“Democracy is a religion that has failed the poor” states Giles Fraser in his weekly column “Loose Canon” in the British Guardian.
Now, Giles Fraser is a highly intelligent man, a theologian and doctor of philosophy whose column, even if one may not always fully agree, generally contains some stimulating thought.
But is democracy a “religion”?
Certainly, Fraser’s thoughts contain some truth. He points out how piously we pursue a process – voting – even if we may not have any idea whatsoever who to vote for or may seriously wonder which difference our vote makes at all. Giles suggests (with Banerjee) that voting may simply be an “expression of one’s citizenship”.
But then, this makes a mockery of human beings. If one believes in human beings as conscious architects of their world and lives, for them to pursue a more or less useless process which does not ensure a sound management of our nations and world is by no means adequate.
In a way Fraser’s bias as a theologian is understandable. We all look at the world from our personal angle. Changing vantage points, exchange of views is necessary to arrive at the most suited perspective. To talk about democracy as a religion in fact appears highly disconcerting and even paralysing.
If we want to make this world a better place, then we clearly need to adopt a more constructive stance, one of a kind which might come more naturally to managers or engineers: Rather than looking at democracy as a sombre force over which we have no influence, we need to consider democracy as what it ultimately is, as a man-made mechanism, which we need to improve, if it fails us. We, humanity constantly work on all kinds of systems, processes and mechanisms which do not fulfil our needs and expectations. Why not fix or improve the way we practice democracy?
In which way is democracy actually failing us? Following the UK elections, many observers clearly highlight a deficit in the election process, it does not turn votes into adequate representation in parliament. Then there are the issues of devolution and “English votes for English Issues”: The structure of regional representation in the UK is unclear and needs to be overhauled. All in all, we need to check whether each element of the democratic system optimally fulfils the purpose it is meant to fulfil. Generally and perhaps most importantly, like in many democracies there is increasing disenfranchisement between the people and the political system. Democratic policy making needs to be changed in such a way in that it offer new channels for the public to engage in and to take adequate control of the management of public issues.
True citizenship and stewardship for our world means shaping the processes with which we govern it. Since we as individuals do not have any influence, we must join with other citizens to make democracy work. Forming an association called “Citizens Controlling Democracy” will be crucial to ensure that our democratic policy making processes work effectively and represent the interest of all people in society.
In a way we talk far to much, we publish hundreds of articles every week on what needs to happen in politics. If we do not take joint and constructive action to make democracy work, it never will. A machine which was considered adequate fifty years ago, may well not be adequate anymore for our world of seven billion people. It may have to be overhauled and re-engineered.
Democracy – a “mechanism which needs to be fixed”. It would greatly help, if also theologians could adopt and support this perspective.