Religiosity and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

A blog written by Professor Steven Livingston.

Founding Director – Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics

Professor – School of Media and Public Affairs and Elliott School of International Affairs

George Washington University, Washington, DC

Visiting Professor – Center for European Studies, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

Even a casual review of the religious iconography on display at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th would lead one to ponder the role of religious narratives in far-right politics. While Europe has so far been spared the same sort of violence, religious identity has come to play an important role in shaping political governance in several European nations. The Catholic Church in Poland, for example, under the Law and Justice Party illustrates the point, as does Viktor Orbán leadership in Hungary.  He has even declared that Hungary is now a “Christian democracy.” And in Russia, Vladimir Putin has aligned his rule to the Russian Orthodox Church. What is going on here?

To address this question, the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence in Law, History and the European Narratives and the Fulbright Finland Foundation hosted an international conference of historians, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and political scientists on December 2nd and 3rd.  How do we understand the role of religion in the current crisis of liberal democracies around the world?  The workshop was organized around a scholarly literature devoted to explaining democratic consolidation and decay.  What factors or conditions are necessary for the consolidation of liberal democracy and what explains its decay?  Religion, it turns out, might have a role in both processes.

Harvard University political historian Daniel Ziblatt finds that the sustainability of liberal democracy in 19th and early 20th century Europe depended on the nature of a conservative party’s reaction to growing public demands for greater social and economic equality.  As the scope of suffrage and social movement demands grew in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, center-right parties faced what he calls a conservative dilemma. To win elections, conservative parties must find ways to appeal to poor and middle-class voters. It is the only way a successful electoral coalition can be formed.  Yet at the same time parties and their officials must remain loyal to the landed and business classes with whom they are most closely aligned. Herein lies the dilemma: How can a conservative party remain faithful to its core elite constituency while at the same time attract the support of a majority at the polls?

Assembling cross-class coalitions around alternative issues is the answer. Cross-cutting cleavage issues concerning cultural issues, especially narratives about perceived social status threats from “alien others,” reframe campaigns and elections around more favorable issues for conservative parties.  They also find allies, what Ziblatt and other scholars call party surrogate organizations, in the effort to frame political debates and anxieties around cultural status threats. “These organizations can focus on building strong emotional bonds with citizens and tapping shared identities” (p. 23). Issues of this sort often involve xenophobia, racism, and nationalism.  

While surrogate organizations can benefit a conservative party, they also entail risks.  Most concerning is the possibility that surrogates will usurp party identity and weaken ideological coherence. Even more injurious to political stability is the evolution of political preferences into religious or quasi-religious narratives.  Andrew L. Whitehead, who joined us in Helsinki, and Samuel L. Perry describe white Christian nationalism as a “cultural framework” through which some Americans perceive and navigate their social world. “Christian nationalism is a framework that orients Americans’ perspectives on national identity, belonging, and social hierarchies” (p. x). Put more directly, it is a cultural and political project presented as a religious narrative.  Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who also joined us, reaches similar conclusions in Jesus and John Wayne. “For conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity” (pp. 6-7).

This is not a novel idea.  For Emile Durkheim, by worshiping God people are unwittingly worshiping the power of the collective over them—a power that both created and guides them. They are worshiping society itself, or at least the part of the society that anchors their lives.  Durkheim believed traditional religion was weakening in the modern era (pp. 475-476).

In Europe, the religious and cultural expression is in some ways quite different, yet in other ways strikingly similar, and even overlapping with the American experience.  Indeed, the far-right politics and religious cultural narratives in France arose in the early 2000s with the emergence of the Bloc Identitaire movement and its youth counterpart, Generation Identitaire which has linked with its American counterparts to form a kind of nationalist international.  We can think of at least some contemporary religious narratives in the US and Europe as “cross-cutting cleavage issues.” They cloak “our” people and way of life in the arms of the divine while casting the other as enemies and betrayers of God’s chosen people.

Yet, at the same time, Free University-Berlin philosopher Stefan Gosepath pointed out at the workshop that stable religious convictions have been understood as a necessary precondition to stable liberal democracy.  This has been referred to as the Böckenförde Dilemma, after German legal theorist and judge Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde.  He wrote

The liberal (freiheitlich), secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. This is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom's sake. As a liberal state it can endure only if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character (freiheitlichkeit) and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars (p. 60).

In the absence of self-governance borne of religious conviction, the state would be inclined out of necessity to impose external sources of behavior constraint. Put another way, in the absence of the Golden Rule, one finds the iron fist

Though the assembled scholars did not manage to come to firm conclusions, it seemed that there was a degree of consensus around Durkheim’s observation: the old religions of our mothers and fathers fade but in their place arises new convictions.  Those strange new rites, as Tara Isabella Burton calls them, are as much a sociological and political dialog as they are sacred. 

Photo: Tyler Merbler / Wikimedia Commons