We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.
Where in the world do we find a political party that lost a general election being installed as the “government” of that country by a President who belongs to that minority party himself?
Nowhere but Sri Lanka: a country which in the 1950s was regarded as a beacon for good governance in the postcolonial world, but is now in grave danger of joining the growing list of failed democracies. The new regime installed a month ago has been decisively rejected in a no-confidence vote by the country’s parliament (in the midst of violent attempts in the chamber itself to scuttle the vote). But the regime still clings to power while lacking political legitimacy. It is backed by a large Buddhist-nationalist faction in the country who regard the newly installed Prime Minister (who was ousted as President in 2015) as a “war hero” as well as one of their own. No foreign government, except China, has hitherto recognized the regime. But the country is economically and politically paralyzed. And, despite public protests and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Colombo, large sections of the population appear simply apathetic.
Such apathy, coupled with the gangsterism that has replaced a civil political culture in Sri Lanka, is rooted in massive institutional failures that go beyond parliament and an easily-muzzled judiciary. For many years now, the island’s schools and universities have ceased to be places where students learn critical thinking or how to engage with those from other ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. Education and the media have become ideologically polarized.
As for religious communities, they tend to live in self-enclosed ghettos, and have ceased to be forums where men and women are equipped with the moral habits indispensable for public life. Indeed, notions such as “the common good”, “the rule of law”, or “conflicts of interest” are little understood, not least among those entrusted with the education of the young, whether in schools or religious institutions.
In my last post, I mentioned the shifting political stances of the Roman Catholic church around the world. In Sri Lanka, the RC church comprises a significant 7 per cent of the population, compared to less than 1 per cent of Protestants. While there are several Roman Catholic priests and nuns who are politically active at the grassroots in promoting justice and reconciliation, the middle-class laity (among whom are found leading politicians, bureaucrats and judges) are largely theologically ignorant and often complicit in wrongdoing. And it is difficult for the RC Bishops to challenge authoritarianism in politics when they themselves are under the thumb of an autocratic Cardinal who is morally compromised and more Buddhist than Christian in his public pronouncements: for instance, claiming recently that a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka does not need the “Western religion of human rights” – thus denying his own church’s social doctrine!
In countries like Sri Lanka, the long-term task of building free and accountable institutions is where Christians should devote their energies. It is not simply a constitutional crisis we face, but a deeper moral crisis. Conversion— personal and cultural—goes hand-in-hand with legal and economic change. We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.
“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”- Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Contrary to what is stated in typical undergraduate-level texts on political theory, the first modern political revolution occurred not in France or the US, but in 17th-century England. The English Civil War saw, for a few brief years, the replacement of monarchy by a sovereign parliament. The English dissenters (“Puritans”, “Diggers” and “Levellers”), opposed absolutism on theological grounds and championed freedom of conscience and religious worship. Oliver Cromwell’s ragtag army of common people held formal open debates all over England to determine what kind of government should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly remarkable moment in history.
Although Cromwell’s Commonwealth did not last long, his experiment was far-reaching. While monarchy was restored, there was no going back on the sovereignty of Parliament in the government of the English people. And the refugees and immigrants who fled across the Atlantic to New England continued the political experiment begun under Cromwell. Little wonder that in New England immediately after the American Declaration of Independence, slavery was banned (while it continued in the South), women’s rights advanced, and a level of political maturity reached that was unsurpassed anywhere in the nineteenth-century world.
Many otherwise well-educated Americans are ignorant of how much they owe to the English Civil War and its aftermath. Words like Puritan and Calvinist are usually used as “sneer words”: they have become caricatures of gloomy, uptight religious fanatics. Little do we realise how indebted to such men we are in our modern political discourse about equality, rights, the rule of law, and representational democracy.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who traveled around the newly-independent United States observing its culture and institutions, had no such illusions. In his classic work, Democracy in America, written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, he observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it… I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere belief in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”
Recovering the rich heritage of Christian political theology is the first step towards the Church learning to speak truth to power and contributing to the building of free and accountable institutions.
First published on Vinoth’s blog.