For a long time, religion has mainly been considered a political domain of the political conservatives. Since the Russian Revolution in 1917 with communism and socialism in the Soviet Union, Eastern European countries and other states in Central Asian, and later also in China, religion was toned down; for politicians and party officials it was better to leave religion altogether, indeed in public. In Latin America, where forty percent of the world’s one million two hundred thousand Catholic Christians live, religion kept playing a major role in the second half of last century, and it is still important; many priests and other believers called themselves ‘Christian Socialists’, fighting the many ultra conservative and dictatorial regimes that time. Some of those regimes were supported by USA, probably fearing for more countries joining Cuba’s socialist system.

In Africa, religion was not stiffened, neither in the countries that were socialist-oriented and supported by the Soviet Union nor in those on the right, supported by USA. In Africa, almost half of the people are Muslims, mainly in the North and on the coasts of East and West Africa; in the rest of Africa, Christianity is the dominant religion, sometimes with traditional religions, and the Christians were often better educated than others at independence, mainly due to Christian missionaries focusing on education, social and health issues.

In Western Europe, religion, i.e. Christianity, has been on decline at least for the last two or three generations, yet, it is still an essential part of the superstructure of the countries, whether quite admitted or not. There is however, separation between church and state, and the state is secular. With immigration, Muslims and people belonging to other religions have come in relatively big numbers, and most of the newcomers are active in their faiths. There are in the range of fifty million Muslims in Europe; some five to six percent of the total populations.

In North America, there are four and a half million Muslims; in Latin America, there about one million in total, with the largest numbers in Argentina, with eight hundred thousand, and Brazil, with two hundred thousand.

Yet, in spite of these numbers, the ‘new’ religions play a limited role in politics in the Europe, except for in those countries they are in majority or very large. In most of those countries, Islam is not a ‘new’ but an ‘old’ religion; Islam is significant in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Cyprus, and Montenegro, and Turkey, which in many ways is also a European country and a NATO member. Georgia, Bulgaria and France have some eight to ten percent Muslims in their populations. France has about half a million Jews, the highest number in a European country, but almost half of all Jews who live outside Israel, live in America, but are otherwise found in most countries of the world.

We talk about inclusion of immigrants in society in our time, and the West has been quite successful in general integrating of newcomers in multicultural societies, with clear shortcomings, too. But there is little integration of the ‘new’ religions, including Islam, in the West. The newcomers attend political and other organisations, but religion is hardly included; it remains separate from the society. Since religion plays a limited direct role in European politics, it is also difficult to see that the ‘new’ religions can have any significant influence in society.

As for the leaders of the ‘new’ religions, they can play a significant role in inter-religious forums, and Church leaders may also benefit from that in their work. Together, all religious leaders and faith societies may play a more important role in future. Most of the issues they would be concerned about as related to politics would be similar irrespective of religion and faith society. They would be concerned about religion as an important sector in society, unrelated to politics. I find it important to suggest that the religious leaders and the faith societies in Europe hasten to expand their work in these fields, and also that politicians give more attention to religion.

The ‘new’ religions must demand space in their countries’ institutions and organizations. However, the ball is mainly in the court of the ‘old’ religion, notably Christianity and its leaders; Christianity is and will remain the dominant religion in the Europe and America. Again, the percentage of members of ‘new’ faiths is limited, but the absolute numbers are not insignificant. Besides, there can only be gains from inclusiveness. It can be detrimental to all if religious groups, whole religions even, do not quite feel part of mainstream society, have a say, and can influence decisions. If sidelined, some groups can use extreme methods to be heard and seen; some few may want to hurt mainstream society, which they feel have relegated them to lower status than others.

Today, I began my article with some sentences about politics and religion in the West; I noted that most politicians finding religion important in society have been conservatives. But now it seems that liberals on the left have become more concerned about the importance of religion in society, not only in reducing its importance in the current secular Western thinking. If this is right, Christianity may well see a revival and a renewal in the West in future. That would also benefit Muslims and other ‘new’ religions in the West; all religions would benefit from people giving greater importance to faith issues.

In a top article in New York Times for 10 June, it was noted that the many conservative Christians in America have become concerned about the fact that quite liberal moral values have been accepted by the majority of Americans, including Christian believers. Yet, there are still significant conservative groups of Christians, the charismatic movement and the more fundamentalist and orthodox groups. The more liberal groups focus on modernization of how we should understand the Bible, not only the Old Testament but also the New Testament about Jesus’ life and teachings. More and more believers will say that the dogma and the parables should be understood broadly to guide how Christians should everyday life, and what values and political opinions we should obtain and advocate.

The newspaper article says that the essential biblical imperatives are: “caring for the poor, welcoming strangers, and protecting the earth”. From there, it follows that we must take certain social and political actions, most of which would be on the left of the political divide, not on the right. But in the past, it was the right that felt religion was important while the left did not – until now, that is, perhaps, as I mentioned above, with reference to The New York Times.

I believe that in the West, there is an understanding among many political leaders, and ordinary voters, that religion still has a place in society, as a personal faith and as a foundation of social and political thinking. That does not mean that the secular Western countries will not maintain separation between state and religion, but it would mean that the religious dimension will be talked more about in public, even politicians’ personal faith, but more the role of religion in society with its different faith associations.

The consequences of the religious imperatives that I quoted above will become political issues, too. If our holy books say that we must care for the poor, welcome strangers and protect the earth, then all of us, Christians, Muslims and believers in other faiths must be concerned about those issues in our everyday lives and in politics. The concern is as much for Christians as for Muslims, as members of other faiths; the fight for social justice is universal to all religions. In Muslim communities, we specifically reflect and act upon these issue now during the holy month of Ramadan and at the Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations.

 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com