Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Role of Religion in Global Ethical Leadership

Eric Hanson

Eric Hanson, professor of political science, Santa Clara University, gave this presentation at a panel on Global Ethical Leadership, May 6, 2004. He is the author of The Catholic Church in World Politics (Princeton University Press, 1990) and Catholic Politics in China and Korea (Orbis Books, 1980).

My first pre-note is addressed to any dreaded epistemologist. We are all aware of the existence of a substantial scholarly literature that attempts to define the term religion. Professor Michael Budde argues that the very use of this collective term is counterproductive since all religious traditions are inherently particularistic.

Second pre-note: Despite the American technological mind's tendency to identify religion and morality, law and morality are only a small part of the intersection of religion and politics. Most of the religious impact on international affairs has nothing to do with morality or law. When I discuss religion and politics, law and morality becomes one of seven characteristic links between the two. The other six, not necessarily moral, immoral, or amoral are: spirituality, ritual, scripture and prophesy, world view, doctrine, and organization. These characteristics can be tied into ethics, but they do not have to be.

Third pre-note: My hypothesis is that religion can be both good and bad, moral and immoral for politics. This dual nature is present in every world religion. For example, contemporary engaged Buddhism has recently played a liberating role in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. On the other hand, Japanese Buddhism under Zen played a heinous role in Japanese colonial expansion prior to World War II, causing the deaths of hundred of thousands of Chinese Buddhists. Therefore, the more specific political, religious, and moral challenge for the academic or the politician is to specify under what conditions a certain religious tradition contributes to morality in international affairs and under what conditions it is a detriment. It has helped me to employ the concept of the primary ethical broker, which I describe in The Catholic Church and World Politics as "that individual, group of individuals, organization, or coalition of organizations which is recognized by the majority of a society to be articulating the primary ethical concerns of that society."

For this short talk, I use the obvious example of Pope John Paul II during Polish martial law. But, equally clear examples from other religions are the Dalai Lama in Tibet, the Council of Churches lead by the Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu during apartheid in South Africa, and the current hawza led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqi Shiites. [Speaker holds up New York Times front page photo from June 18, 1983.] The Polish Pope and the Polish general stand far apart from one another. The Polish people follow the moral and political judgments of the Pope concerning the legitimacy of the Communist government. While General Wojciech Jaruzelski had all of the coercive military and economic power, the Pope retained all of the moral legitimacy. This is a perfect example of the split of political power. Joseph S. Nye might use this example to discuss his theory, "hard and soft power". The Polish people demonstrated such power in their enormous crowds at the various masses during the Papal visits of 1979, 1983, and 1987. Finally, the Polish government fell, and then the Berlin Wall fell. For other inspiring international examples, we can turn to the list of winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for the last thirty years, 1974 - 2003, and notice how many winners were strongly connected to various religious traditions.

From the political perspective then, what conditions inspire a primary ethical broker to lead to life and which to lead to death? How can we distinguish between the Dalai Lama and Ayatollah Khomeini? The latter may have been a political improvement over the Shah in the first two years, but I would not like to face Allah's judgments with all the deaths of the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. Maybe Khomeini and Saddam Hussein will be cellmates in the afterlife—a nice orthodox definition of hell as all-encompassing hate.

What conditions lead to ethical behavior for the primary ethical broker? First of all, a primary ethical broker must be legitimate religiously. Neither Khomeini nor Mohammed al-Sadr in Iraq have been the senior clerics with the most religious legitimacy. In fact, Khomeini defrocked the senior Shi'a cleric in 1982 and the national position of supreme guide is a novel invention for Shi'ism. The religious leader must also see his primary role as religious, not political. Even Gandhi said he did not care who ruled India, from a political perspective, because he compared political independence with the savage communal rioting of Hindus and Muslims that accompanied it. Ghandi did not attend the Indian independence ceremony—The rioting meant that he could not celebrate Indian independence. The role of the primary ethical broker thus demands preexisting organizational legitimacy and extraordinary holiness.

Second, a religious primary ethical broker must have a history of dialogue with other religious traditions. Religion wreaks its worst harm on the international system when it demonizes sections of its own religion, other faiths, or non-believers such as heretics, infidels, or pagans. It is no accident that John Paul II came out of the section of Catholicism that had good relationships with Jews, not the anti-Semitic section of the Polish Catholic Church. It is no accident that the Dalai Lama attends so many interfaith dialogues.

Third, in the current world situation, religious ethical leadership has to be nonviolent. Hinduism offers us the contrasting examples of Mahatma Gandhi, who fasted against communal rioting, and the BJP's L.K. Advani, whose march on Ayodhya has keynoted attacks on Muslims during the past decade. Governments may wrestle with the legitimacy of responding or initiating conflict under considerations like "just war" or "pacifism," but "holy war" in any form remains a terrible religious idea.

Fourth, the political intervention of a religious primary ethical broker is, by its nature, extraordinary and a sign of national crisis. Cardinal Jaime Sin only crafted the anti-Marcos Coalition after the natural Philippine political leader, Ex-senator Benigno Aquino, was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila Airport. The cardinal rightly refused a position in the successor Corazon Aquino government. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, not a South African government ministry. When religious leaders move into political positions, it can greatly harm the religion. Many anti-Khomeini mullahs wonder whether Islam will survive the current government in Iran that so alienates the young from their religious traditions.

These four conditions constitute the political perspective. What about a religious explanation of the good and bad effects of a single religious tradition? I quote my favorite spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. Merton says that the political evil in the Catholic religious tradition came from the limitations of the Carolingian suggestion, and I quote: "At the present, the Church is outgrowing what might be called the Carolingian suggestion. This is a worldview that is rooted in the official acceptance of the Church into the world of Imperial Rome; the world of Constantine and of Augustine, of Charlemagne in the West and of Byzantium in the East. In crude, simple strokes this worldview can be sketched as follows: We are living in the last age of salvation history. A world radically evil and doomed to hell has been ransomed from the devil by the cross of Christ and is simply marking time until the message of salvation can be preached to everyone - then will come the judgement. Meanwhile, men, being evil and prone to sin at every moment, must be prevented by authority from following their base instincts and getting lost.

They cannot be left to their own freedom or even to God's loving grace. They have to have their freedom taken away from them because it is their greatest peril. They have to be told at every step what to do, and it is better if what they are told to do is displeasing to their gruff natures, for this will keep them out of the subtle forms of mischief. Meanwhile, the emperor has become, at least provisionally, holy. As a figure of the eschatological kingdom, worldly power consecrated to Christ becomes Christ's reign on Earth."*

So, as the people are basically sinful, the empire becomes, basically holy and we have the basis for holy war, don't we? Continuing, Merton says that "the practice was always better than the theory." Merton mentions Dante, St. Francis, Bonaventure, Aquinas and all of the great figures and great thinkers of the medieval times. They could find the good things in this vision, but unfortunately, the vision itself was certainly a dark one.

This brings us to the final question. Even if we admit the current usefulness of primary ethical brokers, should we work towards an American solution—at least a theoretically complete separation of church and state worldwide, or John Lennon's thought, "and no religion too"? I lean towards Christian democratic, Islamic democratic, or Buddhist democratic approaches. Any attempt to remove religion completely from public moral life ends up fostering some fairly virulent and irrational varieties of pseudo-religion that sneak in by the back door. Think of the sarin gas in Tokyo in 1995. Japan is the most secular society on Earth. And people have a right to defend themselves, their children, and their grandchildren from the massive concentrations of power of multi-national businesses and the global culture industries. Without strong religion, they do not have a prayer.

In conclusion, religion ups the ante in politics. It means you risk more chips on this particular throw of the dice. Sometimes religion fosters a better political good, and sometimes it contributes to a worse political evil. While secularism was the safe political bet for the modern West following the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), today's incredibly complicated global society can only escape its obscene economic stratification and the ever-threatening Armageddon by public religious activity based upon the "individual sanctity of the true self," per Thomas Merton's ecumenical dialogue. Political and religious leaders have separate and autonomous vocations, but in the 21st century their successes and their failures depend upon each other.

*Lawrence S. Cunningham, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, (New York: Paulist Press, 1992) pp. 377-78. Back

May 6, 2004
All About Ethics