The Magazine

Faith in Democracy

How the debate over religion in the West distorts our understanding of freedom in the Middle East.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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The Western problem with religion became apparent in the reactions to the events of 9/11. As president of the United States, George Bush had the first crack at framing the meaning of what had happened. To the dismay of many, he immediately opted to characterize the attacks as part of a "war." But a war against whom or what? Bush sought to delimit the enemy to a group of "terrorists" or "evildoers"--he did not use the term fundamentalists. As the terrorists were all Muslims and explicitly justified their actions in the name of Islam, Bush could not avoid raising the religious question. He took pains, however, to separate the terrorists from the practitioners of the religion as a whole, arguing that the threat came from a "fringe form of Islamic extremism." "Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith." Bush characterized the enemy on the basis of its inveterate opposition to a free regime: Our enemies are people "who absolutely hate what America stands for, . . . they hate . . . democratically elected government, . . . they hate our freedoms--our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." Bush's defense of democracy and freedom relied on a universal set of ideas deriving from principles of nature and of religion, the latter expressed in nonsectarian terms: "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."

A strong reaction against this understanding of the conflict and against Bush's characterization of the West developed. Although none denied that the terrorists opposed freedom, many claimed that what provoked the Islamic world--and would prevent a long-term solution to the conflict--was America's own religious fundamentalism. In this view, there was indeed a clash of fundamental values, but it was not at bottom one between liberal democracy and its foes, but rather between two religious fundamentalisms: Christian fundamentalism (American style) and Islamic fundamentalism. While obviously different and conflicting, these two fundamentalisms are in another sense the same. They are both "fundamentalisms." The most important division in the world today, therefore, is one that cuts right through both Western and Islamic societies. It is the line between those who are religiously fundamentalist and those who are not.

This last view has had widespread support among Europe's intelligentsia. In a highly publicized account of the post-9/11 world, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that the current international situation is best summed up as "a confrontation between two political theologies." One is found among those who identify themselves as "Islamic fundamentalists," the other is localized in America, a nation that, despite a legal separation of church and state, has a religious culture that "relies on a fundamentally biblical (and primarily Christian) . . . discourse of its political leaders." An equivalency of sorts exists between these two fundamentalisms, captured in the slogan "Bush and Bin Laden." In neither case do the fundamentalists speak for all of the faithful. Islamic fundamentalists, according to Derrida, do not represent authentic Islam, "any more than all Christians in the world identify with the United States's fundamentally Christian professions of faith." The idea of the West as an entity of roughly shared values no longer exists. It has been superceded by the more basic division between fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists, a distinction that places America in one camp along with al Qaeda and Europe in the other camp with certain so-called "moderates." America's essence of religious fundamentalism is often captured by the term "Bush," whose name now designates not so much a person as a worldview alien to Europe. Only this metaphysical use can explain why the American president has become so despised.

The picture of America described by Derrida represents a striking departure from the image that was often purveyed by European intellectuals during the last century, when the stress was placed on America's relentless and unchecked modernizing impulse. America was decried for its disregard of tradition. America was modernity's bulldozer, uprooting the past in every realm, from architecture, to gastronomy, to religion. A hundred years ago, Max Weber, in his celebrated work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, characterized modernity as "an iron cage" in which only "the ghost of dead religious beliefs" still lingered. Modernity was governed by a process of "secularization," under which religion gradually loses its hold on all aspects of society and culture. The nation leading this process, Weber suggested, was America, where "the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions."

Not all or even most of the European critics of America in the 19th and 20th century were religious, but almost all subscribed to this idea of America as the destroyer of tradition. The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, characterized "Americanism," by this time an abstract concept, as "the still unfolding and not yet full or completed essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times." According to Heidegger, Europe (chiefly Germany) was caught in a "great pincer," squeezed by the modernist ideologies of Americanism and Bolshevism, which, despite their differences, represented from "a metaphysical point of view, the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man."

In the contemporary European intellectual critique of America, by contrast, the force threatening Europe derives from religion, with the pincer squeezing Europe coming from the two fundamentalisms. Although many European thinkers still take America to task for being too modern in certain realms, the main charge today is that America is not modern enough--that it adheres to an anachronistic concept of the nation, that it still expresses a belief in a principle of natural rights, and that it is not embarrassed to rely on religion. Meanwhile, European culture and politics have moved on to embrace a post-religious ethos, in which even the slightest mention of the Almighty in an official public address is seen as fatally compromising the practice of true democratic politics. Modern philosophers see this post-religious ethos as the core of a new third force in the world, which alone is consistent with promoting democracy. This time, Europe has much more confidence that it is leading the way to the future.

This change in European thought would seem at first glance to place Europe, not America, in the position of uprooting tradition by breaking with a major part of the West's heritage. Remarkably, however, Western European thinkers present this shift not as a break or discontinuity, but as an organic fulfillment of tradition. Derrida's own philosophical school of deconstructionism, which once prided itself on being the intellectual enfant terrible that challenged the Enlightenment, has now settled into a comfortable middle age of bourgeois orthodoxy by achieving, in Derrida's words, the Enlightenment's "absolutely original mark with regard to religious doctrine," namely a political system and public culture in which religion plays no role.

This analysis of the current difference between America and Europe curiously parallels a similar description by Alexis de Tocqueville of the situation in the 18th century. Tocqueville sought to explain how at that time "irreligion" became "the dominant and general passion" among intellectuals in France, though not yet among the public. He attributed the development to the influence of Enlightenment philosophers. But Tocqueville made clear that this was not the only path the Enlightenment might follow. He sketched an alternative, a second version of the Enlightenment, found in America, in which "the spirit of religion" was joined with "the spirit of freedom." America's religiosity was exceptional, but its exceptionalism offered a model worthy of consideration in promoting liberal democracy. For Derrida, American exceptionalism is a nightmare and a grave threat to democratic prospects.

From the thesis of the two fundamentalisms has come a general theory of how to approach the problems of the post-9/11 world. If there is to be reconciliation between Islamic societies and the West, it lies with the model discovered by the post-religious nations; any constructive dialogue must take place with the West's de-fundamentalized part, Europe. The two fundamentalisms only provoke one another, clashing as ignorant armies on a darkling plain. Post-religious nations also hold the key to promoting democracy. Democracy will never be spread if it is proclaimed, as America tries to do, on the basis of a universal standard, which is only another manifestation of American religious fundamentalism. According to Jürgen Habermas, Europe's most important contemporary philosopher, the promotion of democracy must rely on a different kind of "universalism," embodied in contemporary European philosophy, that is predicated "on an equality that demands . . . one step outside of one's own viewpoint in order to put it into relationship with the viewpoints adopted by another, which are to be regarded as equal." Other cultures must evolve to join this new universalism under Europe's patient tutelage.

Pierre Rosanvallon, one of France's most prominent social scientists, has carried Habermas's doctrine a step further, distinguishing between America's "dogmatic universalism," which is "characterized by an intolerable arrogance that is only made more so by its spontaneous naiveté," and Europe's pragmatic or "experimental universalism," which makes no kind of absolute claims. Europe's is the true universalism that alone "permits the launching of a dialogue that is far more equal among the nations." The lofty level at which Rosanvallon has addressed the world situation has unfortunately precluded him from testing his theory in relation to potentially emerging democratic states in the Middle East, but his reasoning suggests that any successes will be credited to the wonderful effects of experimental universalism. If anything has been learned from advanced philosophy, it is that each party is entitled to write its own narrative.

Ideas can move from their place of origin, and the hope of many European thinkers has been that America can be persuaded to abandon its fundamentalism and adopt the "European philosophy." Sure enough, large numbers of American intellectuals, backed up by Hollywood's elite, have embraced a version of the "two fundamentalisms" thesis. Similar warnings about the dangers of our "fundamentalism" appeared from the first moments following 9/11, and it was with a certain satisfaction that proponents of this view seized on George Bush's awkward reference early on to a "crusade" against terrorism, which only confirmed to them that the same mindset that they despised in America threatened to become the source of what troubled the world as a whole.

In a more recent version of this position, the Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted that opposition to liberalism today "extends well beyond the backwaters of Islam. It includes the church that the pope [John Paul II] bequeaths us [and] the Protestant Christian Right." In the great worldwide divide Meyerson describes, the "red state" label has taken on added significance, with Kansas being grouped with Iran. All fundamentalists--meaning the set of religious believers that does not share liberal views on abortion, family issues, and stem cell research--are placed in the same global party of obscurantism.


NO ONE DENIES that a rough division now exists in the West between the more faithful on the one hand and the advocates of a post-religious ethos on the other. The conflict between these two views accounts for much of the ongoing controversy between Europe and America and, within America, between elements of the Republican and Democratic parties. But the issue for our foreign policy is not whether such a domestic division exists, but whether it supplies an analytic framework for understanding international conflict. It is difficult to imagine an idea that is more fanciful--or more dangerous, not only to our national interest but to the interests of the democratic world. Construing the international situation on this basis is a strategy calculated more to promote the domestic project of Western opponents of religion than to assist in understanding the problems we confront.

The notion that America's religious beliefs are chiefly responsible for provoking the Islamic world is fantasy. George Bush is admittedly not the favorite in many parts of the Islamic world, where his poll numbers register almost as poorly as they do in Paris or Berlin, but it is absurd to suggest that American Christians favor a "crusade" or that they harbor an extraordinary animosity toward Islam. If devout Islamic believers see a cultural menace coming from the West, it is in fact much less from American religious values than from Western post-religious mores. A devout Muslim would certainly find the scene at Liberty University less objectionable than one at a European beach or at the Oscars. It is shameful of some in the West to insist that we should change our way of life just so as not to give offense to others. But for the many who play at following this line, it would be much better--at least it would be more honest--to look in the mirror at their own lifestyles than to point the finger at Christian fundamentalism.

When it comes to the task of devising a policy for promoting democracy, the two fundamentalisms thesis provides no better guidance. The use of the word "fundamentalism"--intended, when it is defined at all, to mean strong religious beliefs--conveniently conflates the group of radical Islamicists, who have openly spoken against democracy and liberties, with the American faithful, who defend democracy and liberties. The idea of a dichotomy between the strongly religious who are associated with those beyond the pale of liberal democracy on the one hand, and the post-religious who are the true defenders of liberal democracy on the other, is an ignorant calumny. It denies what is most important politically, which is the distinction between liberty and a form of fascism or terrorism, and replaces it with a vague cultural distinction between the post-religious ethos and fundamentalism. Yet how can American fundamentalists rightly be labeled foes of democracy when they support the U.S. Constitution, swear by freedom of speech and freedom of religion, follow the rules of the game, and participate in democratic politics (which, until the religious began to vote for Republican candidates, was widely considered a democratic activity)? Their only sin, if sin it be, is that they have different policy preferences from many post-religious thinkers on the issues of abortion, marriage, and embryonic research.

The historical record supports this point. In the United States, religion has marched hand in hand with the development of liberal democracy. There have been occasional tensions between some religious doctrines and elements of liberalism, but far less so than between some secular doctrines and liberalism (think of Marxism). Elsewhere in the world the historical relationship between Christianity and democracy has been more complicated, but by the middle of the twentieth century, Christian faith clearly was supportive of liberal democracy. The third wave of democratization, which began in 1974, has been called by political scientist Samuel Huntington "overwhelmingly a Catholic wave." Not only did democracy see its greatest progress in largely Catholic countries, but the role of the faithful was in many cases critical to the development of democracy--Poland, above all, comes to mind. To divorce the cause of democracy from religion and assign it exclusively to the post-religious is to rewrite history.

Why have so many in the West, particularly on the left, embraced the idea that "fundamentalists" are the enemies of democracy and that nonfundamentalists are its friends? Is it because they wish to simplify matters and satisfy themselves that what they oppose at home must also be the source of all of the woes in the world? Is it because, while condemning the alleged Manicheanism of religious thought, it is they who are unconsciously guilty of just this vice, substituting the secular distinction between nonfundamentalist and fundamentalist, or between "Europe" and "America," for the religious distinction between good and evil? The effect of such verbal manipulation may be to achieve a small gain in a domestic political conflict, but at the expense of enormous potential damage to our interests in the world.


THE THESIS of the two fundamentalisms has laid an intellectual trap. By inveighing against American "fundamentalism," and falsely labeling it illiberal and undemocratic, Western nations would practically consign themselves to denying the possibility of liberal democracy in the Middle East. If intellectuals here cannot bring themselves to admit that the Christian right in America is democratic (even if they do not like many of its policies), then how can they begin to accommodate themselves to the prospect of "democratic" regimes and parties in the Middle East that are influenced by Islamic beliefs?

Only as we in the West free ourselves from this trap can we return without prejudice to the practical question of Islam and democracy. Without prejudice means just that: trying to look at the facts without declaring in advance either that Islam and democracy are incompatible or--in some bizarre bow to the politically correct notion that nothing more troublesome can be alleged about a non-Western belief than about a Western one--that Islam poses no more problems for democracy than Christianity. Islam is different from Christianity, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that it might present special challenges.

Except for the handful of experts who have studied these questions, most in the American academy have been playing catch-up over the past four years, trying to learn as much as possible about faraway parts of the world that have been peripheral to American education. This effort has taken place during a period of unusual stress, when the temptation to succumb to broad generalities that purport to explain everything is at its greatest. Yet the more one studies this subject, the more variegated and fluid the scene appears. Not only is each Islamic nation different, not only are there competing traditions within Islam, but there are now new currents of thought stirring in the Islamic world, stimulated in part by the 9/11 attack and its aftermath. Whatever the merits of some of the older generalities and syntheses, they seem today to be in need of considerable qualification.

On the invitation of the State Department, I recently had occasion to visit Turkey and speak, among others, to some Islamic groups. Although Turkey is hardly the modal case of an Islamic nation in the Middle East--which one is?--it is an important one, and to many in the region it represents a model case of democratic development. My task on this visit was to talk in a general way about American politics and life, in the hope that greater understanding would promote better relations between the two countries. One paragraph from my talk, intended as a straightforward description of the role of religion in political life, sparked the most interest. I quote it in full:

In the United States there is no single legally established church or religion and no official establishment of religion as such. There are also many rules and practices in effect that enforce a strong legal separation between the two realms (much stronger, as it turns out, than some would prefer). Nevertheless, religion as a whole exercises a fairly strong influence today on political life, in the sense that many religious people bring religious concerns to bear on political issues that they believe have a religious dimension. Most of the time their positions are presented as a mix of religious and "secular" and political arguments, as religious arguments alone are unconvincing to many. There is another interesting fact. Instead of the different religions in America competing and contesting against one another in the political realm, as they sometimes did in the past, there is today a growing alliance among the religious of different faiths, who find that despite their doctrinal differences, they share many common concerns. Evangelical Protestants, orthodox Catholics, and orthodox Jews often work together on such issues as abortion policy, questions of the definition of families, and on matters related to embryonic research. Much less is known about the behavior of the Muslim population in the United States, which is rapidly growing. But I suspect that except on the question of support for Israel (where many Muslims would be at odds today with the position of parts of the rest of the religious community), they could well become a part of this same loose coalition. These religious groups today are fully committed to liberal democratic politics, and they are also devoted to modernity, in the sense of wishing to participate fully in the modern world of science and commerce. They are not, or do not see themselves, as backward-looking or antimodern; many of them are, however, deeply concerned about certain aspects of modernity, and their work together in politics has been devoted to creating a path inside of modern life in which their values and faith can better be realized.

From a speech that dealt with many aspects of American life, this paragraph led to the most probing discussion. After a few formulaic objections relating to the theological doctrine espoused by some Protestants of a Jewish presence in Israel before the return of the Messiah, we got down to brass tacks. My audiences wanted to know more about the democratic and modernist character of these religious movements, and how religious groups sought to advance their concerns in a society devoted to keeping political life free of ecclesiastical control. This position seemed in many ways close to what some of them were seeking to accomplish. Contrary to what thinkers espousing the post-religious ethos argue, the religious in other societies who are beginning to be involved in the democratic process are naturally more interested in entering into a dialogue with those in the West who have religious concerns than with those who are devoted to postmodern philosophy.

The implications of this reaction for practical politics are obvious. The West's (and America's) policy of democratic outreach needs to proceed by a dual-track strategy, one part that reaches out to secularist elements, another to religious groups. Western post-religionists have contributed mightily to the cause of liberal democracy, but they are destined to fail if they think that they can produce replicas of themselves in Islamic nations. However much it may disappoint them, the politics of most of these nations are not going to resemble the politics of Holland or of San Francisco, any more than the politics of the United States as a whole will resemble those of such places. If the West's conception of democracy today should ever become predicated on the narrow idea of a fully post-religious culture, we will end up speaking only to select parts of the societies we seek to influence. James Bryce, who pioneered the field of democratization studies with his work Modern Democracies (1921), noted an analogous problem in his day, when he lamented that the cause of democracy in several nations was being left to urban "cientificos"--those who had adopted the latest progressive views, but who had little contact with the mass of their own people. A democratic movement without a popular base, Bryce observed, is a contradiction in terms.

If a fruitful dialogue between the West and the Middle East is to take place, it will need to draw on every credible asset our societies have to offer. For us in the West, this dialogue should be considered a political, not a religious, matter. Except for the few of the Muslim faith in America, Americans per se have no stake either in serving or disserving the cause of Islam. The outcome we seek is the evolution of regimes that are not unfriendly to America--regimes with which we can work--and that have a chance to become stable and self-sustaining. The belief of the Bush administration is that these objectives will be best achieved if more of these societies develop into stable democratic regimes. The great debate over the past three years has been whether this objective is in fact achievable, or whether it represents a utopian gambit. For now, the experiment has been launched, and until it is proven a failure, all parts of the West, except those motivated by sheer perversity in their antipathy to George Bush, should hope and work for its success, as it clearly represents the best option imaginable.

America is well-positioned to help promote this change--and for the very reason that many have seen fit to deplore it. Contemporary America has the asset of possessing both a strong religious and a strong secular component, both of them friends of liberal democracy. Each can speak to different parts of other nations. The faithful and the post-religious are likely to remain contentious at home--they have a great deal to quarrel about--but they would be foolish to allow these secondary differences to obscure their common interest. For the sake of that interest, it is time to beat our own sectarian swords into democratic ploughshares.

James W. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor most recently of Red over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics.