Politics and religion are two sides of the same coin and one cannot exist without the other. They face different ways but they are bound together by shared values.
The core values of democratic government are freedom, equality and fraternity. These values inspire resistance to domination, injustice and division. The idea is that freedom and fraternity are stabilised by equality. In other words, our lifelong struggle between taking and giving is resolved by sharing. Many studies around the world show that nearly all social ills, from teenage pregnancies and obesity to criminal activity and terrorism, are linked to inequality. (The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, 2010.)
There was no separation of politics and religion for the founders of the major religions. Their religion was their politics and their politics was their religion. They lived their values. Although we claim to follow their example, we have political values that conflict with our religious values and wonder why we have high levels of stress. This is not necessary because all the religions, and our political system, claim to share common fundamental values that could be explored to rectify most social ills.
Politics and the practical side of religion are about the same thing; the relative power people have and how they use it. Politics usually refers to how people gain and use power; religion is usually seen as advocating how people should gain and use power. In that context, separating religion and politics is simply deleting the word ‘should’.
Our political system is competitive, with individuals and groups seeking to gain and hold ‘power over’ others and, by definition, that means seeking inequality. The founders of the major religions taught about the magic of having civic leaders seeking ‘power with’ others. What we need is for our system to lean more towards the ‘power with’ way of governing, with the aim of reducing inequality and all the social ills linked with it.
Western society has its roots in the Judean-Christian tradition and so, at least in theory, religion influences our politics in a fundamental way. However, because we live in a multicultural society, legislators have to make laws acceptable to all the religions in the community, not just those from the Judean-Christian tradition.
Let’s put aside a few things about religion. Start with the beliefs that cannot be proved one way or the other, such as the existence of God and some form of life after death. Also put aside traditions, customs, rituals and rules that define each religion but are not part of the original teachings. We are soon left with the essence of each major religion; free choice, equality and compassion. Different cultures, traditions and customs divide people into various religions but the core forces guiding religion are the same as the core forces guiding democratic societies. This isn’t surprising because, regardless of believing in God’s laws or in nature’s laws, people want freedom, equality and fraternity.
The stabilising force for peace within, and between, societies is equality. The cooperation and collaboration of people who are different but equal can develop a stable economy. Recognising the equality of differences guides the settlement of conflict in any situation.
The equality of all people is a fundamental value of all the major religions, even though their traditions and culture may stray from expressing that value. Most societies, especially democratic societies, also claim to be based on the principle that all people are equal, and yet all are hierarchically structured and many have a widening gap between rich and poor. It seems that religion and politics have a great deal to discuss in regard to reducing social problems.
We don’t need a new set of values. We need political and religious leaders committed to putting into practice the common values they claim to hold and we need to judge their performance by the effect they have on the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
Photo: Buddhist temple, Malaysia.