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Journal of Democracy

cannot participate further. If thin democracy can be seen as a step in the transition toward thicker democracy, it is all to the good. In a thick democracy, we can expect the religious convictions of citizens to play a role in how they think and act politically, and this is not to be lamented so long as those thus thinking and acting abide by the democratic “rules of the game.”

The African American spiritual “Oh Freedom” speaks to the aspiration of a people for its collective emancipation from bondage:

Oh freedom! Oh freedom! Oh freedom over me! And before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free.

It is an aspiration as old as the story of Exodus and the deliverance of the people of Israel. Any account of the rise of African slaves to the status of proud African American citizens is incomplete absent the slaves’ embrace of Christianity as a religion of both solace and liberation.

To be sure, those of us who find entirely acceptable a strong public role for religion in the democratic public sphere must acknowledge that historically religion has at times underwritten intolerance and vindicated injustice. Thankfully, in the dominant religion of the West, there was a prophylactic internal to the faith that enabled, indeed required, it to criticize and halt its own worst excesses. Also, over time, we have seen religious orientations once considered antidemocratic—Roman Catholi- cism, for example—become the most enthusiastic defenders of human rights and democracy worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether this will one day be the story told of Islam. Certainly, Islam will chart its own course toward the accommodation of faith and democracy, perhaps finding (as many Muslim thinkers now are) grounds within Islam on which to condemn radicals and terrorists and, at the same time, to summon from the heart of their own tradition the resources with which they can build thick democracies. The seculariza- tion hypothesis has failed, and failed spectacularly. We must now find a new paradigm that will help us to understand the complexities of the relationship between religion and democracy.


1. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Religion and American Values,” in The First New Nation (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2003), 169.

  • 2.

    Joshua Mitchell, “Religion Is Not a Preference,” Journal of Politics 69 (May 2007): 351.

  • 3.

    Mitchell, “Religion Is Not a Preference,” 352. When Mitchell uses the language of

“choice” here, he means preferring one option over another on, as he indicates, a scale of

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