A propensity toward free association has been with me ever since my childhood. I think of one thing and right away think of another. Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic practice in which free association by the patient is an important diagnostic tool (though Freud himself is supposed to have said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”) When it comes to science the aforementioned propensity leads to a method of connecting the dots, sometimes with surprising results. To cite a famous example from classical sociology, who before Max Weber would have associated modern capitalism with the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination? Of course, if someone found a statistical correlation between hayfever and Methodism, chances are that this is a meaningless coincidence. It is not enough to note an association; one must have some theory within which the association makes sense. Weber had one. I am no Max Weber. But in what follows I will look at the way some dots seem to be connected, in the event religious freedom and economic development, and ask how this connection can be explained.Dot #1: On page 1 of The New York Times, on February 18, 2015, there was a story titled “As Rivals Falter, India’s Economy is Surging Ahead”. There has been much commentary on the difference between China’s and India’s growth rates, the former rapidly rising, the latter still struggling to pull out of what has been disparagingly called the “Hindu rate of growth”. In the last three months India’s economy caught up with China’s; by the end of this year it is expected to surpass China’s. Throughout his campaign for prime minister, Narendra Modi spoke about the need for comprehensive reform of the Indian economy; when he was elected, there were high expectations in India and abroad that he would swiftly move toward that goal. Although he was elected by a comfortable margin in parliament, he lacked the power to do this right away. While working to consolidate more power, he undertook modest business reforms in his first eight months in office, such as some relaxation of inspections and regulations for small businesses, military contractors, and real estate companies. But there was continuing confidence in Modi’s pro-growth and pro-business views, and his intention to move toward more basic reform as his power consolidated. The remarkable economic success of the state of Gujarat while Modi was its chief minister is seen as his model for all of India. In anticipation both the stock market and the rupee currency have been surging.Dot #2: Also on the same date, but on an inside page, the Times brought another story about Narendra Modi. He attended and spoke at a Catholic conference which was to celebrate the canonization of two Indians by the Vatican. It came shortly after two events in the Delhi region that were widely reported and disturbing to many voters: There were acts of violence against a number of Catholic churches. And Modi’s own party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lost an election in Delhi. As was expected, Muslims and Christians voted against the BJP, but so did many Hindus who were opposed to violence against religious minorities.What is very significant here is that Modi strongly distanced himself from his own past, in which he was identified with Hindu nationalism; in his youth he was actually a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant and on occasion violent organization that had helped Modi in in his rise to power and is still an important constituency of the BJP. He had made some gestures toward Muslims after he became prime minister, but there was lingering suspicion that his RSS background would eventually surface in his policies. The suspicion was also based on an episode during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, where a massacre of Muslims took place which he apparently did little to prevent and about which he never really apologized. But he was elected by a majority of his voters for his economic policies, not his Hindu nationalist past. The recent Delhi speech under Christian auspices should go far in effacing the memory of this darker side of his Gujarat heritage.Interestingly Modi spoke in English at the Christian conference, not in his customary Hindi. That in itself was a meaningful gesture. He also gestured toward the nationalists by saying that religious tolerance had been characteristic of Hindu civilization for thousands of years. But he also used strong language: “My government will not allow any group, belonging to the minority or the majority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly… I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”At the end of his speech he reverted to Hindi, directly inviting his co-religionists to join him and his growth agenda: “I have a vision of a modern India. I have embarked on a huge mission to convert this vision into reality. My mantra is development.” (A mantra is a traditional Hindu hymn.) Modi’s appearance at this Christian event has been interpreted (correctly, I think) as his decisive break with Hindu nationalism. But what he said here has implications that go far beyond India. Modi has proposed a linkage between religious freedom and economic development, and he has affirmed the linkage in traditional religious terms. [I wonder if Modi could be induced to talk about this linkage in Beijing—as an empirical fact, without the Hindu legitimation.]Dot #3: Coincidentally also on February 18, 2015, Ecumenical News International (published in Geneva, Switzerland) carried a piece titled “Christian persecution in China may be slowing down”. Its focus was an episode on which I wrote in this blog a few months ago: For about four months beginning in April 2014 there was an intensive campaign by the Communist Party in Zhejiang province against Christian (mainly Protestant) churches. The most intense actions occurred in Wenzhou, the Chinese city with the highest proportion of Christians, which was called “China’s Jerusalem”. The campaign subsequently expanded to some other locations; while it lasted, more than 230 churches were destroyed. The actions typically began with an order by the authorities to take down tall cross which supposedly violated the building code. There were demonstrations, some of them dispersed by the police. Some demonstrators tried to physically stop the demolitions and were arrested. A refusal to take down a cross was usually followed by the destruction of the entire church edifice. Apparently the campaign ended as abruptly as it had begun.I don’t know whether the campaign was an initiative of the provincial Party authorities or was ordered all the way from Beijing. Given the structure of the Chinese regime, it is hard to imagine that an activity of this sort would not be closely observed by the center, whether or not it actually ordered and conducted it from the start. The tight time frame suggests some sort of controlled experiment. I have no inside information about the dynamics of Chinese politics. But I note that the anti-Christian campaign began about a year after Xi Jinping became president, during a period when Xi consolidated his power, eliminated some rivals, and increasingly clarified his agenda. It has especially become clear what that agenda is: not far-reaching economic and political reform. Xi wants to keep the market economy intact, as far as possible though with less corruption, so that it will continue to produce the growth on which the legitimacy of the regime depends. Put differently, he doesn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Above all he wants to preserve the power monopoly of the Communist Party, without its being committed to a socialist economy (the slogan “socialism with Chinese characteristics” means a robber baron capitalism supervised by Mandarins). Apparently the Chinese Communist establishment spent a lot of time after the collapse of the Soviet Union analyzing “mistakes our Russian comrades made”. What they came up with can probably be summed up as perestroika/market economy: yes!, but glasnost/democratic opening: no!How does religion fit into this “Chinese model”? I think the Party is still struggling with this question. The answer will likely be more Confucian than Marxist: Religion is a superstition, dangerous if it fosters rebellion—harmless if not actually useful, if it fosters good working habits and loyalty to the state. Islam is dangerous if linked with Uighur separatism, Buddhism is dangerous in Tibet. The Party still seems to be undecided about Christianity: It could be dangerous if it pushes democracy (South Korea and Taiwan are danger signals). But Christianity could also be useful if it makes people honest and hard-working (I can personally testify that officials of SARA, the State Administration of Religious Affairs have read Max Weber on the Protestant ethic). Xi Jinping seems to be a practical man. He may feel that a little experimentation makes sense.Brian Grim is a demographer of religion, co-author with Todd Johnson of The World’s Religions in Figures (2013). These two scholars have been instrumental in developing religious demography as a respected academic discipline. Todd Johnson teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston; Grim was until recently on the staff of the Pew Research Center in Washington, but in 2014 he became president of the Religion Freedom and Business Foundation, in which capacity he is relevant to the topic of this post. If you ask Todd or Grim which countries have the most and the least numbers of Baha’is as of 2010, they can answer after just a brief look at their database (the answer is, respectively, Iran and the U.S., and South Africa and Bolivia). Their methodology for their data collection is very sophisticated and as trustworthy as you can find. They concede that some of their figures are speculative, as some relevant sources are not totally reliable (quite possibly a Bolivian nose-counter lost his notes or is arithmetically challenged). Since Grim has become head of the new foundation he has been repeating his mantra, which proclaims two propositions: that there is a correlation between religious freedom and economic success, and that therefore religious freedom is good for business.Grim knows how to deal with figures; if he says that there is a correlation, I trust him. The “therefore” needs some theoretical reflection: Correlation is not necessarily causality. In terms of causality, I tend to the hypothesis that the two empirical entities, religious freedom and business, cannot be understood as relating to each other as dependent to independent variable, with one causing the other, but rather that they interact. It is also possible that a third entity causes both; if so, democracy would be a probable candidate for this role. The “therefore” also has a value dimension: There are good reasons for favoring business; it is the most efficient institution to generate economic growth, which in turn creates the wealth which enables policies that lift large numbers out of poverty (see China). The reasons for favoring religious freedom are more complex.Those who defend religious freedom typically do so regardless of its institutional effects, rather because of a right coming out of the core of being human. I believe that the development of Catholic social teachings between the First and the Second Vatican Council, a time span of almost exactly one century, points in the right direction. At the very beginning I asked a Protestant theologian what he thinks the Council will do. He replied: “They will not read the minutes of the last meeting!” Vatican I was convened by Pius IX, author of the Index of Prohibited Books and staunch defender of the notion that error has no rights; Vatican II was inaugurated by John Paul XXIII, who advocated the aggiornamento (bringing up to date) of the Church. In 1965, just before its conclusion, Vatican II published Dignitatis humanae, its declaration on religious freedom. This freedom is grounded in the dignity of every human being, which includes the right for the uncoerced search for truth, wherever that search may lead.This affirmation of religious freedom as a, perhaps the, fundamental human right with the claim of universal validity regardless of social, economic or political context. The declaration is a lengthy document, thus contains references to theological presuppositions that non-Catholics would not share (for example, the assertion that only the Roman Catholic Church possesses the fullness of truth). But the right to religious freedom is not limited to Catholics but belongs to all of humanity, including those who persist in error.However, this philosophical understanding of religious freedom does not preclude asking the question about the empirical consequences of religious freedom. Of course different religious traditions have different consequences. If one wants to develop a capitalist economy, one is better advised to rely on Calvinist entrepreneurs than on Siberian shamans. Regardless of religious differences, one can argue that religious freedom fosters stability, especially in multireligious societies (like India and China). A cynical political advisor may say: If you want to engage in persecution, choose a small group with no political clout. However, in a religiously diverse society it is a bad idea to beat up on a group big enough to cause trouble. Religious freedom then is likely to contribute to what Confucian political theorists call “the harmonious society”. In other words, sometimes but not always, virtue has rewards.
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Published on: February 25, 2015
Religion a la Modi?Religious Freedom and the Gross Domestic Product
Is there a link? The connection is more complicated than you—or Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping—might think.