Religion and Human Rights (22): The Proper Role of Religion in a Democracy

For me, as an agnostic, the question of the place of religion in a democracy is an important one, although I believe the question would be just as important if I held a religious belief or if I were an atheist. There’s no doubt in my mind that the full protection of human rights and civil liberties for all citizens can be jeopardized by misconceptions about the proper role of religion. Take, for example, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of non-believers or adherents of other religions, women’s rights etc.

At the most basic level, this is a problem of tolerance. We should not impose our beliefs, moral values and practices on others if these others don’t inflict harm, even if we think other people act immorally from the point of view of our religion. And neither should we discriminate people when they act or speak or think in ways that are incompatible with our own beliefs. These two prescriptions are based on the need for respect. We would show disrespect for other people if we were to force them to act according to our own beliefs. And the need for respect is, in turn, based, on the importance of freedom. Other people value their freedom to act according to their own beliefs. Let’s take two examples:

  • A Muslim father may, as long as his daughter is underage, impose certain religiously inspired rules of behavior on this daughter, and he can even hope that the girl internalizes these rules and respects them for the rest of her life. But when the girl reaches adulthood and chooses to live according to her own rules, she will be protected to do so by her human rights and civil liberties, even against the wishes of her father. The proper role of the religious beliefs of the father has reached its limit. The father should tolerate and respect (which doesn’t mean agree with) the choices of his adult daughter, and the laws of the democracy in which they live will enforce this tolerance and the girl’s freedom of choice if necessary.
  • A Catholic human resources manager in the recruitment department of the army of a democratic country, refuses to hire a perfectly qualified candidate because of her homosexuality. Again, this would be a sign of disrespect on the part of the HR manager and the law should intervene.

But the problem goes beyond the level of relations between citizens. The question about the proper place and role of religion in a democracy isn’t limited to the problem of how we treat each other in our daily lives, how we treat our wives and children, our gay or “infidel” neighbors or employees etc. In a democracy, the people translate their beliefs in legislation and government policy. Hence we should ask to what extent people can use their religious beliefs as the basis or reason for legislation.

Here I take a nuanced position between the two extremes: between a complete lack of restrictions on the role of religion in democratic legislation, and a complete exclusion of religion from democratic legislation. So the question becomes one of degree: to what extent can religion be the basis of law? When is it allowed, and when is it no longer allowed for religious reasons to be the reasons for government coercion?

I think that the problem arises when the legal coercion resulting from religious reasons violates the human rights and civil liberties of individuals, and that any religiously inspired legislation that stops short of such violations is acceptable. Some would say that even legal coercion based on religious reasons that doesn’t violate the rights of individuals is reprehensible, but I don’t agree. An argument in favor of this more restrictive approach could go as follows. Legislation based on religion automatically implies disrespect for people of other religions and for non-believers, since the religious reasons used as a basis for this legislation are likely to be exclusive to a particular religion. Only religious reasons which are sufficiently vague so as not to be exclusive to one religion can then be acceptable religious reasons for legislation. An example: charity can be an acceptable religious reason for legislation, because it’s not a reason that is exclusive to one religion, perhaps not even to religion as such. Laws regarding the sabbath, on the contrary, would not be an acceptable reason for legislation, even if it produces legislation that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Or the argument could be that only a law that is supported at the same time by religious reasons and non-religious reasons is acceptable, and that laws that are supported only by religious reasons are unacceptable, even if they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

I think that goes too far. Disrespect should be avoided, but I don’t see why the avoidance of disrespect should automatically override legitimate religious concerns. It’s not even clear to me that there’s necessarily disrespect involved in the use of exclusive religious reasons as a basis for legislation. It’s certainly not the case that such legislation necessarily means forcing one religion on people of other faiths or of no faith. If that would be the case, we would have legislation that violates the rights of individuals (namely the freedom of religion). And that would violate my own rule stated above.

However, legislation that is based on exclusive religious reasons does involve coercing people on the basis of a doctrine that they don’t accept. But, again, if this coercion doesn’t result in rights violations I can’t see what would be wrong with it. Laws by definition force people to do things they don’t accept or to abstain from doing things that are essential to them. I don’t see why there should be laws in any other case.

To summarize, religious people can advocate and – if they are in the majority – implement laws on the basis of their own, exclusive religious reasons, as long as the human rights and civil liberties of all are respected. A religiously inspired law banning same-sex marriage would therefore not be acceptable; a law instituting a religious holiday on the contrary would be acceptable. In the words of Habermas:

The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. (source)

On the other hand, religious people should also refrain from imposing a burden on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Some would say that even my rule is too restrictive on religion. For religious people, religion is not only a personal and private conviction but also the law of humanity. Forcing them to forsake the legal implementation of their religious views means taking away their identity, forcing them to be what they don’t want to be. Their religious beliefs are political beliefs and always trump opposing political beliefs. It’s intolerable for them to be forced not to implement their beliefs by way of legislation, or to submit to political decisions that are not based on their religious reasons. It’s indeed a good question: can religious people really accept democracy, given that God cannot be in the minority and God’s commands are absolute and trump opposing majority decisions? Democracy seems to be unacceptable from a religious point of view. However, catering to this view would mean forfeiting democracy, majority rule, the free choice of others, respect for others, freedom of religion, and human rights, and replacing all this by absolute theocracy. I don’t think that’s a price many are willing to pay, and not even many religious people as I argued here.


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