An interesting observation is that the present dominating religions in the West –- Christianity, Judaism, Islam –- did in fact not originate in the West. All three are conceived in the Orient (the name of the Near East at the time) and their ideology was largely foreign to native Western (i.e. ancient European -– Greco-Roman, Nordic or Norse) religious and political thought at the time. The generalized terms "Western" and "Oriental" may help us to identify certain distinguishing traits in these two traditions of religious and political thought. Could it be that the roots of democratic thought on the one hand, and the ideal of benevolent authoritarian rule –- the Ideal State –- on the other, are reflected in different religious traditions?
Western vs. Oriental
The religious systems which we, for the purpose of discussion, may take as examples of native Western religion, and contrast with Oriental religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), are the Greco-Roman and Nordic (= Norse) mythologies. The point here is not painstaking theological and historical analysis, but rather a search for broad, and hopefully easily discernible characteristics.
Ancient Western (Greco-Roman, Nordic) religious tenets:
Morals are your responsibility: Western religion does not prescribe precise moral rules. Rather, it takes moral dilemmas for granted. Humans are at the mercy of capricious gods and have to decide for themselves how to behave – a frustrating task, given the erratic, sometimes immoral behavior of the gods. It is important to be on good terms with the gods, but the unpredictable wishes of the gods are difficult to ascertain. The gods are rather like humans, unashamedly exhibiting their conflicting desires and emotions, only divinely more so. The behavior of the gods is not a model for moral behavior. It rather illustrates that however difficult, moral problems are the responsibility of the individual.
Commending conflict: Western religion takes conflict for granted. The virtues of the warrior, bravery and heroics, are admired and seen as ideals. Peace is just a temporary lull in the war, it is never pursued for its own sake. Without conflict, there is no life worth living for the Greek, Roman or Viking.
Mental harmony by metaphorical identification: It is easy to identify with the capricious behavior of the gods in Western religion. The pranks of gods and goddesses serve as an excellent metaphor for the human condition, giving room for thought and analysis, but without supplying ready-made answers. It is a psychology of initiative, personal responsibility and individualism. But it is far from being a tranquilizer.
Oriental (Judaic, Christian, Islamic) religious tenets:
Morals are absolute and prescribed from above: Oriental religion is prescriptive. It prescribes certain behaviors, proscribes others, in e.g. the Ten Commandments, Sharia Law, Kosher/Halal rules, etc. God -– there is only one –- is for the most part constant and behaves consistently. He -– always a He –- is all-powerful, all-wise. He punishes and rewards in a reasonably consistent manner.
Premium on peace and stability: Oriental religion surely recognizes war and conflict, and sometimes even recommends it, but there is a constant theme of peace as the supreme ideal. "Shalom", "Salaam Aleikum", "Jerusalem" (= City of Peace) are the Oriental symbols for the Oriental longing for "millenniums of peace". An underlying assumption is that if the divine rules are obeyed to the letter, Eternal Peace will finally ensue.
Mental harmony by submitting to the powers of salvation: It is not humanly possible to identify with the Oriental God. And even if it were, attempts at identification are discouraged, to the degree that even making images of God is at times an offence. God is always far beyond the world of humans. The psychological utility of Oriental religion to individual practitioners lies in its promises and threats concerning afterlife. It is a psychology of total submission, in return for eternal salvation and peace.
Ancient Western politics
The “democracy” practiced in ancient Greece and for some periods in Rome has very little in common with modern democracy. It was a democracy for just a fraction of the population and could just as well have been termed "aristocracy" -- "rule by the best men". Similarly, the Nordic kings and chiefs were often elected and important decisions were made by voting at the "ting" (a kind of Nordic parliament), but the electors were hardly representative of the population as a whole. In both societies, slaves and serfs were important components of the economy.
Still, the very idea that decisions on social matters can be made by many, instead of by a divinely appointed leader alone, is markedly more prevalent in the ancient West. Furthermore, this idea -– that political rule is a secular matter that should be decided upon by the ruled themselves -– is compatible with the ancient Western religious elements of permanent conflict, personal responsibility and absence of moral absolutes.
Ancient Oriental politics
There are no known democratic societies in the ancient Orient (in the original lands of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), only more or less benevolent autocracies, theocracies and similar forms of authoritarian rule. The Ruler rules by the Grace of God and offending him is an offence against God. By unquestioningly following the Ruler, the Ideal State of divine eternal peace beckons as a distant possibility. Again, this Oriental political ideology is perfectly compatible with the Oriental religious idea of the existence of moral absolutes, which are guaranteed by a divine Supreme Power, and regarding peace and stability as the supreme ideal.
Modern Western Democracy vs. Contemporary Oriental Theology:
Some of the tenets of modern democracy: Modern democrats believe that rules concerning Right and Wrong in society are not immutable and should be constantly re-examined in a free and hopefully informed popular debate. They should be decided upon (and re-decided upon) by weighing the merits of conflicting arguments, as these are perceived by individual citizens.
This results in never-ending disagreement and conflict, but each time disagreements can be resolved or at least temporarily pasted over by agreed-upon methods of decision-making. To practical democrats it is quite clear that the democratic process will never arrive at an Absolute Truth. Democracy is, at best, a slowly converging, often wildly oscillating, limiting process toward a constantly changing limit. For a democrat, the Ideal State fortunately does not exist. Wherever an Ideal State is declared, the democrat perceives it as a serious threat.
Contemporary Oriental theology disagrees with Modern Democratic ideology: In complete contrast, the dominant religions practiced in the West today -– Christianity, Islam and Judaism -– have already made up their minds about the Absolute Truth, about what is Right and what is Wrong. There is not much to discuss or take a vote on. God has given us the rules – be it Sharia Law or the Ten Commandments -– we have only to obey. Interpreting the god-given eternal rules -– and resolving the interpretative disagreements that are bound to arise -– is about all of the input that is expected of us mortals. But then the promise of peace and salvation – in this world or the next, in some kind of an ideal state – beckons as compensation.
To the casual observer Oriental religion and democracy seem incompatible.
Table of compatible and incompatible ideologies
The observation that the ideological standpoints of Western and Oriental religion -- as contrasted to the ideological standpoints of Modern democracy and of the traditional Autocratic state (absolute monarchy, theocracy, benevolent dictatorship, etc.) -- fall into two compatible groups, becomes even more compelling if we take the trouble of systematizing the various standpoints in a table.
The table below summarizes the positive or negative attitudes of each of the religious and political thought systems discussed above as attitudes toward 1) divinely prescribed absolute morals vs. human moral responsibility, 2) acceptance of conflict vs. giving priority to peace and stability, and 3) submission to authority:
Attitude toward the following ideological elements:
ABSOLUTE MORALS CONFLICT SUBMISSION
WESTERN RELIGION neg pos neg
MODERN DEMOCRACY neg pos neg
ORIENTAL RELIGION pos neg pos
AUTOCRATIC STATE pos neg pos
The table shows clearly that Oriental Religion is compatible with the ideology of an Autocratic State, but quite incompatible with the ideology of Modern Democracy.
Solution by surrender
But don't Modern democracy and Oriental religion coexist in many parts of the world? No, not in reality, just in an euphemistic formal sense. The extent to which such totally conflicting systems of thought can be said to coexist, is determined by the degree in which the one or the other gives up its claims. It can never become a question of real coexistence, only of surrender of one of the parties.
Religious surrender. The separation of State and Church in modern democratic Western societies (and in Turkey, a Moslem country that tries to use the Western method as a model) has been the preferred form of religious surrender -– here the representatives of Religion have been forced to accept that although their claims of Absolute Truth may be valid in principle, they certainly do not apply to society.
Democratic surrender. In Iran and Saudi Arabia the converse is true -– here the democratic camp has been forced to accept that their principles may be sound in principle, but they certainly don’t apply to society.
Unless we intend to apply Western (Greco-Roman, Nordic) religious principles to politics, then Oriental religious meddling in any democratic society will bring it closer to its opposite, the autocratic Ideal State. Conversly, theocratic Ideal societies (Iran, the Vatican, etc.) will hardly survive introduction of too many democratic elements, unless the clergy contemplates conversion to Zeus, Aphrodite, Thor, et. al.
The United States established the first modern democratic nation in history. In order to accomplish this, it was necessary for the founders of the US to apply total separation of Religion (which was predominantly Oriental and hence antagonistic to democracy) and the Democratic State.
Today the United States has paradoxically one of the most religious populations in the modern world, and the overwhelming majority subscribes to Oriental religion. This leads to constant anti-democratic pressures from Oriental religious groups, trying to influence US politics with religious arguments (e.g. concerning abortion laws, creationist biology, etc.). The power to withstand such religious pressures may determine the future of American democracy.