Reassessing Democracy: Contemporary Christian and Islamic Perspectives

Whittney Barth

Picture of the Chicago Skyline from Grant Park in by James Conkis (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This essay is an introduction to our thematic series,
“Reassessing Democracy: Contemporary Christian and Islamic Perspectives.”

How do religious communities approach democracy? What religious beliefs, practices, and histories inform those views? And what does democracy look like when viewed through any number of religious lenses? 

The Center for the Study of Law and Religion recently convened a panel during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago to discuss these questions as they play out within contemporary Christian and Muslim communities. The 2023 Parliament brought together thousands of people from around the world under the theme: A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom & Human Rights. As we wrote in our conference proposal, many people around the world are engaged in soul-searching about democracy, including how to save it. This is no less true for communities of faith in the U.S. and around the world. What are the contours of these discussions within Christian and Muslim communities? By focusing on the diversity within two traditions and by highlighting both domestic (U.S.) and international examples, we aimed to show—or at least nod to—depth and diversity within religious communities. The essays in this Canopy Forum series are born from that discussion. 

As can be seen from these essays, there is much ground to cover. Matthew Cavedon discusses at three different stances of Catholics toward democracy, including more recent integralist arguments. Courtney Freer, by way of engaging with countries within the Middle Eastern context, offers a window into debates about Islam’s compatibility with democracy, shifts brought about by the Arab Spring, and the conflation of liberalism with democracy. Elisabeth Kincaid wades into controversies within global Anglicanism, including in the United States, England, and Uganda, and grapples with arguments about the politicization of the courts, tradition, and colonialism and human rights, respectively. Najeeba Syeed focuses on the engagement of Muslim communities in democratic processes within the United States. 

This essay lays out a handful of preliminary points of orientation for the series. This series is intended to offer both limited  snapshot as well as a broader invitation to an ongoing conversation. 

Defining Democracy

First, how are we to think about “democracy”? As a starting point, I turn to constitutional law scholars Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg and their 2018 article and later book, in which they define liberal constitutional democracy as having at least the following three traits: “(1) a democratic electoral system, most importantly periodic free-and-fair elections in which a losing side cedes power; (2) the liberal rights to speech and association that are closely linked to democracy in practice; and (3) the stability, predictability, and integrity of law and legal institutions—the rule of law—functionally necessary to allow democratic engagement without fear or coercion” (internal citation omitted). They call these traits “legal predicates,” the baseline needed for democratic functioning. 

Religion can intersect with those three legal predicates in any number of ways—and to any number of ends. Take the first trait, a democratic electoral system. Numerous studies of countries around the world—from Brazil to China to Pakistan to  Switzerland—have analyzed the impact of religion on voting behavior. Voting behavior is one slice of the electoral system, so too is how different groups respond to changes in power. 

The intersection of religion with the second legal predicate is perhaps even more obvious. Rights to free speech and expression and the freedom of religion or belief are “mutually reinforcing,” as one recent United Nations press release put it. In the U.S., the Supreme Court last year in Kennedy v. Bremerton explained that Religion Clauses and the Speech Clause “work in tandem.” During this past term, the Court decided a case involving a religiously-motivated speech objection to a state’s anti-discrimination statute, further deepening a clash of rights. 

As to the third legal predicate, one need only turn on the evening news to find questions about the legitimacy of the law and legal institutions front and center in the United States and around the world, such as the recent legislative push for judicial reform by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and the resulting protests in Israel

Defining Religion

The essays in this series engage with the predicates sketched above in numerous ways, both explicitly and with subtly. While we do not attempt a uniform definition of “religion,” we can consider the several ways in which religion and democracy can intersect. In the first chapter of their 2023 book on religion and deliberative democracy, authors Ruby Quantson Davis, Elizabeth Gish, and Kudakwashe Chitsike write of religion and democracy “as practices: as something people do.” They are quick to add that, in doing so, they do not imply that “religion and democracy cannot legitimately and productively be understood otherwise,” but instead to use this “lens” to “highlight[] the role that everyday people have in shaping the world in which we live . . . .” 

The essays in this series engage religion from different angles, including religion as practice. They also engage at times with religion as a phenomenon that creates, shapes, and sustains narratives that are then employed by religious communities and religious individuals within the context of debates about democracy. This is done through the interpretation of religious law, the development of theology, and in the shaping of religious governance structures, to name just a few. 

Why “Reassess”? 

Debates about religion’s proper engagement(s) with and impact(s) on democratic processes are not new. Neither are the related questions of how religious people, communities, and commitments engage broader worlds outside of themselves. Yet we frequently are asked to grapple with what appear to be new challenges. 

Rapidly changing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, re-shape time and again our individual and collective lives, their impact on religion and on democracy largely yet unknown. And perennial questions about the rights of minorities, religious and otherwise, have only become more salient with increased migration and the increased visibility of activism by and on behalf of historically marginalized communities. The clash of rights, questions of religious pluralism (both civic and theological), and the proper relationship between civil and religious authority are ongoing and ever-evolving. Religious communities today regularly grapple with questions about how to engage on issues within the public sphere, and the diversity of responses (even with a given tradition) is often front-page news. 

We also live in a time when major shifts in religious affiliation are underway, and the differences cut across geography and generations. In the U.S., religious membership has fallen below a majority for the first time, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. Such a trend raises additional questions: What does this communicate about the average person’s perception of religion’s relevance to democratic life? What might democracy lose when religious congregations, which act as “mediating structure[s]” between the individual and public life, can no longer carry that weight?

This Series

This interdisciplinary series foregrounds Christian and Islamic perspectives on democracy. While limited to two traditions to foster depth in the discussion, this approach, of course, has its own limitations. Religious traditions are living, complex phenomena. It is impossible to capture any tradition’s complexity with just two essays. And limiting this discussion to just Christianity and Islam should not be construed as suggesting that examination of other religious traditions would not be equally fertile ground for discussion. While the essays in this series cover a broad range of geographies and moments in time, the series is not intended to be exhaustive. A handful of essays cannot be expected to capture the full scope of how history, geography, religion, politics, and culture intersect within each context. Still, we believe this series engages a worthwhile set of questions whose reverberation will persist and only deepen with the passage of time. ♦

Whittney Barth is executive director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and Charlotte McDaniel Scholar. She holds a JD from the University of Chicago Law School, MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and BA from Miami University. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of CSLR.

Recommended Citation

Barth, Whittney. “Reassessing Democracy: Contemporary Christian and Islamic Perspectives.” Canopy Forum, September 15, 2023.