Democracy is sick, healthy division is the best medicine

How to repair the ‘democracks’

There is a growing sense that the COVID-19 crisis is not the only sickness we are facing.

Healthy democracies, evolved largely from Judeo-Christian principles and ethics, are showing symptoms which suggest a weakening of fundamental functions.

Robert Woodberry, in his groundbreaking study The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, explores the core reasons why some nations in the early 1900s became flourishing democracies. His controversial findings determined that there was a direct correlation between the number of ‘Conversionary Protestant missionaries’ present in that country, and its positive democratic development.

Many baulk at such an idea, but the particular missionaries who catalysed these democratic developments focused on working with literacy skills for the poor, taught basic social dignity, and challenged the colonising country’s human rights abuses.

Perhaps most importantly, when the missionary’s growing influence reached a ‘tipping point’, they did not use their power to close out different worldviews or make alternative beliefs illegal. Instead, they encouraged laws which protected ‘liberty of thought and religion’, which became a cornerstone of the democratic system.

There were of course other religious missionaries who used and abused the levers of colonial and cultural power to subjugate alternative worldviews as soon as they had control. Woodberry’s research indicates that where these missionaries were dominant, the countries did not form into liberal democracies, but rather became corrupt dictatorships (such as Ghana, compared with Tunisia).

The principle to be gleaned is that for democracies to flourish, diversity of thought and religion need to be given priority, especially in times of crisis. It is when power is gained, controlled, and then misused against those who disagree that we see ‘democracks’ appearing.

There are several debates currently underway which put the question of liberty under the microscope. NSW Parliament is running an inquiry into amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act to include ‘religious belief’ as a protected characteristic; and the Federal Government is still working on the second draft of a Religious Discrimination Bill.

In my own sphere of higher education, the concept of ‘academic freedom’ is currently front and centre with several cases making waves. The Federal Government is working on legislation around including a definition of academic freedom proposed by former High Court Chief Justice, Robert French. For faith-based higher education, this raises difficult questions around holding academic freedom alongside institutional freedoms, to uphold the ethos and mission of faith communities.

Understandably there are strong feelings on both sides of these debates, but there is one key argument that keeps surfacing – freedoms are potentially ‘divisive’ and, therefore, harmful.

This is the strong beating heart of our democracy.

I would argue however that ‘division’ is exactly what makes a democracy function. Without ‘division’ there is only one dominant idea allowed, one ideology, one faith. Without division, there is no need for voting, or debate, or elections. This may sit comfortably in some countries and cultures who have implicit trust in their leadership, but Australia has greater emphasis on the benefits of a variety of perspectives – and the accountability provided by such freedoms.

In colleges and universities, this principle of ‘healthy division’ is even more important. As humans we learn most from varied perspectives, some of which are diametrically opposed, and such exploration often leads to greater knowledge, truth and reason.

Division is not the culprit, the sickness is rather a lack of respect and unwillingness to make room for opposing perspectives allowing individuals the right to make their own choice. I previously lived in the US and it is deeply saddening to see this value rapidly eroding.

We can however choose not to follow down this path in Australia by allowing diverse traditions, perspectives and religious beliefs, and acknowledging that respectful debate will actually bring us greater understanding.

This is the strong beating heart of our democracy.

Professor Jeannie Trudel is President of Christian Heritage College and the chair of the Australian Christian Higher Education Alliance (ACHEA)

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