One must be wary of not underestimating the contribution of the Best Loser system to the proverbial harmony between different religious communities in our country
The above title is inspired by the book called ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’ written by R.H. Tawney in 1926. Following the last general elections in Germany, the right-wing neo-Nazi parties will find themselves with no less than 90 members in the Bundestag (German Parliament). Such a situation had not occurred in that country since the end of the Second World War. The success of Emmanuel Macron in France and the unsuccessful attempts of similar right-wing forces in elections in some of the Scandinavian countries had brought a sigh of relief among all genuine democrats all over the globe. Unfortunately the elections in Germany have brought the spectre of avowedly racist and xenophobic parties staking for powerful positions in elected Parliaments in Western Europe to the fore again. The consequences could be terrible…
In the now advanced countries of Western Europe, the question of separation of State and the Church has been at the centre of philosophical and political debates ever since the modern bourgeois state, as we know it today, has emerged from the ruins of feudalism. The resolution of such conflicting interests was most explicitly achieved when after the French 1789 Revolution the separation of the Church and the State resulted in the Catholic Church being deprived of all means of influencing official policies. To illustrate the point more thoroughly, it may be worth mentioning that there exists no law against “blasphemy” in the French Republic, a situation which may incidentally explain why the issues related to press freedom and the events at the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné last year remain beyond the grasp of most observers.
Unsurprisingly, in the United States, the interaction between religion and the State has rather been intermediated through the explicit emphasis on individual freedoms and liberties inscribed in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. As usual, the historical context and conditions mattered in the determination of the relationship. It must be remembered that large numbers of the first settlers on the continent consisted of dissenting “religious refugees” escaping from violent persecution of the then “official” religions of European states. The huge emphasis on individual freedom and liberties inscribed in the Constitution of the US, starting from the First Amendment, underwrote the freedom of adhering to one’s faith. The right to practise one’s religion in a context where dissenting strands of the Christian faith were thriving was therefore not really a serious preoccupation.
Broadly speaking, the approach has been starkly different on both sides of the Atlantic and largely determined by the social and historical experience of the people.
In the United States, the President ends every major official speech with a “God bless America” – a thing which is totally alien and unacceptable to the French people and political culture ever since the Revolution in 1789. It must be said that the French example has been a very specific response to the issue of separation of Church and State, largely influenced by the philosophers of the “siècle des Lumières” and the rather characteristic propensity of the French to “intellectualise” each and every issue.
In Great Britain, the Queen remains the Head of State as well as of the Church, although in practice and through their own peculiar trait of being governed by “conventions” the British seem to have struck an acceptable and workable compromise. Other European countries have adopted different models which are situated between the French and the British practices.
This issue of separation of powers between the Church and the State seemed to have been laid to rest in most European countries over recent history for as long as they were considered to have a predominantly homogeneous population – white and either Catholic or Protestants — and the migrant populations were fairly marginalized and “assimilated.”
Economic globalization, wars and civil unrest in many parts of the world and sometimes sheer stupidity or cupidity of world leaders, have recently resulted in a massive “migration crisis” in Europe which has seriously upset the erstwhile consensus. The issue of religion and the role of the State has again become a hugely sensitive issue in these countries. As a result the rise of right-wing forces, as illustrated by the recent outcome of the German elections, is a direct consequence of the inability of the establishment to propose an acceptable solution to this new crisis. Some voices are already blaming the liberal policies of Angela Merkel who had agreed to welcome one million refugees from the devastated regions of Syria and Iraq for the poor show of her party in the elections although she was elected.
The issue of the relationship between religion and politics has been a vexatious issue in Mauritius for a long time. In our small island country, it becomes even more complex because of the constant need to maintain a delicate balance between the different religious communities. The “constitutional” solution concocted by the British following the communal violence which had flared up in the country in the years prior to independence was the establishment of the “Best Loser System” within our electoral system.
Many political forces and individuals have consistently taken a view that this system is an anachronism after 50 years of independence and is a hurdle to the emergence of nationhood. In this column we have often suggested that this is not as straightforward as it may seem at first look. We have often suggested that one must be wary of not underestimating the contribution of this system to the proverbial harmony between different religious communities in our country.