Why did democracy first emerge in Christian-majority countries?
- Economists and sociologists have asserted that certain religious beliefs and practices have a positive effect on economic growth
- Authoritarian/imperial rule unquestionably constraints the creation and development of democratic institutions
- Too much individualism is equally if not more detrimental to the institutions of freedom
Many political thinkers have contended that culture, especially religion, was and is still instrumental in the emergence of democratic values and institutions, particularly capitalism. Moreover, did religion in general, and perhaps Christianity in particular, play a key role in the development and growth of capitalism? Economists and sociologists have asserted that certain religious beliefs and practices have a positive effect on economic growth and others have a negative effect.
For decades, scholars have maintained that societies that protect political freedom, economic freedom, and religious freedom of citizens have a stronger tendency to usher in and sustain economic growth. But why did the West create and develop these institutions of freedom, and not the East, especially the Muslim-majority nations? Many political pundits argue that Europe created the institutions of freedom because it was fractured politically, and was not governed by a single political and social order, like the Ottoman Empire.
Political, social, and economic experimentation undoubtedly facilitates the creation of institutions of freedom. Revolutions, reforms, and other societal transformations—albeit mostly violent and bloody—generated an auspicious environment in which the most equitable and enduring institutions of freedom emerged and prevailed. On the other hand, authoritarian/imperial rule unquestionably constraints the creation and development of democratic institutions and suppresses innovation and competition. The Arab and Turkish imperial rulers restricted institutional competition and accelerated the paralysis and the eventual decline of the empires.
Centralized power has its indubitable advantages (more military resources allocated, territorial expansion, etc.), but it also has its indisputable disadvantages (tenuous political and social structures, inadequate and unhealthy competition, unwillingness or inability to initiate political and economic reforms, etc.). It is true that the ecologically meager and unsustainable environment of Arab countries did not contribute to economic development in general and the creation of institutions of freedom in particular. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics Professor Acemoglu, although geography may be instrumental in the creation of economic development and growth, it does not constitute one of the critical factors in the emergence of the institutions of freedom.
Institutional change is also explained by the evolution of beliefs, and it is the beliefs of the citizen which guide his or her thoughts and actions. This theory propounds that Christianity facilitated the creation of institutions of freedom. Since God cares about each individual, his paramount desire is to save every single human being. Each individual is therefore valued and respected. This argument also maintains that Christianity, in general, ushers in secularization of law, political power, and the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual realms. Thus individualism changes the individual’s relationship with himself/herself and other human beings. The citizen is now responsible for his/her choices and actions. He/she is autonomous and not subject to any form of determinism.
Despite the justifiable indignation and growing uproar about the Crusades, Inquisition, etc., Christian values, beliefs, and practices have endured and were and still are a catalyst for transforming budding individualism into institutions of freedom. The path to democratization was and is not seamless and linear. Nazi, fascist, and communist temptations recurrently rear their ugly heads. It is a daily and continuous struggle, and sometimes bloody and calamitous.
Western liberalism contains the seeds of Christian philosophy devoid of the spiritual salvation narrative. The separation of church and state is beneficial to both the spiritual sphere and the secular realm. The purpose of each entity would be more crystallized and discernible. The disentanglement is required for a more equitable and judicious political and economic system.
On the other hand, in most Islamic traditions, God is the sole legislator and human beings have to unconditionally obey divine edicts. Muslim religion evolved from individual salvation to the community of believers. Individual rights have been curtailed over time and advocating civil rights was anathema to God’s sovereignty.
Following the founding of Islam in the seventh century, two traditions have emerged. The first one was more fatalistic and was identified with the period of Islamic decline. Both economic growth and arts and sciences were negatively affected by predeterminism. The second tradition was less fatalistic and was identified with the Islamic Golden Age in which Muslims experienced a scientific, economic, and cultural renaissance.
In certain parts of the Muslim world today, some societies have chosen the path to democratization by promoting individual rights and economic growth. Christianity’s disgraceful legacy may still haunt many Christians, but it has partially redeemed itself. Muslims should also disburden their abhorrent legacy and focus more on the universal truths found in their sacred writings.
Christianity would probably have still been in labor trying to find a way to exit the Dark Ages had it not keyed on beliefs and values that enhanced the intrinsic value of human beings, making them God’s most cherished and precious creation. At least that’s the narrative many of us would like to contemplate. However, too much individualism is equally if not more detrimental to the global economic system in general and the institutions of freedom in particular. That’s another critical issue worth discussing.