Home > Ignas Kleden > Democracy And Interfaith Values

Democracy And Interfaith Values

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

It is a great honor for me today to say a few words about “democracy and interfaith values”. I assume that the topic has derived from a tacit belief that there is a link between democracy and religion, or more precisely, a connection between democratic practices and religious motivations, moral norms and spiritual values.

As a point of departure I would like to bring up an observation that whereas some people in modern states, for whatever reasons, decide to identify themselves as people without religion or even without faith, no modern state nowadays will proclaim itself non-democratic or anti-democratic. Democracy turns out to become a hallmark of reasonable politics in a modern state in a way that religions cannot claim to be.

However, there is also another observation that many conflicts in our time, be they interethnic, interregional, political or otherwise, are triggered and driven by causes and interests that have something to do with religious differences, or with other factors that have their roots in religious outlook. This can take place in the competition to offer the best possible world view that promises the best possible solution of problems on earth and the best possible way that can lead to salvation in the afterlife. This is to say, non-violence as an essential characteristic of democratic politics is often endangered by differences that are of religious nature, that can result in violent rivalry, this being the case now as it has always been the case since time immemorial. In many cases religions turned out to justify moral authoritarianism that is definitely no better than political authoritarianism.

The fact that religions and religious differences inclined to bring people to waging wars in past decades and past centuries was a serious consideration in the western countries that led politicians, political thinkers and statesmen to pondering and eventually to deciding on a separation of a modern democratic state from religion. Religions have their own place in private and personal domain where everybody is free to do and to live according to his or her own choice, but religions should be excluded from politics that has something to do with public affairs and public good that always need a political consensus. This consensus becomes a basis on which to make decisions and to take actions that involve and affect everybody within the state, despite their individual preferences and habits and despite their collective convictions and inclinations.  Democratic politics becomes a sphere of the negotiable whereas religions are assumed to remain a domain of the non-negotiable.

However, at the same time we cannot get rid of the third observation that some inspirations from world religions could help us to make more sense of democratic principles that are to guide the state and society in our time. Also many problems that are faced by the modern states can be better dealt with if one can make use of great inspirations that are given by world religions. Respects for human dignity and human rights and the demand for social justice are not only accepted and suggested but are justified by almost all world religions, where as the equality before the law is closely connected to the religious belief of the equality before God.

This is the reason why some people raise the question as to why we have to give so much attention to the so-called democratic values, whereas those values are already available in religions? Is it not better to rely on religions that have made so many efforts over the centuries in preserving those values, which are now introduced in the name of democratic values? Is democracy not superfluous in the face of religions that teach the same values?

Obviously, the question is valid and becomes a real challenge that deserves a reasonable response.

I, for one, tend to believe that both democracy and religions have something in common, in that both are grounded in the basic assumption of human imperfections. That nobody is perfect and everybody is fallible becomes as much a democratic tenet as a religious basic doctrine. However, there is a big difference in how to deal with those imperfections. Whereas it is assumed in religions that those imperfections can be reduced through religious exercise, moral discipline and spiritual efforts, democracy does not pretend to be able to reduce human imperfections. The ultimate aim of democracy is not to make human beings more perfect or more perfectible from day to day as religions are supposed to do, but to put human imperfections under control so that these imperfections do not harm the life of other people or become too detrimental to the common good. In other words, religions may be able to change a murderer into a living saint, but democracy will put the same murderer under control, by means of punishing his criminal acts or containing the opportunity in which his criminal inclinations can materialize.

This is to say, whereas religions are to deal with the roots of human imperfections, and try to eradicate those imperfections by means of uprooting human weaknesses and strengthening human virtues, democracy aims to deal with the results of human imperfections, by means of not letting human weaknesses become a source of too much suffering for other people. Democracy and religion have different ability and different aim in the face of human suffering. By and large religions help people to suffer properly, whereas democracy helps people to reduce and, if possible, to eliminate suffering.  Religious thinking and preoccupations are oriented to heaven, while trying to create heaven or heaven-like condition on earth. In contrast to that, democracy does not pretend to be able to create heaven on earth, but it believes in its capacity to forestall the creation of hell on earth.

This basic division of labor between religion and democracy has direct consequences in day-to-day politics, especially in Indonesia today. In the first place, people tend to mistake a political mistake for a religious sin, or a political achievement for a religious virtue.  Needless to say a man or a woman who is well trained in his or her religion and who has reached a certain standard of religious maturity is in better position to cope with problems in society including political problems. We can assume that he or she is better equipped in facing political temptation to misuse public fund.

On the other hand, however, somebody who commits corruption in his political position is involved in a political malfeasance and should not be treated as someone who suffers from religious immaturity. Suggestions for improvement should not take the form of asking him to pray and to fast more regularly, but to oblige him to give back the money he has taken away and to punish him in accordance with the state law. On the other hand, however, a good religious education can help make the people more able to withstand the temptations that come out of political opportunities. This connection between religion and democracy is delicate and asymmetric in nature. Religious education can contribute to the improvement of political behavior, but transgressions in politics should be treated as political malfeasance and not as a religious failure.

In talking about interfaith and interfaith values we should better be very clear about what this concept implies. The first question is whether or not interfaith is identical with inter-religion. I would like to distinguish the notion of religion into some different meanings, and we would see to what extent faith is identical with religion and interfaith is identical with inter-religion.

First of all religion can be seen as a personal way one chooses that can bring him or her to perfection in this worldly life and salvation in the afterlife. At this point religion becomes a very personal and private matter.

In the second place, religion can become a base for cultural grouping with a particular cultural identity. A community is called Moslem or Christian not because all members of that community abide faithfully by the norms and values of their religion, but because that religion has become a cultural identity in which each of them participates or is assumed to participate.

In the third place, religion can be seen as a social institution, which is organized along a certain structure, with its division of labor and division of authority, and with its own division of rights, privileges and obligations.

In line with the differentiation just made above, we can raise the question whether interfaith relation resembles an interpersonal interaction, or should be treated as an intercultural discourse or an inter-institutional collaboration?

Ignas Kleden

Pointers for Panel Discussion, USINDO at Aryaduta Hotel – Jakarta, March 2, 2010

Categories: Ignas Kleden
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