Politics and religion

One of the interesting things that I noticed on my recent trip to Sri Lanka is how three current political developments in the US (which I view as negative) were anticipated in Sri Lanka politics over the last half century. These are: (1) pandering to religious sentiment in making public policy; (2) attacking and undermining trust in the judicial system; and (3) using raw political power to override minority interests. I will look at these three parallel developments in sequence, starting with the religion question.

To understand the religion parallels, one has to be aware of the demographics of Sri Lanka. There is an ethnic (linguistic) Sinhala majority that comprises 74% of the population. The other ethnic groups are Tamils (17%), Muslims (7%), and a smattering of smaller groups. Almost all Sinhala people follow the Buddhist religion and almost all Tamils follow the Hindu religion. Christians form 8% of the population, made up roughly equally from both the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups. So clearly Sinhala-Buddhists, comprising about 70% of the population, are the single largest ethnic-religious group, with Tamil-Hindus at 13% forming the next largest.

The politics of Sri Lanka prior to and immediately after independence in 1948 had been largely secular. But of course, since Sinhala-Buddhists formed the majority, it was natural that the cultural traditions of the country were dominated by this ethnic-religious grouping, much as US culture is based on an English-Christian ethos.

What is interesting is that despite this dominance, these dominant ethnic-religious groupings in the US and Sri Lanka seem to suffer from a sense of insecurity that makes them want to explicitly create quasi-religious states. This process started much earlier in Sri Lanka and has progressed further and it is interesting (and disturbing) to me to see the process being repeated here.

To better appreciate the parallel developments, a little history is in order. The beginning of overt pandering to religious sentiment in Sri Lanka occurred in the 1956 elections when one of the candidates for Prime Minister, who was initially given little chance of winning, used a political platform based on appeals to a mix of nationalist, religious (Buddhist), and ethnic (Sinhala) sentiment to ride to a sweeping victory, surprising many observers. Of course, in politics, quid is inevitably followed by quo and elements of the Buddhist clergy and laity, perceiving themselves as being instrumental in the Prime Minister’s victory, immediately started being very assertive about getting what they felt was their rightful reward. As a result the country started shifting from being a secular state to one in which Buddhism was singled out for preferential treatment.

The shift away from a secular state has been going on steadily since. Eventually, even the Constitution was changed to say: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasunu while giving adequate protection to all religions and guaranteeing to every person the rights and freedoms granted by paragraphs (1) and (3) of Article 15.”

These days elected officials in Sri Lanka routinely make pilgrimages to bow in veneration before the leaders of the major Buddhist temples and ask for their blessings. They even consult with them on important legislation. Buddhist monks have joined or formed political parties, contest elections, and are represented in Parliament. When we were in Sri Lanka this month, a Buddhist monk was on a hunger strike protesting impending legislation and other Buddhist monks were demonstrating in the streets in support, and clashing with riot police.

I will describe later the nature of this steady shift in political practice. For the moment, I want to point out that the early stages of that process bear an eerie resemblance to recent developments in the US. The recent election of George W. Bush in the 2004 elections is being credited to evangelical Christian support and there are demands on him to recognize his obligation to them and to repay the debt with specific policy initiatives. There are assertions by Christian groups to that the US is Christian country and that thus the laws should be founded on Christian/Biblical principles. They argue that other religious groups need not fear this development because they will be allowed to practice their religions.

But there is a profound difference between a situation in which everyone has an equal right and status just by virtue of being a citizen, and the situation in which one group is seen as the rightful inhabitants and heirs of a land, and the rest are “allowed” to participate in civic life. In Sri Lanka, this difference started the country down a slippery slope in which the Tamil minority started feeling disenfranchised and this eventually resulted in the separatist movement that has lasted for more than two decades and brought untold suffering and hardship to almost everyone.

Think that what happened in Sri Lanka cannot happen here? Suppose I changed slightly the wording on the clause in the Sri Lanka constitution above to read: “The United States shall give Christianity the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to base its legislation on Biblical principles, while giving adequate protection to all religions and guaranteeing to every person the rights and freedoms granted by the constitution.” My guess is that large numbers of people would see nothing objectionable about such a statement being inserted into the US constitution.

For example, Beverly LaHaye, the head of Concerned Women for America (and wife of the rapture-based Left Behind series co-author Tim LaHaye), says: “Yes, religion and politics do mix. America is a nation based on biblical principles. Christian values dominate our government. The test of those values is the Bible. Politicians who do not use the bible to guide their public and private lives do not belong in office.”

And yet, such a policy, if adopted, would fundamentally change the nature of the republic. Is it unthinkable that the way in which the secular state was subverted in Sri Lanka could be repeated here? In the next posting I will describe how the present situation came about in Sri Lanka, and you can be the judge.

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