Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Research Centre for Religious Studies Research Centres Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization
Header image The Religion Factor

The insidious inequality of contemporary democracy

Date:27 January 2017
Author:Roos Feringa
Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the USA.
Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the USA.

One week ago today, Donald J. Trump became the 45thPresident of the United States of America.

Despite pledging that ‘a new national pride will heal our divisions’, Trump’s first week in office has been conspicuous by its lack of conciliation towards those who did not support him in his run for the White House and in the actions he has taken to further marginalize womenMuslimsimmigrantsNative Americans and all those who identify with and support these groups.

Indeed, if anything, Trump’s first week in office has brought exactly the kind of division that many people feared during the election, along with the same disdain for the media and reliance on ‘alternative facts’ that was a hallmark of his campaign. He has repealed the Affordable Care Act, which, while addressing rising premium costs for some, could result in the death of an additional 43,000 people a year; issued an executive order authorizing the immediate construction of the wall along the US-Mexico border; another executive order outlawing sanctuary cities, and is expected to sign another indefinitely blocking all immigration by people fleeing the conflict in Syria, and placing a 120-day moratorium on immigration by people seeking refuge from all other parts of the world. The order would also implement a minimum 30-day ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. He delivered a heavily criticized speech to the CIA that deepened rather than repaired the fractious relationship between Trump and the intelligence community, and reintroduced and expanded the so-called ‘global gag rule’ banning the provision of aid to all organisations that offer abortions (pictured signing the bill surrounded by white men in a photograph that has since gone viral). This was done just two days after the Women’s March, a demonstration against the extremes promised by the Trump administration and the largest protest in US history, with an estimated 2.9 million participants. Millions more marched in solidarity across cities around the world.

All this in just the first seven days.

Like many people, since the results of the US presidential election became clear, I have endeavoured to understand the different factors that contributed to Donald Trump going from being considered something of a joke candidate to holding arguably the most powerful political position in the world. The election of Trump is, however, potentially less of an issue than the deep divisions in the US polity that it reveals along lines of class (including access to jobs and education), gender, race and religion. What is striking, though, is that these divisions are not unique to the US, and neither does the US seem to be the only place where these divisions are being accentuated and becoming even more politically acute at the present moment. The Brexit vote in the UK, the 2016 Australian Federal election, and the debates emerging in Europe in the lead up to what will be a momentous year for the European political landscape all reveal similar kinds of divisions and dilemmas, centering around race, religion, class and gender.

These issues aren’t new. They become more or less significant at different times, but they always seem to be present, bubbling away under the surface of the apparently orderly public domain in contemporary secular democratic nation-states. The fact that they continue to reemerge, though, makes me wonder – what if these divisions are not just the result of a convergence of particular people and events at certain moments (e.g. the rise of various kinds of extremism, the post-9/11 moment where ‘Muslim’ has come to imply potential threat, the largest displacement crisis on record, and opportunistic right-wing politicians like Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen)? What if these divisions are much more entrenched, embedded in the very fabric of our democratic structures and institutions, as a result of who has shaped these institutions from the beginning, who has been allowed to participate and who has had to fight and lay claim to the right to participate in these institutions and processes? This is what has been troubling me lately, and what I am continuing to think about and explore.

In particular, since I am a scholar of religion and politics, I’m trying to understand the place of ‘religion’, variously understood, in these recent political events and the divisions that they expose. In the context of Trump’s election, ‘religion’ is present at a number of levels – in symbolism, in identities, in lobbying – and intersects with a number of different issues and concerns.

One of the most crucial and divisive has been religion’s intersection with race. During the campaign, this manifested in two key ways. The first was the question of Islam, which arose as a key topic early in the presidential primaries, following the Paris attacks in late 2015. Trump, along with other presidential hopefuls such as Ted Cruz, called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration. Indeed, Trump’s policies and campaign on immigration in many ways conflated different groups of (non-white) immigrants, to the extent that ‘Muslim’ became not just a religious but a racial identity, something that is also occurring in Europe as well. Islam became further cemented in public discourse and consciousness as something foreign to the United States, as something ‘other’, something only associated with those who are ‘not from here’ and who ‘don’t belong’, despite Muslims being present in the United States since at least the time of colonization, and despite President Obama’s attempts to remind US citizens of this fact.

The second way in which the intersection of race and religion shaped the outcome of the election relates to those who voted for Trump. It has been widely reported that Trump’s largest support base came from white voters. During the Obama presidency, the USA went from being a country where the population was 54% white Christians, to now only 43%, yet white voters remained decisive in the 2016 presidential election. 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump60% of white Catholics voted for Trump, whilst 67% of Hispanic Catholics voted for Clinton. Tellingly, African American religious voters are not separated out in most national polls, whilst white religious voters are, so it is difficult to get precise statistics here. However, according to a pre-election poll conducted by a Christian research organization, 62% of non-white evangelical voters planned to vote for Clinton.

There are numerous ways to read these statistics, but one of the most striking things that they suggest is that, contrary to many dominant assumptions, religious affiliation is not an accurate predictor of how people vote. Religion has long been assumed to predispose people to vote for conservative candidates, who uphold traditional values on abortion and gay marriage, and who themselves uphold a high moral standard in their personal lives. Indeed, in research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, during the 2012 Presidential campaign, only 30% of white evangelical Christians said that ‘an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life’. In the 2016 election, this figure jumped to 72%. Looking at the divide across the different Christian traditions, it is clear that being religiously affiliated does not predispose people to predictably vote one way or another. Race, however, does appear to be significant. White voters in general favoured Trump by a margin of 21%, while Hispanic voters preferred Clinton by 36% and Black voters favoured Clinton by a whopping 80%.

Both of these trends – the denigration of Muslim immigrants and the support for Trump amongst white evangelical Christian voters – are two sides of the same coin and they are deeply embedded in US national identity. As Kelly Brown Douglas and Jim Wallis have both argued recently, albeit from different angles, this ‘imagined community’ of the United States has, since colonization, been understood in religio-racial terms. Narratives of American exceptionalism extend back to the early founding, but they are explicitly entangled with white Anglo-Saxon Christian (specifically Protestant) exceptionalism. Those who were not white, Ango-Saxon and Christian either had to assimilate to white, Anglo-Saxon Christian norms, adhere to the strict religio-racial hierarchies that these narratives established or face extinction. In the discourses around immigration and race in the elections, we see the religious and racial other positioned as a threat to the integrity and security of the US nation. Similar discourses about the threat posed by the religio-racial other were evident in the Brexit votethe Australian federal election in 2016 and are likely to be central in the 2017 elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Whilst the US and other democracies have clearly altered and now include the enfranchisement of non-white ‘others’, the right of these groups to participate in modern secular democratic nation-states has only been secured after long hard battles, and their equality and participation in those nation-states continues to be a point of contention, debate and discussion, as the emergence of and reaction to the Black Lives Matter movementmakes painfully clear. Participation is more than just having the right to vote. Equality has to be experienced in daily, lived reality, not only written on a piece of paper and enshrined in law.

Issues of race, religion, gender and class have plagued democratic governance since its infancy, issues that in many ways became worse with the marriage of democracy to the political unit that we refer to as the modern secular nation-state. In theory, democracy should enable the free and equal participation of all in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. By contrast, the nation-state is supposed to provide clear boundaries and guidelines to determine where the political unit begins and ends, who is included and who is excluded. This represents a fundamental, potentially irreconcilable, contradiction – a mode of politics based on inclusion being used to govern a political structure premised on exclusion. And that exclusion has usually been decided along the boundaries of racereligiongender and class. The modern secular democratic nation-state has largely been established by and for white, propertied, educated men, buttressed by arguments drawn from both religion, in particular Christianity, and secular rationality. From that perspective, potentially what the election of Trump, the outcome of Brexit and the rise of populism make stark is the insidious forms of inequality that persist at the heart of our modern democratic institutions – that those who are not male, white, educated, wealthy and adhere to the dominant Christian-secular worldview have consistently had to fight – quite literally – for their right to equal participation, and continue to do so, making their case for inclusion on terms acceptable to white, propertied, educated men (in so-called Western contexts, at least), not necessarily on their own terms; and that institutions of democracy have somehow also become bound up in what might be called the religion of nationalism. This is most acutely the case in the US, but elements of it exist in other political contexts as well. Arguably it also infuses global power relations amongst nation-states, making some nation-states more equal than others. The nation becomes infused with sacred qualities, which have to be revered, protected and defended from corruption. When those sacred qualities are seen by some to refer to who is and is not allowed to participate, rather than the principles on which participation is ideally based, modern secular democratic nation-states can become volatile and even dangerous places for those whose membership is not beyond question.

The fact that these issues are so widespread, that they are not just affecting one country but many, leads me to suspect that actually these factors are deeply embedded in the political institution that we refer to as the modern secular democratic nation-state, and in the global system of nation-states as well. In short, I am wondering if democracy itself, at least in its present guise, is not potentially the most significant factor in contributing to the problems and divisions in contemporary democratic secular nation-states. Not the idea of democracy, because I think equal political participation is a noble goal to aspire to, but the way democracy is presently incarnated.

It seems to me that the essential goal of democratic political theory – the political participation and inclusion of everyone in the decision-making processes that affect their lives –is a practical impossibility when democracy is bound up with the nation-state, which is premised on the creation of clear boundaries (based on gender, race, religion and class) that determine who is and is not part of the nation.

This is not at all to say that it is the fault of white, educated, propertied men that we now have deeply divided societies. But the history of these institutions, the way they were conceived and established, matters and the values and worldviews on which they were based matters. To have only one small group of people determine the rules by which everyone else has to play is fundamentally undemocratic. And so there needs to be some sort of reincarnation of the institutions of democracy, in theory and practice – a reincarnation that does not simply involve white, educated, propertied men inviting or allowing women, people of colour and working classes to participate and contribute (which has historically been the case), but new procedures and processes where all voices participate on equal terms and are equally valued.

Maybe that means there is a further division that we need to break down – that between citizens and their elected representatives. Something else revealed by the US Presidential election and Brexit – people are disillusioned with the politics as usual model that favours the so-called ‘elite’ – the educated, the wealthy, the political establishment. Indeed, this was highlighted as one of the main similarities between Trump and Bernie Sanders in the early days of the campaign. Voter turn out has been steadily declining over the last decade in a number of different contexts, suggesting that people no longer feel that their voices are heard and taken seriously. CNNreported that voter turn out was at a 20-year low in the 2016 elections.

Events like the Women’s March, and the proposed Science March are one such alternative mode of democratic politics that helps to break down multiple divisions, including that between elected officials and the citizenry, but these movements also need to have access to the decision-making processes and institutions that govern and implement policy. One march/rally/sit-in/etc does not change a government or a country. There need to be fundamental changes in institutions, structures and processes as well. We need to think creatively together – elected officials, citizens, rich, poor, male, female, black, white, brown, yellow, LGBT, straight and so on – about how we can develop more inclusive participatory democratic decision-making institutions and processes, with humility, respect and equality for all.

Erin K. Wilson  is Director of the  Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain , University of Groningen.


Loading comments...