Democracy in a Religious World
by bryan s. turner and damien freeman
connor court publishing, 244 pages, $40
Can the achievements of the modern West survive the eclipse of Christianity? A recent book argues that they cannot.
Faith’s Place: Democracy in a Religious World, edited by Bryan Turner and Damien Freeman, considers the fate and fortunes of democracy in an increasingly secular society. The book features essays from Turner and Freeman as well as pieces from a number of other contributors. They focus on the Anglosphere, where communism and Nazism never made major gains and where Christian morals often continued to influence public life even after religious practice had ceased. Today, however, those Christian morals are no longer as influential as they once were. The question before us is how universal human rights, universal suffrage, and welfare for the poor will survive in a society that no longer believes that every person is a child of God.
Turner’s principal thesis is that “the forces that are changing and eroding citizenship and democracy are the same forces that are changing and undermining religion.” This is true in the Anglosphere, and Christians should respond by resisting polarization, practicing courtesy in debate, and recognizing that Christian communities are an important foundation for democracy.
The Catholic Church today, with some historical irony, often finds itself defending democracy, free speech, and the separation of church and state. Yet it is entirely consonant with the Church’s broad traditions to defend truth as the basis of legitimate discussion and to defend debate as a pathway to discovering particular truths of natural law, human flourishing, and the common good. When there is no truth, only “my” truth and “your” truth, the temptation is to solve problems through the exercise of power and the appeal to identity and tribe. A democracy, in which citizens are able to organize civically, politically, and legally to defend their rights, is the best setting for the defense of religious freedom.
The book also examines the secular incomprehension of religion. Australian James Franklin outlines the growing ignorance of traditional religion in Australia. Franklin describes it at its worst as an “unteachable incomprehension.” In Australia, unlike the United States, political rhetoric rarely mentions, let alone appeals to, the deity.
I suspect the root cause is not lack of understanding, but disdain. It is something like the Italian attitude toward cricket: Italians generally don’t understand cricket, but they don’t want to; they refuse to waste time on such a quixotic, complicated game.
In Australia, our silence about God in public debates has made this ignorance worse, while not mitigating the hostility. When we attempt to find common ground by using natural law arguments, God is not mentioned. This is a mistake—not simply because many citizens are still theists, but because God, not just religion, should remain in the public square.
Freeman has an interesting section on Michael J. Sandel’s idea of the “encumbered self”—i.e., the self as somehow shaped or constrained by the community to which it belongs. According to Sandel, “religion is not an expression of autonomy but rather of conviction unrelated to choice.” Sandel introduced this concept to argue for religious freedom as freedom of conscience, not freedom of choice. This was his response to the two competing approaches to religious freedom on the U.S. Supreme Court: the freedom to choose a belief and the freedom to obey, i.e. to perform a religious activity when “bound by duties derived from sources other than themselves.” Strangely, Sandel claims that beliefs are not a matter of choice, because they are not governed by the will. In his view, a person has no control over his beliefs, because we cannot change what we believe to be true.
It is true that we are unable to deny that two plus two equals four. But religion is not based on mathematical truths, and faith questions and answers—does God exist? does God love us? is suffering redemptive?—always involve choice as well as the use of reason.
Religions impose necessary duties, but we must still accept, reject, or ignore these duties. Even in traditional societies, one can choose to be more or less religious. We can also choose to “sin”—e.g. deny what we believe to be true—to gain our freedom or retain our prosperity. An autonomous person is no less autonomous because he accepts the truths of physics or public health or our ecological responsibilities to the future. But he is able to deny even these truths in bad faith, or for self-interest. An autonomous person can believe he is bound by religious truths, as autonomy need not mean inventing one’s own truths or values.
This book is useful because it wrestles with the consequences of the decline of Christianity outside the Church—the hearts and minds of the recently lapsed and the long-term pagans, atheists, or agnostics. This game is now on, most visibly with the woke activists, cancel culture, and perhaps more dangerously with radical individualism. Claims to personal autonomy, the assertion that “I am the source of all valid claims about what I should and should not do,” damage the common good.
I believe that both democracy and religious freedom are at the heart of the good life. Philosophical discussion is indispensable for their survival, but democracy and religious freedom can only be defended by determined citizens who recognize the issues and have the political will to act. Christians everywhere in the West, with fellow religious believers, should be organizing now to prevent future encroachments on our freedom.
George Cardinal Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.
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