Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies

It’s not for me, as the chief organizer, to assess how this year’s Frontiers of Democracy went, but I loved every minute of it. I am deeply grateful to all the people who made it happen, from the plenary presenters to people who joined the conversations, plus my Tufts colleagues who supported the event.

Our theme in 2023 was “Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies.” I believe that explicit attention to religion helped to make the participants more diverse than they have been in the past and allowed us to talk in frank, personal, and existential ways that might otherwise be missed or even suppressed.

Just for example, on the first plenary panel, Rev. Cristina Moon, a Zen priest and activist, recalled how renouncing the self had helped her to take better care of herself, and Sharon Stroye, who is an associate pastor as well as an academic leader and activist, responded with a memory of giving herself over to Jesus–with similar results. Although I can’t speak for either of them or know what they believe about religious matters, I suspect that their metaphysical premises are very different, yet their psychological needs and journeys are similar; and the human bond between them was palpable.

I am not sure that anyone really articulated an account of how the concepts named in our conference title–religion, pluralism, democracy, and race–might all fit together. Anyone’s theory would be that person’s alone, and most of the other 125 participants would disagree. Of course, this diversity of opinion is an asset.

For myself: I happen not to be religious in any of the major senses of that word. I don’t identify with a faith, belong to or participate in any religious-defined community, believe things that are coded as explicitly religious, or practice religious observances. But I hold abstract beliefs that cannot be demonstrated empirically, such as the intrinsic value of all human life. Some of these beliefs derive from religions, or at least they have been articulated in religious terms that I have absorbed. I belong to communities that matter deeply to me and that are organized around ideas and rituals as well as human ties. And I practice–although I wish to practice more–exercises for self-improvement, self-discipline, self-care, and connection to others.

Meanwhile, I observe that all around me are people who articulate their identities, memberships, activities, and beliefs in explicitly religious terms, often professing one of the global faiths, such as Christianity or Islam. And among those who are hostile to all of such faiths, many seem to be just as committed to abstract metaphysical and moral premises and are just as likely to draw boundaries around their respective communities of belief, whether those are labeled science, socialism, free enterprise, nationalism, or something else.

A democracy is a society in which people freely form their own views about who they are, what they want, and what is right and then make some decisions collectively–on an equal basis–while also creating the social world by acting in a whole range of diverse smaller groups.

Our actual society is very far from this ideal because people are not even roughly equal and we often do not even try to make collective decisions fairly or wisely, in part because some of us are hostile to others. But we have democratic impulses and opportunities.

The explicitly defined religions are relevant because they help people to make sense of who they are, what is right, and what they want. Religions recruit individuals into public life and educate and organize them for effective participation. Although they reflect and reinforce the characteristics that make our society unequal, such as race and class, they also break those boundaries on occasion. They provide vocabularies and conceptual materials for thinking relatively deeply about justice. And they connect the inner life to action in the world.

Religions certainly have mixed records, causing or reinforcing many forms of cruelty and injustice. Their adherents blatantly violate their most explicit principles in the name of those principles themselves. Violent Buddhist priests and Christian denominations battling over inches of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are just two examples of human folly expressed religiously. Then again, the major anti-religious movements also have poor records, and religions have often been helpful at moments of progress.

In any case, I would not distinguish sharply among the religions or between religion and secularism. It is not true, as John Rawls and many other modern thinkers have presumed, that “A modern democratic society is characterized … by a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines.” (Rawls explains: “A reasonable doctrine … covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world.”)

Rawls imagines society as divided among namable groups like the Protestants, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Confucians, the Marxists, the libertarians, and the nationalists (my examples), each with core assumptions that explain all their other beliefs. Since their assumptions are incompatible, a fair government is one that treats them all impartially.

But we don’t have neatly organized systems of beliefs. (Perhaps a few of us do, but those people tend to be the fanatics.) Most of us have many beliefs, some organized, some disconnected, some in mutual tension. We get them from all kinds of sources. Stories, maxims, practices, and forms of organization tend to migrate from one faith community to another, as the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s childhood morphed into the Book of Bilawhar and Budhasaf in 8th century Muslim Baghdad, turned into a Georgian Christian epic written in Greek in Constantinople, turned into the Latin story of the monkish saints Barlaam and Josaphat, became La vie de seint Josaphaz in Anglo-Norman and the German medieval romance of Barlaam und Josaphat, supplied a plot motif for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and fueled anti-Reformation propaganda in the 16th century.

This kind of story does not suggest that we are all alike. An early Mahayana Buddhist believed very different things from a counter-Reformation Catholic. But the fact that they told the same story shows that they were connected.

Separated, unequal, but connected is our condition, and we need to talk about all of that.

Source: Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press. See also the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; when political movements resemble religions; are religions comprehensive doctrines? the political advantages of organized religion etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.