Thursday, 14 July 2011

Lessons on Islam and Democracy from History - Part 1

Lorianne Updike Toler

In the Q&A of a speech I gave last week, it was assumed by one questioner that the Arab world, because overwhelmingly Muslim, was not ready for democracy.

I balked at this, knowing that many countries have both established religions and democratic republics, including Norway and the United Kingdom.  Indeed, it could be argued that the only reason the United States did not establish a national religion is because so many of the states already had (or had some form of state-sponsored religion).

In late-eighteenth century America, it was assumed that republican (or democratic) self-government required virtue, and the development of virtue required religion.  (See "Religion and the State Governments" chapter in a book on religion and the founding by the Library of Congress' chief of manuscripts.)

Consider this from a Massachusetts newspaper from March 9, 1780: "a very respectable part of this Commonwealth look upon it as a duty which God requires of Legislators, that they make suitable provision for the support of public worship and teachers of religion.  And not only so, but they esteem it as one of their most sacred and invaluable rights."

State responses in providing for religion varied.  Some had state or locally-established (state-funded) religions.  When the Anglican Church was disestablished with independence in 1776, most state legislatures instituted "general assessment" taxes, wherein citizens could choose to which church their monies would go. "Nothingarians" were allowed to direct monies instead to education.  Virginia, based on the work of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, narrowly defeated such an equal opportunity religious tax.

Much more will be said in part II about why state or locally-sponsored religion did not last long and about how democracy and religious tolerance necessarily coincide, but history here carries the point:  established religions and democracy are not mutually exclusive; indeed, many of America's founding generation would argue that state-fostered religion was necessary to a properly-functioning democracy.

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