“It’s the economy, Stupid!” is a famous slogan reminding presidential campaigns that what drives voters is their pocketbooks.
There is truth in that slogan, but not the whole truth. People and politics are moved by many forces, and can be understood through a variety of lenses. Religion is one of those lenses. It is a powerful force in both national and international affairs.
Religion has become such an important player in world events today that even the U.K., a country ranked in the top 10 least-religious countries in the world according to Gallup (China is #1), decided that the BBC must increase its religious programming in order to more accurately reflect today’s reality.
Here’s what to expect in religion and politics in 2018.
Religious freedom will be a dominating theme in issues at home and abroad. In the West, the right to believe and express one’s faith is seldom a problem, but the right to act on it, to manifest one’s faith when it conflicts with another person’s right or freedom is where problems arise. One affirmative value must be weighed against another. The U.S. Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will decide whether businesses can use religious beliefs to circumvent anti-discrimination laws.
That is the most prominent case coming up, but not the only one. Issues relating to contraception and abortion will also continue to be disputed.
Even Canada, our calm northern neighbor, will struggle with religious freedom this year. One of the cases the Canadian Supreme Court will decide involves the associational and communal religious freedom rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to determine their membership without state interference.
Commenting on the increasing intensity of religious freedom issues, Ray Pennings, executive vice president of Cardus, a North American Christian think tank, said,
“Historically we’ve taken religious freedom almost for granted, and have reacted to the exceptions, or the violations.” He noted the same applies to other foundational freedoms such as freedom of speech and of conscience.
Now, “It’s not the exceptions that have to be defended in the public square, it’s the very existence of these core freedoms themselves.”
Religion and politics interact everywhere. In Europe, the rise of the Muslim immigrant population alongside the shrinking native Christian, and increasingly secular, population is a demographic with implications for the society’s future. In Germany, for example, the median age of natives is 47. Immigrants are much younger, have a higher birthrate, and are more religious. That dynamic has already led to social and political consequences, including an increase in anti-immigrant political activity. It bears watching as the year progresses.
In the Middle East, the big question is whether we will see an easing of hardline Islam in various countries. There is some evidence for it.
Saudi Arabia, the chief funder and exporter of extremist Wahabbi and Salafi Islam worldwide, has begun to take small but for such a conservative society, significant steps to open up. Women are now allowed to drive. The country’s first movie theater is opening. In Tunisia, interfaith marriages between Muslims and Christians will now be permitted. And Egypt’s President El Sisi has publicly urged Islamic scholars and religious leaders to shape a more moderate Islam. They have yet to comply.
We may even be seeing movement in that most extreme and dangerous Islamic state, Iran.
Every week lately brings reports of mass protests throughout Iran, with small supporting demonstrations in Europe and Canada. Iranian’s frustrations are primarily about “guns and butter”– Iranian support for terrorism and foreign wars (as well as corruption) have left its local economy in bad shape, with high unemployment and high prices. Although a semi-democracy, it is Iran’s religious establishment that sets foreign policy and is responsible for Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq. They are also responsible for the repression, and for making the country inhospitable to foreigners, including foreign businessmen, who have sometimes been arrested under false espionage charges.
Iranian aggression abroad has not benefited its people. The protesters want change; they want jobs, and they also want relief from heavy-handed religious repression. Theirs is a struggle worthy of support.
Looking at politics and world events through a religious lens provides a meaningful angle on the human condition in 2018.
We will keep our eye firmly fixed on that lens.