and has to be. They not only tell us that they have the way and the truth in their particular theologies, but create the template the rest must follow in being a religion. Judaism has had narratives restructured to become variants of Christian and Muslim belief structures, using them as models. 

 It’s ironic that the study of religious practices often shows how little in common traditions have with one another. The Abrahamic monotheistic institutions see a beginning and end to time, and thereby sharing a linear worldview. “We started here, and we are going toward there,” where there involves Divine Judgment. Notice how different this is in cyclical traditions like Hinduism, in which there is no beginning or end, but a never-ending cycle of rebirth.  

 What do cyclical and linear religions share that allow us to categorize them together? Not much. What they do share, however, is this: the bodily performance of rituals informed by symbols. The similarities typically stop here, not extending to particular rites or symbols of other traditions. But there’s a lot to unpack in seeing rituals and symbols as a family resemblance between practices.  

 Ritual and symbols allow us to make life regular when it seems scarily dysfunctional. They allow us to deal with insecurity in the face of life’s uncertainties, providing us with practices that are perfect or sacred expressions of how we would like life to be. Life is messy, but our rituals are clean and thereby write into us, so to speak, how to aspire to more precise expressions of what’s at hand when living.  

 As such, we see the emergence of civic religions. After 9/11, for example, Americans religiously embraced their flag and surrounding rituals in ways never seen, such as politicians displaying flag pins. Today, if a U.S. politician isn’t showing an American flag pin (our national flag is experienced as sacred), they are likely to be accused of a lack of patriotism, of being impure, of profaning our sacred values. 

Henry Adams, the 19th century American historian, argued that political parties are the systemic organization of hatred. Some of my students say the same of organized religion, coming to class ready to blame it for many of our social ills. This is because when encountering religion (which in their worlds are normally Christian traditions), they see expressions of hate, vilifying those not in their theological community. They are seeing ugly expressions of religion, namely war and social oppression.  

Today’s students have grown up with culture wars so intense that they sometimes erupt into murder. There is no place safe from gun violence with murderous mass shootings in every sort of venue, including synagogues, mosques, and churches. In these cases, the shooters are driven not by a hatred of religion, but by a hatred of some other particular religion because of the shooter’s own religion. And it is backed up by elements of civic religion in America, which takes guns and their use to be sacred. The motto of one of the most powerful political influencers in Washington D.C. and every state capital, the American National Rifle Association, is “only a good person with a gun can stop a bad person with a gun” where the notions of “good” and “bad” here are expressly dependent on a White, conservative Christian worldview based on a deep “us vs. them” mentality.  

 The students with an antipathy toward religion see this death and destruction as intimately tied up with religion, and they are not wrong. When a religion is tethered to state power, to those who control social and political violence, religion speaks violently. We can look backward to the Spanish Inquisition or just turn on the television today. Russia freaked out when Ukraine started exchanging furtive glances with the West, bringing up old, sacred schisms; the split between (Western) Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy (not Western). The sacred in terms of important symbols is very much at play in this conflict. Vladimir the 1st founded the Russian Orthodox Church in Kyiv in the 10th century. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill preaches that dying fighting against Ukraine “washes away all sins.” What kind of sins? Murder and assault? All sins, including the awful ones we see from the war including kidnapping, rape, and torture. 

 But these students also need to understand that religious rhetoric in politics isn’t always war-like when it calls into question the current conditions. Think back to the Biblical prophets. More recently, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King come to mind. Students love them! They were civic saints standing up for justice. But the moment we begin to study their thought and writings, it becomes clear that their motivation and means of justification are  religious. Religion is now a force for good, for peace, for equality and fairness.  

 What is the difference? If it is not religion per se that is to blame for social violence, then what exactly is it? The answer is totalizing ideology. A religion that leaves no room for alternative ways of seeing the world or being in the world will create the conditions for social violence when it acquires power. An embracing religion with a pluralistic understanding will do the opposite. 

Consider American abolitionists fighting against slavery. They were deeply informed by their Christian traditions. But let’s not forget that most slave owners used Christianity to justify owning and abusing slaves. What does this difference show? Christianity is not some solidified, unchanging tradition. Rather, Christianity is made up of many traditions, some pluralistic and others totalizing. This difference makes all the difference.  

This split is present in other traditions as well. Look at Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has always used his Judaism to profane Jewish Israelis he doesn’t like, not to mention Arab, Muslim citizens of Israel. He’s doing it now by robbing Israel’s (secular) Supreme Court of its check against (his) legislative and executive power. Why? The Supreme Court is profaning Jewish tradition when upending Netanyahu’s legislative agenda. Netanyahu speaks as if he alone owns Judaism, not allowing there to be Judaisms.  

We also see this in the U.S. where presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Mike Pence speak as if they own Christianity and thereby what it means to be an American. They argue secular values are profaning our American way of life which is necessarily connected to their totalizing Christian nationalism.  

The Netanyahu and Trump model is designed to end the conversation, to accumulate power and quash all opposition. They own the discourse and allow no dissent. This is the recipe for fascism. Democracy requires disagreement. A lack of consensus is not a failure, it is the necessary state for a politically and morally successful country. To return to the Henry Adams quotation above. The passionate discussion keeps a check on governmental force, correcting the overreaches that accompany power. It has been that way in the United States for two and a half centuries and Israel for three-quarters of one. But in both, sadly, it appears that totalizing religion coupled with control of state-sponsored violence is threatening both. 

The conversations with my students get complex quickly when they realize that the notion of religion is not as simple as they thought it was. Religions, in and of themselves, cannot be blamed for mass murder. The problem with what they often identify as religion is that it is usually describing people in pursuit of power who are weaponizing religion, exerting it as a fixed, totalizing truth.  

 Religions are not totalizing truths. Just look inside one. You’ll find profound disagreements. That is their strength, that multiplicity allows them to be a force for good. It is when the pluralism is eliminated for a totalizing approach that the oppression and violence appear. 

 I am glad Israelis are in the streets fighting against totalizing ideology. They are providing an important example—not just for my students, but for all of us—in showing that a particular religion isn’t a fixed, never changing entity.  

 “The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that rules among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroys much good.” Ecclesiastes 9:17-18.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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