Can Religion Help Strengthen Democracy?
I have begun a daily litany of ‘horrible men’. I live in the Philippines so I start with Duterte, move to Kim Jung-un, to Myanmar and its army chiefs, to Hindu nationalists in India, to… the list becomes longer and finally leads, via Australian leaders to Donald Trump. My litany asks for some chink to be found in their armour of power and self-serving, that the tiny spark of goodness that must be somewhere in them will be lit in such a way that they can hear the cry of the oppressed. ‘Do you hear the people sing…’ has become an anthem in many places. I am trying to stretch my own heart so I am able to hear the cry near me and be less judgemental, but also to act on my awareness that we are all connected, and hateful thoughts towards them will only add to the negativity swirling through the globe.
However, the length of the list is sobering. How come so many countries, some of which actually elect their leaders, have ended with such pitiful examples of leadership? What does it say about democracy? We have celebrated its spread as affording equality and rights, yet we have not taught the responsibilities that accompany it. Even where it has been recently hard-won, as in the Philippines, the story has not been told, the engagement and vigilance it requires have not been grasped. It’s easier to trust someone else, a strong man, who ‘promises’ to fix the wrongs of society.
Frustration with powerful families that do little to help those at the base of the pyramid, the social chaos of unemployment caused by an economic system geared to ensure that the rich get richer, corruption and scarcity of good education to help people think independently, combine with media fascination with the maverick to enable some manifestly unsuitable characters to emerge as ‘credible’.
How can we help people to think clearly? To weigh pros and cons? To take time to think through connections? To challenge the media hype and demand evidence and serious argument? The tendency to hear what will make life easier personally, rather than question impacts on the common good is facilitated by a culture built around selfies, facebook, and tweets, which is almost inevitably narcissistic and shallow. Clicking a ‘like’ on facebook deludes that some action has been taken. Purveyors of social media claim that it brings people closer. It has that potential, but clearly can also be used to spread misinformation and to destroy. The ‘20 second sound bites’ of TV News interviews easily become the standard and swamp longer explorations of policies and ideas. This is not just a challenge to education systems but to citizens in every facet of our societies.
Such concerns are not party political. Participation is required if democracy is to work. Here in the Philippines some universities are inviting alumni who were activists in the Marcos era, to share their memories and the reality of that time with the students. Others are making films which show the rise to power of thugs who can manipulate situations and people. This is a country that is 90 per cent Catholic and Duterte has a higher approval rating than any previous President, despite over 12,000 deaths by police and Extra Judicial Killings, and currently a return to martial law and outright war in the south. Rosaries in taxis, paintings of the Sacred Heart on Jeepneys, and T-shirts with Gospel quotations are everywhere and they are not just for show. But many aspects of our society here show that life is cheap, especially lives of the poor.
Vatican II named the separation of faith from ordinary life as a most serious sign of our times. This dualism is not limited to the Philippines or overtly religious societies, but equally rampant in secular societies. It challenges us all to a deeper spirituality that engages honestly with the everyday issues of refugees and asylum seekers, those on welfare, those seeking status as our first peoples and climate issues. People of every faith, and especially Christians who believe that “what is done to the least is done to me,” need to show that our faith has implications for these and other burning issues. This can be our contribution to a struggle for a democracy which is deeper than slogans, which argues the connection of those on the margins with the reality of a fragile ecosystem, and of all of us with each other.
Words: Christine Burke ibvm. Christine is just one of more than 850 Loreto Sisters worldwide who ‘go where the need is greatest’. She lives and works in the Philippines helping Sisters with spiritual and theological formation.