[Ancient Faith Radio; July 3, 2008]
Not too long ago, I was talking to somebody about something I thought, and he said, “Huh, that’s interesting. You should do a podcast on that.” So, here I am. I was talking about the phenomenon of what democracy means in America. And I think that we live here, we grew up in it, and we don’t really recognize it because it’s just part of our basic thinking.
As you remember, you were taught in school that Europeans came to America in order to have freedom of religion. That was one of the prime freedoms they were looking for, because in Europe, people were fighting over religion, and killing each other over religion, even different forms of Christianity. Within the same country, an oppression would rise up, or the new king or queen is Catholic, or is Protestant, and everybody on the other side has to get killed.
So the solution in America really was quite a dramatic one. It was, in essence, that we would put religion second. Do you see how that’s kind of tacitly assumed when you come to America? We are assuming that for every individual person, their beliefs about God, their religious faith may well be the most important thing for them, but when we meet together in the public square it is necessarily a secular public square. It has to be. When we meet together there, we have to, for that period of time, we have to put our faith in the back pocket and not refer to it, and not use it to settle any discussions. People are always saying that about the abortion issue, that arguments against it are religious and therefore not valid. I have written extensively on abortion, and talked about it, and I never use religious arguments. It is solely an issue of violence. And people will then respond to me and try to change it around and say that I’m talking about religion! They just won’t give up on that.
Well, that’s the argument they’re using, that when you’re in America, when you’re in a democracy, there is no room to base any decision on specifically religious ideas. And, you see what that does to Christians, or to people of any faith. It means you kind of have to tacitly agree that religion is not that important, that it is not ultimately true, like certain civil rights are ultimately true. And again, you could say, what is that ultimate truth based on? If there is no God, then everything is permitted, as it says in The Brothers Karamazov. So, we start out on a reduced footing in America, when we Christians want to talk about our faith and express our faith, because we’ve already agreed, that everybody who lives here agrees, that democracy is the important thing and religion takes a back seat.
But in other lands, what binds people together is their tribe, and their tribe probably shares a common faith, and that is ultimate for them. What is ultimate for us? It’s democracy. We become evangelists for democracy. We have exalted democracy as the ultimate good, and we truly believe that it’s the best thing in the world and it’s for everybody in the world, whether they know it or not. It’s like people who are evangelizing for Jesus Christ, even if they don’t know Him, Jesus is their Savior. Well, likewise, we’re saying, everybody should be under a democracy because that’s freedom, and freedom is the most important thing.
Just question that for a moment. Where did we get that idea, that freedom is the most important thing? Jesus lived in an oppressed culture. There were Roman soldiers on every street corner. They had to pay taxes to Rome. They were not free. And yet He did not encourage rebellion. And in fact, tragically, when rebellion came in 70 AD, the Jewish nation was destroyed in a very horrible way. Maybe freedom is not the most important thing. Maybe fidelity to God is more important than freedom. Anyway, we don’t ever question that idea of freedom, because we think that democracy is right for everybody. We think that we can export it. We think that we can go into Iraq, for example, and set up a democracy there. What we find in a setting like that is complicated by the fact that a nation, if you look on the map and it has straight lines rather than squiggly lines for its borders, it’s going to be a nation in disarray, in controversy, most of the time. A nation with straight lines around it is usually not a happy nation or a healthy nation. Attempting to bring ‘one man, one vote’ there really means ‘might makes right’. It doesn’t mean consensus. There isn’t a faith in democracy like we have a faith in democracy, and if your side gets 51% of the vote, we shake hands and wait it out till the next time around. Instead, it means that someone with a slight majority can oppress those people in the minority.
I know this thing about straight and squiggly lines just sounds so nutty, but it gripped me as soon as I read about it in an op-ed in the New York Times. July 20th, 2006, I’m looking at this here. It’s written by Austan Goolsbee, but he’s actually reporting on a study by Alberto Alesina and Janina Matuszeski at Harvard University and William Easterly of New York University. The study was called “Artificial States”.
Before I get into talking about what they found, let me get into the context, because this was very surprising to me. Many studies have shown that war does not really set a nation back that much. Even if there’s tremendous destruction and devastation, war does not have much long-term impact. Here’s an example, a paper by Edward Miguel and Gerard Roland, titled “The Long Run Impact of Bombing Vietnam”. They found that 10% of the districts in Vietnam received three quarters of the total bomb tonnage. So a small part of Vietnam was actually bombed extensively, and the others not so much. So these researchers looked at, what was the effect, long term, a couple decades later. Here’s a quote from the op-ed: “They did not find that heavy bombing during the war corresponded with any major differences in poverty rates, access to electricity, literacy, population density, or consumption by the 1990s and 2000s.” Another example is the extreme bombing of Dresden, of London, even of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The long run population of Japanese cities was not affected, whether the cities were destroyed in World War II or not. Likewise for cities in Europe that received terrible bombing. Here’s a quote: “After suffering the immediate terrible costs of war, it seems that people quickly returned to where they left off.” They start building up again. They go on falling in love and getting married and having babies. Life goes on, and they pick themselves up and continue.
So, no matter how much damage is done to a nation during war, they bounce right back. The little crocuses begin to push up between the broken slabs of concrete, and life returns. Within a few years, they can be totally established again.
Here’s what makes it hard, though, for the optimists. I quote from the Goolsbee op-ed: “For the optimist hoping that the war in the Middle East will soon end, so rebuilding can commence, there’s a serious problem: It’s not the war that does it. The political boundaries of these countries make the long term prospects bleak. The existence of ethnic divisions in the countries will probably mar them permanently in a way that bombs never could.”
What this study by Easterly and Alesina and Matuszeski have found, their study called “Artificial States”, is that internal cohesion is the most important thing for the health of a society, that the people recognize themselves as belonging to each other, that something unites them. Often, what unites them is blood. They might literally belong to the same tribe. Or they may have a shared history. Often, they will also have a shared faith. People want to blame religion as being the cause of war, but often what causes war is that people want another person’s land. You don’t have wars where there isn’t land to fight over. You don’t have wars in order to convert people. You don’t convert anybody that way, you just kill them. You try to get their land, and the faith might be something that binds that army together and gives them conviction about what they’re doing, but that’s just one element of their tribal or ethnic cohesion. That’s where the strength comes from.
What happens if a country is not set apart by natural geographic borders, by rivers and by mountain ranges, and is not ethnically cohesive and coherent, one group, one tribe- if instead somebody’s gotten out a ruler and drawn lines on a map to divide conquered territory and to arbitrarily invent countries, and within those lines you put people who’ve hated each other for as long as memory goes back—that’s the problem. This “Artificial States” study found that if a nation’s borders are artificial, that’s what causes the problem. Here’s a good quote. It depends on “how squiggly the borders of a country are. Straight lines are usually the sign of an arbitrary colonial mapmaker.” A conqueror has divided up the land arbitrarily. “Natural borders like rivers and mountains seldom look tidy. Taking the measures of partitioning and neat borders, this study compares the performance of countries with natural borders to those with artificial ones and finds, overwhelmingly, that artificial nations suffer terribly—lower income, horribly ineffective and corrupt governments, less respect for the law, low literacy, limited access to clean water, poor health care, you name it.”
Of course I picture Africa, which was divided up by colonial powers, and how much the African nations have suffered. Another quote here from Alberto Alesina, one of the authors of the study: “First, the governments in these countries are often run to the benefit of one ethnic group and at the expense of others, and they are prone to corruption. Second, if you have a lot of people who would prefer to be part of the neighboring country” - that is, if the neighboring country now has most of your tribe but you’re stuck over in this foreign land - “If you have a lot of people who would prefer to be part of the neighboring country, they tend to spend their time fighting the government rather than improving schools and building roads.” One last quote from this op-ed: “The fact that these groups do not trust each other makes them less willing to invest in social capital, or even to conduct basic market transactions with one another.”
So, I think that this is the problem that we run into when we try to export democracy as our most beloved invention here in the US. Here in the US, you have to be part of either be a melting pot, or as the Canadians like to say, a tossed salad, but at any rate, people from all different backgrounds and beliefs have to agree to set those down at the door and come in and make the most important thing the fact that we all get along. Whatever we have in common is what we celebrate, and we just agree not to talk about the other stuff. That’s necessary for democracy to work.
If we’re talking about going into nations that have artificial borders, that have always been at war, ever since those borders were created, because they’re mixing together ethnic groups that don’t trust each other, that hate each other, you can’t expect democracy to work there. It’s not one of their values.
So, this was sort of the thoughts that were going through my mind, that it’s sort of charming, the faith that Americans have in democracy. This is a very noble American experiment. But I think there are two things we have to recognize.
One is that when Christians complain that it’s a secular public square and we’re not allowed to talk about our religion, that’s going to be true to a certain extent. That’s one of the agreements we make to live in a democracy. We can practice our religion privately, but it’s like being a stamp collector. You can’t make any claim that your religion has ultimate value. And because all laws and all morality are based on something, you have to find some justification for it not in a religious code but rather in something that we all agree in, something like the value of human life, which I think is the strongest argument against abortion.
There’s that, and I think the other thing is to recognize how much we love democracy and how democracy has in a way taken the place for us, as a nation, of what we believe in. You know, if we were a small tribe that shared a common God, it might be that God was what united us. That was what we believed in. Here in America we have to agree to set that aside just so that we can get along with each other. What we believe in is democracy. When we try to grant democracy as this wonderful gift to other nations that have never had it, it looks to us like, well, why do they go on fighting about religion? Religion must be the thing that makes people hate each other! Religion is what causes wars. We just don’t realize how unusual a development democracy is, and we really don’t recognize what it costs us. Evangelicals continually complain that we’re being asked to set our religion aside—well, we are. It can be solely a private hobby. We are, and that’s the way it is, and that’s what enables us to have a democracy.
I’m so grateful that I live in America. This is, to begin with, such a beautiful land. What God has given us just in terms of nature is heartbreakingly beautiful. To be part of this experiment of democracy is also thrilling and fascinating and beautiful. I’m glad I’m here. But, I think we need to be more realistic about this not being a product that can be exported very well. Especially to those lands that have been artificially divided, that have been circumscribed with straight lines—(that doesn’t really blend, does it, that would be a circle)—that have been set apart, boundaries made with a ruler and a map, rather than being made around where people naturally bond with each other, to their affinity groups. We just shouldn’t expect that democracy is that easy to export, or that when ‘one man, one vote’ is imposed, that we’ll see the sort of result that we’d like to see.
I’ll close with this little anecdote: my husband and I have a friend, Bp. William Rukirandi, who’s an Anglican bishop in Uganda. He’s come over and stayed with us; we met him back when we were in Episcopal seminary, we’ve had him at our house a couple of times when he comes to America. One time he was with us, and… um, I’ll tell this other story first. One time he brought his wife Harriet. As we were driving from the train station to our house, we decided to stop and get some carry-out from Kentucky Fried Chicken, so we pull into the drive through. Bishop William had been in America before, and he said, “Harriet! Harriet! Watch this! This is how you get food in America. You scream into a box, and then somebody hands you food out of a window.” So, that was his take on fast food. Because all the way in, Harriet had been saying, “I see houses, I see people, where are their gardens? I don’t see any gardens!” Good question.
But anyway, one time Bishop William was staying with us, it was over an election day, a presidential election. And at the end of the day we were discussing how the results were going and what it looked like was going to happen at the dinner table. Bishop William then asked, “And how many people were shot?” We said, “Nobody was shot. We just had elections. You just vote.” And that was such a new idea to him, that you can actually have a functional democracy where people agree to get along even if they lose. How many people were shot on this election day? Well, it’s just one more reason that I’m very very grateful to be an American, but I try to keep in mind how different my experience is from most of the world.