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Religious Freedom and Democracy PDF Print E-mail

Adrian Karatnycky
Freedom House

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

For over 25 years, Freedom House has been conducting a survey of political rights and civil liberties throughout the world. It has been tracing the ebb and flow of democracy and human freedom and trying to quantify its findings to determine trends in the world. Some of the findings in our most recent survey correlate with the factor of religion and religious beliefs.

Clearly, scholars are re-examining the relationship between culture and political development. It is a trendy and interesting issue, at least in American social science. Some have posited a clash of cultures emerging from fundamentally opposing sets of values, some of which are rooted in religious belief. While there are broad differences among civilizations, even within the variety of cultures within single countries, it can’t be denied that democracy and human rights today find expression on all continents and in a wide array of cultures and beliefs.

Moreover, there are very strong democratic voices in virtually all societies. It is useful to examine this correlation between democracy and broader human freedom and religious faith. In our survey of 191 countries in the world today, we rate 81 of them as being free. That is, they have a reasonably full and broad array of political rights. Some of them have substantial problems—minority problems and so on—but generally they have the characteristics of a free press, a vibrant civil society, reasonable tolerance of religious liberty, democratic political processes, and some semblance of a free and open market economy. All of them are political democracies: They have democratically elected leaders.Of these 81 free countries, 75 are majority Christian. Of the 6 countries that are not majority Christian, one is Israel, which can be considered a part of the Judeo-Christian civilization. Another has a Christian community that accounts of nearly a third of the population. Four other countries are rated in this category: Mali, which is predominantly Muslim; Taiwan, in which nearly half the population professes Buddhism; Mongolia, which is traditionally Buddhist; and Japan, where a majority observes both Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

The correlation between Christianity and freedom is very strong, according to our data. But this has not always been the case. Nothing I say should suggest that there is an inevitable or immutable relationship between Christian civilizations and political democracy that precludes other civilizations from undergoing the same evolution.

In fact, we had been looking at the world only a quarter a century ago, I wouldn’t have argued that there is a strong correlation between Christianity and democracy. I would have argued that there is a strong correlation between Protestant forms of Christianity and democracy. Latin America was virtually in the hands of corporatists and military dictatorships. The Orthodox countries of Central and Eastern Europe were under the sway of totalitarian systems. Countries like the Philippines had another form of dictatorship on and off during this period. So these kinds of correlations have been dramatic and recent.

Still, it is important to know where we are in the world today and what it tells us about some of the religious factors and the religious influences as they condition political development. I would also argue in the opposite way: that religion is an important factor, but that frequently religious leaders are moved by—or go along with—the dominant political passions of the day. Perhaps it can be said that the Catholic movement toward democracy has been conditioned by a harmony and synthesis between the church hierarchy’s desire to shift ground in support of a democratic option and, at the same time, greater pressure from below and from the laity.

In any event, let me take a look at some of the other statistics. As I said, 75 of the 81 countries that we rate as free are predominantly Christian. But 11 of the 67 countries that have the poorest records in terms of political rights and civil liberties are Christian. By this indicator, predominantly Christian countries are about five and a half times more likely to be free and democratic as they are to be non-democratic and to suffer serious abridgments of basic human rights.

Among countries with Islamic majorities, only 1 is free in our ratings, and that is Mali. Fourteen are partly free and 28 are not free. The latter are countries in which there is a very strong and severe abridgment of most basic human and political rights. Six countries with predominantly Muslim populations are electoral democracies. That means they don’t have the broad array of the rule of law and broad protections for human rights, but they have a reasonably competitive political electoral system. These are Albania—whose democracy was recently restored with a lot of foreign pressure; Bangladesh; Kyrgyzstan; Mali; Pakistan— where there is a lot of military influence but still some political competition; and Turkey—which has a very severe problem in its treatment of the Kurdish population and some severe abridgments of human rights. Nevertheless, Turkey’s leadership is elected in a democratic process.

Now, what is there in the Christian tradition that allows this sympathy for democratic opening? The first point that I would make is by Paul, from Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is neither male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” I think this kind of ecumenical view creates a kind of philosophy for greater public participation because it is based on this transcendent idea of the equality of human beings as the creations of God and the expression of God’s creative design.

The second factor is the major shift that has occurred within the Catholic countries over the last 20 years. Here not only individuals but also the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church has mattered. Under the very important leadership of Pope John Paul II, who very clearly favored a democratic option, a shift was possible both as a result of public pressure from below and pressure from the top.

When he became pope 18 years ago, 22 of the 42 countries with Catholic majorities were tyrannies. Now, most of these dictatorships have collapsed, including Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Poland, the Philippines, and Lithuania. In addition, Mexico is on the verge of completing its democratic transformation. Peru installed a democracy, even though it was briefly interrupted by a martial law regime. Croatia has had free elections, although it has not yet completed its democratic path. There are really only two predominantly Catholic countries today that remain dictatorships: Equatorial Guinea and Cuba.

This was not always so. I think that values and leadership matters, as well as the coming together of both historical moments and a certain willingness in the culture of a particular belief system to express ideas of political rights, civil liberties, and so on. This is not to say that religions don’t have their pastoral missions; it is to say that religious forces and religious values have been a very important component in this historical movement toward political freedom. This movement has substantially improved the state of political, economic, cultural, and even religious freedoms despite the fact that there is still a broad array of countries in which these rights are severely and substantially abridged.

Let me say a little bit more about the idea of the clash of cultures and the clash of civilizations, an idea that one of the members of our board, Samuel Huntington, has expressed in some of his writings. What I am arguing doesn’t dismiss the idea that there can be clashes of culture, as Huntington has suggested. But, I would argue, there are also clashes of cultures within each civilization in both subtle and open ways.

We see this even in a relatively closed society like Iran, where a struggle is occurring between those forces that want to adopt a more libertarian political order and a respect for greater democratic processes, represented by the president, and those that want to restrict rights and franchise and so on, as represented by some of the more backward-leaning religious figures. We have to keep in mind that there is this factor—the internal clash of values, civilizations, and belief systems—within each society.

The other point is how mutable the attitude of religion is over time. Every great historical religion that traces its roots to antiquity predated democratic values. So none of them have explicit expressions forbidding this kind of political form. They predate many of the other non-democratic systems and orders as well. Many of them emerged in feudal periods. They predate nationalism. So, in a sense, one of the advantages is that religion does not have a bias against this kind of a thing. Clearly, in most of the major belief systems, you can certainly find supporting influences and emphases that can be used to marshal movements and energies on behalf of a greater political opening.

The third point I would make is how mutable it is. Regrettably, clergy and religious leaders, in their desire to maintain continuity and to preach a religious or pastoral message to their flock, are very often swept by the emergent passions of nationalism or the passions of particular belief systems—state socialism, systems that percolate the class struggle, and others. They may also be swept by the opposite forces.

Improvements in living standards and market forces that have created middle classes have generated expectations that reinforce and will lead clergies to a greater expression of some of the more tolerant democratic and ecumenical roots within their religious traditions.

I don’t mean to say that there are not a lot of terrible countries. Nina Shea, who works with Freedom House, has been one of the people documenting and exerting pressure on those regimes that are horrible. There are the atrocities of Rwanda, Bosnia, and so on. These things suggest that the world is by no means a wonderful place. There are many serious and deep problems. But the broad trend lines are positive, and they ought to be examined and understood in their relationship to religion, which is a major factor which shapes people’s political expectations.