Matthew Kaemingk: Welcome to Zealots at the Gate, a podcast of Comment magazine. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: I’m Shadi Hamid.
Matthew Kaemingk: Together we research politics, religion, and the future of democracy at Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
Shadi Hamid: We are writing a book together. This podcast represents an informal space where we can talk about how to live with deep difference. Thanks so much for joining us.
Make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, and please leave us a review. Give us one of those great five-star ratings. And if you have any comments or challenges, drop us a line on Twitter at #zealotspod, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So it’s interesting, Matt, because you and I are good friends. That said, perhaps we shouldn’t be, or it’s not super obvious that we would get along as much as we do, because we do have our deep differences. Matt’s Christian; I’m Muslim. Matt’s conservative; I’m vaguely left of center, liberal, I think. Matt’s white; I’m Brown. Matt studies theology; I’m a political scientist. Matt’s from the rural Northwest, somewhere around Seattle if I recall; I’m from the urban Northeast. I’m one of those bad elites, I guess. So our identity markers indicate that we shouldn’t be friends or that we wouldn’t normally be friends, but we are, and that’s a great thing.
And maybe we can open up there and explore some of those differences on a topic that I’m excited to talk about, which is democracy and popular sovereignty. Matt, I know there’s a lot on your mind in regard to this topic. I think you’re going to challenge me a little bit, and I’m looking forward to that.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. But I think just to kind of lay out for our dear listeners the particular questions we’re interested in here—first of all, obvious to anyone who’s read a newspaper in the last six or seven years, there are a lot of questions around democracy today. Democracy itself is challenged as an institution, trying to justify itself, protect itself, understand what it is and why it matters. And so many people have this sense that democracy is in crisis. Western democracy is in crisis.
Now, Shadi, you’ve made a number of comments about sometimes we can be a little bit hysterical in our fear about the future of democracy, but I think it goes without saying that democracy is on our minds. And one of the things that I wanted to pull out today was an exploration of how Christians and Muslims think about this question of democracy, of the people’s voice, that the people should have some level of sovereignty or say in the decisions of the state.
And Christians and Muslims have historically reflected on these kinds of questions: How do we consult “the people”? Why should the people’s vote matter? Why should their voice matter? And what does that have to do with how we understand God’s truth as we see it revealed in either the Bible or the Quran and the Hadith? And how do we think about the people being included in these kinds of governmental decisions?
So I have two things in mind, and perhaps we can talk first of all about the contemporary crisis of democracy and the questions surrounding that. And then what are some Christian and Muslim resources for thinking about why democracy matters, or how we should approach these kinds of challenges? So, Shadi, since you have just written this book on the problem of democracy, I feel—
Shadi Hamid: Literally. That’s it.
Matthew Kaemingk: That is the title, Oxford Press; you can find it on Amazon.com right now. Perhaps you could provide for us a broad picture of the major questions going on right now about democracy in the West, that we can then turn to the Bible, the Quran, the traditions of Islam and Christianity around these kinds of questions. How does that sound?
Shadi Hamid: Great. Yeah. And if you’ll indulge me, Matt, maybe I’ll start off with a little story or anecdote. It happened to me earlier today, as these things tend to do. So I was looking at some of my notes on democracy. I have a section in my note process where I just jot things down and it said, “I like democracy, but I don’t like people.” [laughs] And I guess I must have been bored and I was just like, “Oh, this is sort of what’s on my mind. Someone must have been pissing me off.”
But I am a little bit odd in this regard. I am a misanthrope of sorts in the sense that I don’t love people all the time, but I’m very faithful towards a democratic idea. Another thing I want to mention . . . and it’s really incredible that the topic of this overall podcast is something that Elon Musk himself has been talking about quite regularly. He had this tweet, which some of you might recall, where he said basically, “Vox populi vox Dei,” which in Latin, as far as I can tell, means “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
So these really intense theological questions are being reflected in the very debates that we’re having on a daily basis on social media platforms. And basically I think that Elon Musk was saying, or trying to say, that the people are sovereign and their preferences should be taken as something close to divine. And you can’t argue with what the people will and what they wish. And so when the people on Twitter voted for Donald Trump returning, he did a poll and there were two options. He’s like, “Listen, I’ve got to defer to the people. What else can I do? They are the voice of God.” And this does get into some very interesting questions.
In my book, I call it the problem of democracy because, I think, most of us as Americans and also more broadly are uncomfortable with certain aspects of a democratic process, primarily the fact that democracy leads to outcomes that we don’t particularly love. And then the question is, how do we come to terms with that? And Elon Musk’s poll gets at this, because of process versus outcomes. If the majority of Twitter users—obviously it’s not a random sample, it’s the people who actually respond to a particular tweet—but if they’re saying that they want Trump to come back, should we really respect that?
Should the voice of the people be taken as sacrosanct or sacred? Should we trust the people? Is there some kind of inherent wisdom of crowds? But another way of looking at it is, even if the people get things wrong, we should respect their right to make the wrong choice. So, in that sense, we do sanctify the will of the people even if we acknowledge that they have been led astray. And so those are two different ways of looking at it. Either the people incline towards the truth, or they don’t incline towards the truth, but it doesn’t matter because whatever they want is something we should respect, because it’s an expression of the collective. And we should take that as a process over anything else. So those are just a couple initial thoughts.
Matthew Kaemingk: So I think we need to state something that’s pretty obvious and clear, but also uncomfortable—that I am speaking right now with a Muslim about the value of democracy. And there are many people who would say about Muslims that Islam is not really a source or a resource for democracy, and Islam is largely a problem; it’s a democratic problem, a threat to democracy. And I’m curious how you, as someone who studies Islam, politics in the Middle East—you yourself are a Muslim—how do you respond to those sort of basic core challenges, prejudices around Islam’s capability of democracy? What are the sorts of things that you say?
Shadi Hamid: Well, look, I mean I think there’s something odd about this whole question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy, because we don’t usually ask that of any other religion or ideology. I mean, how often do you hear people say, “Is secularism compatible with democracy? Is atheism compatible with democracy?” and so forth. But there has been this preoccupation with what seems to be an inherent tension between Islam and democracy. I don’t hold that position. I don’t think there’s an inherent tension, although I do think there can be an inherent tension between Islam and liberalism. It’s a little bit of a can of worms. We don’t have to get into that right now.
But when it comes to democracy, I would actually go one or two steps further and say not only is there not inherent tension but that Islam does include within it a kind of democratic spirit if you know where to look. And I don’t mean to suggest that I’m cherry-picking. I think this is actually faithful to the Islamic tradition and Islamic history, but updated for the modern period.
I was actually tweeting about this earlier, that there is the idea of the wisdom of crowds. I don’t think it comes from Islam per se, but I sort of made the connection that it’s an iteration of a prophetic Hadith. So the prophet said, “My community or my ummah will not agree upon an error.” And this is actually a very popular Hadith, and it supports this notion that if enough Muslims believe in something, if there is something approaching a consensus, then we defer to that preference or that conclusion. And that’s not too different than the idea of the crowds being wise—that individuals on their own might get things wrong, but if you bring enough individuals together, if you scale it up on a mass level, there is a kind of wisdom that the community reaches. So that’s just one example, which I think is quite different than the Christian approach. But we can maybe unpack that in a moment. The other thing that I would say—
Matthew Kaemingk: Well, let me stop you right there. This whole notion of the wisdom of crowds has been sort of a hot topic for social scientists and pop writers over the last five, ten years. And in many ways they have treated it like a discovery, like this new thing that they’ve found out, that if you bring diverse people together and have a conversation, you are going to find these better outcomes, as if this is this brand-new discovery that they have made, whereas I think we can point to Islamic and Christian history of a great deal of wisdom of bringing together a community for conversation and discernment, that wisdom can come out of that. So, just an interjection.
Shadi Hamid: No, exactly. And another thing that’s worth mentioning is, at least in the Sunni tradition, the way to select the caliph before it became dynastic, but in the so-called golden age of Islam, in the first four righteously guided caliphs as they’re called, the caliph was selected by notables and religious scholars and men of learning. And that’s not an election per se, but there is this idea of consultation, that there isn’t some automatic right to rule, that you actually have to get the consent of a certain number of elites. And modern political theologians in the Islamic tradition have extended this idea of consultation to include a larger number of people.
So, instead of propertied elites, you can kind of move towards universal suffrage. Or to put it differently, you can move towards the ummah. The ummah in Arabic is the community of believers. Every believer should have a say because they are part of this, I don’t want to say sacred entity, but an elevated entity. These are the believers, and they matter and they should be consulted with. So there’s a number of those sorts of things that you can draw on, which isn’t to say that you can’t draw on authoritarian precedents in Islamic history or the Islamic tradition, but ultimately we have a choice of what to emphasize. And I think these are very strong precedents.
And then the last thing I’ll say: in a previous episode we talked about how the Quran can’t speak for itself. We need human beings to interpret the text. Similarly, when it comes to Sharia or Islamic law, who decides what that actually is? Ultimately you need a collective to decide. So, again, this allows democracy to come into the picture, because the community of believers, through their vote, through their right to participate, they can give voice to what they think the Sharia should be. Because ultimately we don’t know for sure what God wants in this moment. We don’t know exactly how God ideally would want Muslims to implement Islamic law. So, at the end of a day, the people need to have a say. That’s catchy. End of a day people need to have a say. I like it.
Matthew Kaemingk: No, it’s not. [laughs]
Shadi Hamid: How does that all strike you, Matt?
Matthew Kaemingk: No, I think it’s great. And I think what you’re doing there is you’re not romanticizing Muhammad or the early caliphates as this direct democracy in which voting is happening, and there’s this beautiful open and free debate. But what you’re hinting at or what you’re showing is that you have democratic practices and virtues being developed slowly over time: this understanding of consultation, this desire for some form of consensus and consent, a sort of questioning of singular rule and singular access to God. And what I would argue is, democracy depends upon citizens who are capable of developing consensus, of engaging in conversation and consent, and seeking to listen and exchange views—that democracy depends upon these basic skills that are often developed in religious communities.
And I think within churches we have our own little politics within every little church. And I can imagine somewhat similar in a synagogue or in a mosque, there being political exchanges of who gets to decide what. And these spaces, these sacred spaces, can be places in which we are taking turns speaking, trying to learn how to listen and trying to discern together what God’s will is. And in a way these sacred spaces can be classrooms in which citizens are working out what it means to give and take, which seems to me to be a skill that is very much needed in democracy but isn’t very available to us today in our current political environment, that sort of seeking of consensus.
Shadi Hamid: Well, let me turn the question over to you, because I know we’ve discussed this and I think I have a handle on it, but it is worth delving into, which is how we reconcile popular sovereignty with divine sovereignty. Because ultimately most believing Muslims and Christians would agree that in the end ultimately God is sovereign, in the sense that God is the ultimate source of authority. And this is where sometimes an authoritarian read can come into our faith traditions where people say, “Well, what the people want might actually contradict God’s will or God’s law, and therefore God should take precedence over the whims of the people.” That’s another way of looking at it, of course. And there is a tension here, and I’m curious, from a Christian perspective, how do we come to terms with this? What is the resource we have to resolve that tension?
Matthew Kaemingk: And of course it goes without saying that Christians, much like Muslims, disagree about democracy and we disagree about popular sovereignty. So, what I’m about to share about a Christian perspective on democracy and popular sovereignty is not true for all Christians. Just like for you, it’s not true for all Muslims. I think it’s important to say that my approach to these things is that I cannot accept popular sovereignty all the way down to the ground. And what I mean by that is all popular sovereignty is dependent upon its congruence with God’s law and God’s justice. So, if the masses vote for something terribly unjust, that is not a sovereign or legitimate political act. Because ultimately only God is sovereign. At the very end of the day, ultimately only God is sovereign.
So I’m committed to democracy, but not all the way down in the same way that I’m committed to who God is and what God wants. That’s a tension, I think, but I think that it’s really actually quite helpful because if you believe that God alone is sovereign, then that lowers the stakes of what democracy is all about. Because you can begin to see democracy as a tool that is not perfect, that is not going to provide you with every answer, and democracy is not going to solve every problem, and democracy will make mistakes from time to time. But it is a helpful, imperfect tool by which we can govern. It is not access to God’s perfect will. The results of an election are not going to tell you exactly what God wills or God doesn’t will.
Shadi Hamid: And that’s okay.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, and that’s okay.
Shadi Hamid: It doesn’t need to.
Matthew Kaemingk: It doesn’t need to. So I’m curious how you respond to that. My argument would be that monotheism rightly understood, if God is truly sovereign, lowers the stakes and lowers the value that you place in the vote as ultimate.
Shadi Hamid: I think this is one of the reasons that both of us tend to say that religion actually helps you to delay judgment, to let go, to chill, to lower your shoulders, or to not hunch them up. I guess we’ve used that analogy before. Because there is something else that is transcendent. And if you believe that God is sovereign, you can project some of it. Some things can be left to God. Democracy, the here and now, our normal everyday politics doesn’t have to give us ultimate meaning. So I think this conversation about democracy and where it fits into the broader metaphysics is another example of how we can see religion as a way to lower the existential stakes, to chill, if you will.
I might be a little bit more radical than you, though, in the sense that . . . Okay, let me put this out there. Freedom and democracy are different, but I think that another way of looking at democracy’s superiority over the alternatives is to say that authoritarianism twists the soul, it corrupts the spirit, it breaks human beings, it makes them other than what God intended them to be. So I think there is, probably in all monotheisms, a built-in anti-despotism, which isn’t the same thing as democracy. But I think there is an understanding of freedom and agency and choice, that if you are God’s creation, that means that there is an inherent dignity and that means that you should be able to choose and you shouldn’t be a servant under the rule of other men.
So a dictator, for example—there is that kind of anti-authoritarian impotent. So I think there is a really liberatory potential in religious traditions, because we say, “No man can control us or tell us what to do or how to live, because we are ultimately only accountable to God.” Now, that idea can be taken to an extreme.
Matthew Kaemingk: But I think it’s right. And let me interrupt you here, because I want to jump on that because I think that’s absolutely right. And, Shadi, you got to quote the Hadith, so now I’m going to quote the Bible . . .
Shadi Hamid: Yes!
Matthew Kaemingk: . . . just to help make that particular point. So, for the people of Israel, they’re enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh, your forefather—they’re from Egypt. [Laughter.] So they’re enslaved in Egypt, and God breaks them out and brings them into the Promised Land. And an important aspect of Israel’s flourishing has to do with that they are no longer slaves, but now they have a land of their own. And an important part of being the people of God is that you have a land of your own to work on your own and you’re able to take some level of responsibility. A slave doesn’t own anything; a slave has no sovereignty. Every aspect of their sovereignty is swallowed up in the pharaoh, in the despot.
And in Israel, God’s sovereignty is distributed to the people, so the people are now stewards of their land. When the people come together, they come together not as slaves but as free men and women who have a level of sovereignty over their work and over their lives. And in ancient Israel, God’s design for them was that the king would not take their land from them, that they would not revert to the despotism of Egypt, but the king would enable them to live on the land in peace.
And so there are stories in which the king becomes a despot in Israel and starts to take their land from them, or the wealthy take the land from the poor. And this is always understood to be a regression back to the ways of Pharaoh. God’s desire is for the men and women of Israel to live free on their own land. That’s a really important foundational aspect to Israelites’ political imagination, that the king does not own everything. Furthermore, power is distributed between the king, the prophet, and the priest within Israel. So power is not completely concentrated within the palace. And from time to time the prophet will come to the palace and will speak words of critique and challenge. And the priests themselves have a specific role within the life of Israel that is not owned by the palace. So you have this understanding of pushing power down and pushing power out that’s really important.
So it’s all to say that we see this in ancient Israel; we see this in some of the developments of the early caliphate—this understanding that power needs to be pushed down; it needs to be distributed; and this understanding that the wisdom of the people does matter for the faithfulness of the people.
Shadi Hamid: I do want to mention a little wrinkle, and it is interesting that I got you, Matt, to read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is seen as one of the radical texts in the modern Islamic political approach. And some of you might recall that after 9/11 Qutb was discussed as the godfather of terrorism, which I think was generally unfair and a little bit of a distorted read of history. But he was pretty radical in part because he was tortured under a dictatorship, and that’s where he started to get a little bit intense, shall we say. But it’s interesting that when I was rereading that with you, Matt, I was struck by how many times he mentions the word freedom. Because you think someone who’s radical, who has a really strict notion of implementing Islamic law—why would they emphasize freedom? And I just pulled this up right now and I do want to mention this as a cautionary tale of taking this idea of man only being accountable to God and not to other men to its logical extreme.
Qutb says this in Milestones: “It is not the intention of Islam to force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely belief. As we have pointed out, Islam is a declaration of the freedom of men from servitude to other men,” which sounds great. That sounds . . . Freedom. Yes! Freedom or chains, we’ll fight to ensure that this freedom is ours and that we are not under the rule of any mere mortal. But then that can be taken to justify rebellion, to justify declaring manmade governments or any kind of temporal government that you disagree with as being contrary to God’s will. There’s almost a way where you take it to an extreme and then it folds back to this dilemma of seeing no mortal or temporal government as legitimate. And then you can sort of be in this situation of perpetual rebellion if you have these very exacting standards of what constitutes legitimate rule.
Anyway, with that in mind, I do want to unpack a couple tensions in all of this and ask you, Matt, about aspects of the Christian tradition. My understanding from reading folks like Abraham Kuyper is that there is a process of delegation. So God is ultimately sovereign, and then the office-holder, the prime minister or the president, stands immediately under God’s sovereignty. And in that sense the office of the presidency is sanctified, if I understand correctly. But I do wonder, does that follow in a godless society? Because Kuyper was still living in a predominantly Christian society, so there was a built-in expectation that Christian ethics or values would be inculcated, that those wouldn’t be completely pushed to the side.
But I do wonder if there is a tension, if you as a believing Christian, let’s say you look at an “atheistic government” or a very secular government as you have in western Europe, where very small percentages of the population are Christian believers in the present day, then is it still fair to say that, well, the French president stands immediately under God’s sovereignty and is sanctified in his exercise of power?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. I think that the way that I would . . . Let’s just keep France out of this for a second. Too easy.
Shadi Hamid: Probably better.
Matthew Kaemingk: Let’s just say we had an atheist president here in America. I think that from my Kuyper perspective . . . So Abraham Kuyper argues that the role of the state is to establish justice. That is what the state is there for. The role of the state is not to establish worship of God but justice. And so I can imagine an atheist president establishing justice in America in a variety of ways, not perfectly, but I can imagine an atheist president doing that. And I can imagine, and I don’t actually have to imagine, a Christian president establishing injustice in America. Moreover, I can imagine that God would use an atheist president for his purposes. And so I can give thanks for God’s use of an atheist or a Christian president. And the rubric I would use—
Shadi Hamid: Or even a Muslim president.
Matthew Kaemingk: Or a Muslim president. Exactly.
Shadi Hamid: We had one, to be fair. [Laughter.]
Matthew Kaemingk: But the rubric I would use to judge my leaders is a biblical understanding of justice, a basic how are the poor being treated? So Psalm 71 in scripture talks about the good king, in which the poor are treated justly and the land flourishes. Throughout scripture we get pictures of what human flourishing looks like and what justice looks like. And so legitimacy under God comes from your pursuit of justice. It does not come from who you worship particularly.
Shadi Hamid: And this means that in some sense, if the state itself isn’t a kind of necessary evil, it’s something that can be seen positively from the Christian tradition because God is holding society together through common grace and is using the state to do so. Would that be correct?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. So, my city has stop signs in it, and it has a sewer system and a school district. And these are basic functions of the government right here in my local community that produce real flourishing. I am grateful for stop signs, and I’m grateful for sewer systems. And the people who instituted them—I don’t know if they were Christian or not, but I can give thanks to God that God has blessed me with stop signs and school systems and so forth. That’s because of that understanding of common grace. So when I have to vote, my primary concern is not, Does this person go to my church or my denomination? It is, Does this person seek justice in the way that smells and sounds like the justice that I hear about in scripture.
Shadi Hamid: What happens, though, if there’s an atheist or a non-believer who commits injustice? Does their atheism have any effect on the final assessment? Because it’s easy to say, “Well, if an atheist kind of upholds biblical values, then the outcome is still ultimately just, and therefore God’s common grace is still operating in mysterious ways.” But I imagine there are some Christians who could argue that without God’s guidance, without having that intrinsic belief in Christ, or God, or whatever it might be, the atheist might be led astray and might be led to commit grave injustice; then that de-legitimizes and de-sanctifies the office.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yes. So I think that is possible. And I don’t think that . . . so don’t hear what I’m not saying here. Reverse that. A president’s faith does matter. It will impact the way in which they rule and the way in which they make decisions. What I’m trying to say is that their faith does not guarantee that they will seek either justice or injustice.
Shadi Hamid: Okay.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So, back to this understanding of the people. I’m wondering, how do we understand our definition of the people? Because I think both Islam and Christianity have a tough question to answer, as all democrats do: Who counts as the people? You mentioned the ummah. Muhammad says that “my people will never be in error.” And on the Christian side we believe that Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit of God has united with the church, and that the Christian church is the body of Christ in the world.
So we both have this, and they’re different, but we both have this high view of our people. I have a high view of the Christian church as the body of Christ in the world, and you have a high view of the ummah, the Muslim community as the people. And it seems to me that one of our challenges is, well, then it’s not hard to argue that, well, if the church is the body of Christ in the world, we should only let Christians vote. And if the ummah is the community of Muhammad and they are the ones who have access to the truth, perhaps only Muslims should vote.
So my next question that I’d love for us to wrestle with is, how do we think about the people as beyond our own community? And this is related to our last episode of including heretics in democracy. So I’m wondering . . . Well, first of all, do you accept the question or do you understand what I’m trying to say?
Shadi Hamid: Totally. Yeah. And there is certainly a tension there. Even if we look at one of the more progressive Islamic thinkers of the modern period, Rached Ghannouchi of Tunisia, in some of his earlier work in the nineties, he actually was seen as a democratizing force in Islamic thought, because he basically made the argument of vicegerency, the idea that God’s sovereignty is delegated to the community and then the community acts upon that kind of delegative honor, if you will. But in his earlier work he still limited that to believers, that popular sovereignty only worked if the community accepted that they were delegates.
But naturally, if you’re a secularist or an atheist or a Christian, you’re not necessarily going to start with that premise of being one of God’s vicegerents or delegates on the earth. So there is certainly a challenge, but again, there’s precedence that one can draw. And it’s worth noting that Ghannouchi himself did expand the idea of delegation and vicegerency to include the citizens writ large. I think part of it here is that we’re all products of the modern state, and we’re all products of the idea of modern citizenship. So you just change your understanding of the citizen.
And that might not be very theologically sound, or the line isn’t maybe super direct, but I think we have to acknowledge that in the premodern universe, the people who constituted the community were different than what constitutes a community in the modern period in a world of nation-states. But even if you look at the Prophet’s time, and this is part of how Ghannouchi squares the circle more recently over the past ten years, he draws on the Constitution of Medina. So this was when Prophet Muhammad was a head of a proto-state, and he brought in non-Muslims as part of, basically, this charter, including Jews and other monotheists.
So again, it depends what you want to look at in Islamic history to kind of say whether or not the community can be broadened to include non-Muslims. And certainly there are extremists or people who are a bit more radical who might not love the modern idea of citizenship. But ultimately, I think some of it has to do with practicality, that there’s just no way to constitute a modern society. And maybe this is a bit of a cop-out.
Matthew Kaemingk: You see me smiling at you a little bit.
Shadi Hamid: This is maybe me as a political scientist speaking, but circumstances breed necessity, and circumstances push you to reinterpret your own text. So, if we talked about Muslims five centuries ago, they’re going to have a more narrow, exclusive view. But if we’re talking about Muslims now, the vast majority of them have gotten on board with modern conceptions of citizenship, because that’s the air that we breathe. That is a bit of a cop-out, but please go ahead.
Matthew Kaemingk: So, a slight turn, I want to ask you your thoughts on this particular quote from a famous twentieth-century political theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Here’s what he has to say about democracy. He says, “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but humanity’s inclination for injustice makes democracy necessary.” And what he is pointing to here is two different ways in which Christians have made the case for democracy. One is that humanity is so good and wise and humanity thirsts for justice, and so it is wise to include people in discussions about what justice should look like. The other is a very low view of humanity, which says humanity is capable of great injustice and evil, and so it is necessary that we spread power out.
And you have this throughout Christian history of these two different arguments for democracy, the separation of powers, the rule of law, constitution. And one with a very high view of humanity—humanity is so good that we are capable of this democratic process. The other is humanity is so evil it has to be involved in this democratic process. So I’m curious, as a Muslim, as a political scientist, do either sides of that argument resonate with you more? How do you reflect on that quote?
Shadi Hamid: Well, in the Islamic tradition, the state was generally conceived in a somewhat minimal way. And the priority of the state was to preserve enough freedom for people to practice their religion. That was one of the fundamental prerequisites, that people should be able to believe and act on their belief, and if that’s being blocked, then the state is no longer legitimate. But that minimal conception came out of circumstance, because after the early golden period, so to speak, there was dynastic rule, there was repression, there was civil conflict.
So a growing number of Muslim scholars gave up on the idea of a utopian premise, that there was no way to return to the ideal early period where you had the Prophet’s companions governing directly, drawing on their personal relationship and their knowledge of the Prophet’s commandments and preferences. So the state becomes a fact that you have to work around, and you don’t want to entrust the state with too much power, specifically the executive authority. And this is why the clerics in the Islamic tradition were semi-autonomous and had quite a bit of independence from the caliph, because they were the repositories of God’s law. They were in some sense—I don’t want to say the legislative branch, because I guess ultimately God would be seen as the legislative branch—the ones who were entrusted to interpret God’s law, and therefore they were the ones who could regulate the executive authority because they had knowledge of that law.
So that’s, I think, a practical accommodation, which is that you see the executive authority as necessary, but you also don’t want to endow the executive with the ability to determine creedal and theological content. They’re the ones who have to make sure the trains run on time. They’re not supposed to be opining on the nature of God’s existence in a metaphysical sense.
Matthew Kaemingk: Here’s a big question. Would you say that Islam has a higher view of humanity in general in terms of humanity’s reason and ability to know the good?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. So, sin doesn’t figure as predominantly, and we don’t have a conception of original sin. And we should definitely have an entire episode on the role of reason and the tensions between reason and revelation. But certainly there is this idea of Fitra in the Islamic tradition, which means man’s innate disposition or his nature, his inherent nature. And the idea is that this nature is in some sense uncorrupted, and then it’s actually society, it’s actually sinful individuals who can then take man away from his natural state. So I think that you’ll often hear this idea of Fitra raised by Muslims quite a bit.
And that’s actually one of the reasons that I find this a little bit annoying, but some Muslims will refer to converts not as converts but as reverts. In other words, they’re returning to their natural state, the way that God intended them to be. I think that’s a little bit presumptuous and problematic for reasons we don’t have to get into right now. One of the reasons is I don’t consider theological error to be the worst thing in the world. If people want to believe in the wrong thing theologically, there’s worse fates. But this idea of nature and returning to one’s nature and not having it be corrupted, I think, is definitely one that’s there.
But maybe this is an interesting point of contrast, because as we’ve talked about a little bit in previous episodes, the notion of depravity and the fact of sin does figure predominantly in the Christian tradition, more so than in Islam at least, especially if you’re a Calvinist, as you are, Matt. So I’m curious, how would a proper Calvinist respond to this idea of a natural inclination or disposition that’s positive?
Matthew Kaemingk: So Calvinists are well known for their lower view of human nature and the human capacity to know and do what is right. And so I think a Calvinistic reflection on democracy is what you’ve been hearing from me, which is: be careful not to expect too much from democracy. Be careful not to expect too much from the people and not to expect democracy to fix people. Because ultimately the only thing that will fix the human individual or the human community is communion with God, is becoming right with God. And so anything short of that is going to disappoint you in some way. So a Calvinist is just going to want to lower expectations.
However, Calvinists have played a very large role, historically, in the development of democracy, and it’s not simply because they have a lower view of humanity but also because they have practiced certain democratic modes within their churches. They are appointing elders within their churches, who appoint a pastor, who hold a pastor accountable, and then they develop these federations of churches, these networks of churches that hold other local churches accountable. So you have centuries of Calvinists delegating authority, holding rulers accountable, developing consensus, and engaging in these democratic practices as well. So they end up in Calvinist New England, working some of those things out. The American Revolution is in many ways an amalgamation of the secular Enlightenment but also a Calvinist political imagination coming together in a somewhat interesting way.
So that’s an important aspect of thinking about these things. And I love that quote from Niebuhr, because it seems to me it brings up two important aspects of democracy. That democracy does require a humbled and a prudent perspective on the possibilities of politics and political wisdom. But I think democracy does require some level of hope, some level of confidence, some level of passion even. And so I think both of those things need to be held together. Cynicism and bitterness is no way to sustain a democratic life. And I think back to those years of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show when we were in college. I don’t know, did you watch The Daily Show a lot when you were in college?
Shadi Hamid: I did. I did. Yeah, the Jon Stewart period. I thought you were going to say John Stuart Mill, but then you shocked me.
Matthew Kaemingk: John Stuart Mill? No, Jon Stewart in The Daily Show, which I think as a poli-sci major, I loved watching The Daily Show. But I had this haunting sense in the back of my mind that that sort of cynicism and a dark bitterness that ran through The Daily Show ultimately is not good for democracy. That you can’t sustain democracy just upon a side-eye that you give to your fellow citizens. That democracy depends upon somewhat of a spirit of optimism as well. I don’t know how that all hits you.
Shadi Hamid: No, but I think that you can have hope without cynicism. And I think that maybe the broader point to make here is that in our respective traditions the tensions are very much there. And I don’t think either of us want to descend into apologetics and say that Islam and Christianity are democratic religions. That would be silly, because obviously through much of Christian and Islamic history, democracy was not the prevailing system of government, naturally. But it is to say that tensions are there, so you can’t have a democratic spirit without having the possibility of authoritarianism, that these things sort of depend on their opposite in a similar way as hope depends on cynicism. We don’t know what hope is unless we see the alternative.
But I think your point about Jon Stewart’s really interesting, because it gets at this broader disdain for ordinary politics or the people—that if only we could rise above the disappointments of ordinary politics and we could have wisdom and good thinking and people who know the truth and the right information . . . And it’s a fantasy of what politics is, and it pretends that we can transcend the messiness of politics. And I think that the monotheistic faiths do have a very real sense of the fallibility of man, maybe to different degrees and there’s different points of emphasis, but by definition men are flawed.
And then, by extension, anything that men do will be flawed, including democracy, including politics, whatever it might be. And I think that there’s this anti-utopian strain in the monotheistic faiths that oftentimes you don’t have with secular faiths. There’s almost this sense that you need to find the utopia in the here and now, because there is nothing beyond the here and now. And an extreme case of this is obviously Marxism, but even if you look at the hyper-wokeism of our present period, some of it has this kind of intensity of feeling an impatience. And impatience is fine. What did Luke Bretherton say about . . . I think he had this phrase “impatient endurance” that is characteristic of the religious mind of the believer. Is that right?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, I think that’s right. Yeah. And I should note that I was going through Luke Bretherton’s book today, prepping for our conversation. It’s a brilliant book.
Shadi Hamid: Are you talking about Christ and the Common Life?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yes.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. We’ll definitely make sure to have a link to that in the show notes. I haven’t actually read it yet, but I do want to, because I think it’s very relevant to this conversation.
Matthew Kaemingk: Absolutely. I mean, that book is a little more academic political theology. So if you were looking for a little more basic Christian introduction to reflections on democracy, David Koyzis’s book Political Visions and Illusions has a chapter specifically on Christian reflections on democracy itself, in which he provides a Christian praise for democracy but also a Christian critique and a Christian warning for that as well. But I do actually want to return to Jon Stewart just for a moment, since I criticized him. I think it’s also important to note that I don’t think it’s an accident that he’s also Jewish and that his humour and his cynicism also has a tinge of hope to it as well, that it’s not totally dark, and that there is this resource within faith to have a bit of a dark humour at the mystery of the human condition, I guess I would say.
And I think that the Jewish community has cultivated that well, staring darkness right in the face post-Holocaust. But that would be another interesting thing for us to reflect on is religion, humour, and the darkness of politics, I guess. How does dark humour work for people who are faithful in the face of political injustice and difficulty?
Shadi Hamid: Well, it does make me think that one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and Islam is that Jews didn’t really have much of a history of self-government, of ruling themselves. And after the destruction of the second temple, in I guess 74 AD, Jews lived as a minority under the rule of others, and that shapes how Jews view the exercise of power, where, I think, with Muslims, they can look back at different parts of their history and there can be an optimism because there was a period of normative Islamic governance. And I think that this goes back to something that I think is really important, which is theology is a product of circumstance; it’s not just a product of theological investigation.
Because theologians themselves as mere mortals, they are being shaped by their own particular context. They are being shaped by the politics of their time. So if you’re a theologian thinking about the legitimate exercise of power, if you are in a position where your co-believers are governing, that they are ruling themselves, Muslims governing Muslims, that’s going to be very different. That’s going to have an influence on you in a way that Jews living as a minority under the rule of others won’t. I think that’s just worth keeping in mind, and we can maybe expand on that in future episodes—of how religions are shaped by their own history in these very profound ways.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. We do need to wrap up. But I think one other thing I wanted to loop in here is: an important aspect for the health of democracy are people who are asking, “Who is not at the table? Who is not being included in this democratic deliberation?” And for me, when I look at the Bible, I see this desire to open the community to the widow, to the orphan, to the foreigner in Israel, and then in the early church once again, to open the community beyond the people of Israel to all these different ethnicities throughout the Roman Empire. There’s this desire to include more in this definition of the people and the voice of the people.
And in order for democracy to flourish today, we need more citizens who are interested in including more voices, who are making sure that all of these voices are being heard and not being excluded. And so for me, in my faith, I find my faith prompting me to ask, “Who’s being left out?” And I encourage our listeners to reflect on that as well. Who is being excluded from the democratic process and why, based upon their identity or whatever else?
Shadi Hamid: Preach. Preach brother. Well, that is a very good note on which to end. Thanks to you, dear listeners, for tuning in to Zealots at the Gate. If you like what you heard, do consider listening to our previous episodes if you’ve missed them. And if you want to learn more about Comment magazine, which is a wonderful magazine, you can go to Comment.org where you’ll find illuminating essays on politics, culture, and faith. We do want to hear from you, so please do connect with us over Twitter at my handle, @ShadiHamid, and Matthew Kaemingk’s handle, @MatthewKaemingk. Do recall that his last name is spelled in the Dutch way. Or write to us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #zealotspod. And I do encourage you to do that because I do regularly check the hashtag to see if anyone’s saying anything. So if you want to put out a question or a criticism, please feel free. Expect a sincere exchange.
Our thanks as well to our sponsor, Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life. Zealots at the Gate is hosted by Common magazine, produced by Allie Crummy, audience strategy by Matt Crummy, and editorial direction by Anne Snyder. I’m Shadi Hamid, and you are . . .
Matthew Kaemingk: And I am Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: And we’ll see you next time. Thanks so much for joining us.