How the Christian faith has influenced Western intrusions into other countries to promote democracy
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I complained in this column last week about Western efforts to force their ideals, especially democracy, on other countries and societies without any consideration of time, context and circumstances. Many readers commenting on the column argued that the West does this largely because we depend on them for money to finance our public expenditures. According to the promoters of this view, if our leaders were not going to the West with a begging bowl, these lectures and threats would not exist. Others argued that the West carries this moral hubris because we are poor.
I used to think the same way but time and experience have taught me that this is only a part of the explanation, in fact a very tiny part. For instance, the West does not give financial aid to Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Eritrea, etc. which are poor. But it still lectures them on how they should govern themselves – insisting that they adopt its cultural values (like respect for homosexual rights) and political institutions (liberal democracy). There are countries that are very rich such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others that are fairly rich, fiscally independent and even militarily powerful such as China and Russia that are also subjected to the same lectures and threats. And the U.S. depends on Chinese loans to sustain herself.
Secondly, the biggest source of funds for governments in Africa today is no longer the West but China. Yet Beijing is not asking governments in Africa that depend on it for funds to build roads, airports, hospitals, dams, powerlines etc. to govern as it does at home or asking them to adopt Chinese values. Japan is a rich country at the same level as the West and so in South Korea. Both are major sources of funds to poor countries. Yet Tokyo and Seoul do not demand that the recipients of their money adopt Japan’s or Korean cultural practices or governance models.
Therefore, giving us money and/or being richer does not necessarily make a country have a messianic and evangelical approach to foreign relations. In one of my previous articles, I claimed that Western intrusions into the affairs of other countries are implicitly driven by racism. But the Chinese and Japanese are racist too, even more racist towards black people that Caucasians. Indeed, many friends called me to disagree about the issue of racism and I listened to their arguments. There is some implicit racism but it is a very minor part of Western motivations.
Now I want to amend that argument and locate the source of Western hubris away from race and wealth to culture, specifically the Christian faith. Although the “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason” in Europe presented itself as opposed to religion, it was profoundly shaped by Christian values. The secular people of the West that we meet today are actually profoundly Christian in their thinking and mentality. The missionary zeal with which they seek to promote democracy and human rights can best be explained by the Christian evangelical urge to convert everyone.
Christianity, like Islam, believes in one God (monotheism) to whom all human beings are subject. Judaism, although monotheist, is purely concerned with the salvation of a particular people – the Jews. Christianity and Islam claim universality hence an evangelical mission to spread “The Word” to everyone, everywhere, at any time and in any circumstances. This could be the major reason for the clash of these two cults – one dressed in secular garb; the other retaining its religious tunic. They are involved in strategic competition for “the soul of man,” leading to structural stress.
The first signs of how Christian evangelism shaped the secular Western mind was the French Revolution of 1789. France was at the same level of development with the rest of Europe. Yet the French revolutionaries were secular but they did not see their revolution as local. They felt a strong imperative to export it to the rest of Europe with the battle-cry: peace to the people, war against the tyrants. Revolutionary France declared war on the rest of Europe in a vain effort to spread its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity. The French revolutionaries acted with religious zeal, driven by faith in the redemption of all mankind from tyranny and exploitation even though they were openly hostile to religion.
Indeed 19th and 20th century political movements in Europe, socialism and communism claimed universality. Liberal democratic capitalism has joined this lexicon of militant political religions based on science and reason and promising to emancipate all human beings. I suspect this belief and desire in the perfection of human life is based on the Christian belief in universal emancipation. The difference, of course, is that Christianity promises paradise after death. These militant secular religions of today promise paradise here on earth, and that is why they are dangerous.
Like the cadres of the communist international before it, the liberal democracy mujahedeen of today is a messianic movement that uses the language of reason and science to sell itself, yet it is actually driven by faith. Here the Christian promise of universal salvation is reborn as a political project of universal emancipation. Western powers try to make other nations adopt the new religion of democracy using many tactics – financial bribes (called aid), positive coverage, diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and even war. Colonial interventions were justified on the basis of promoting Christianity. Postcolonial interventions are justified on the basis of promoting democracy. So democracy has replaced Christianity as the new religion.
It is because of faith as opposed to reason that the West and its activists believe that you can have democracy anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. This first struck me when I first visited Somalia in 2012. The country had not had a functioning state in two decades. There was anarchy. The semblance of stability enforced by foreign troops from Uganda and Burundi was only in the capital, Mogadishu. Yet Western governments and NGOs were involved in trying to engineer the country to look like Belgium – helping them organise “elections”, a “parliament”, a free press etc.
The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has argued that religion (or faith) first blinds then binds. I have met very smart people from the West who defend these “democratisation” programs in Somalia and Afghanistan. I am an admirer of liberal democracy. In an ideal world I would want to see it everywhere. But trying to implement it in Somalia and Afghanistan which don’t even have the rudimentary elements of a state to ensure order is absurd. Why then do highly intelligent people, Westerners and elites from other societies, believe it can work? Because democracy is no longer a system of government; it has become a religious cult.