Today, we have the brilliant Jewish columnist, Charles Krauthammer, turning to syncretism, the modern label for ancient Catholicism's method to convert Jews and pagans to Christianisty, and suggesting it for use as a strategy to convert Islamic and other countries to secular democracy. There is an elegant historical symmetry to that thought.
Syncretism was the early Church's custom, during the process of conversion, of initially adapting, as much as possible of the local pagan customs into the overlay of Christianity. Indeed, our recent celebration of Christmas is itself very much a creature of syncretism, adapting the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia into a celebraton of the birth of Christ. And the Celtic Cross, with its overlay of a sun symbol, is yet another result of syncretism.
Probably the most famous memorialization of a papal order to use the process of syncretism comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, who notes that in 601 A.D., Pope Gregory sent a letter to his missionaries instructing them to adapt local customs and places of worship as part of the conversion process whenever possible:
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface every thing at once from [the pagan's] obdurate minds., because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps. This the Lord made himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt: and yet he allowed them to use the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the devil in his own worship, commanding them in his sacrifice to kill beasts to the end that, changing their hearts they mad lay aside one part of the sacrifice whilst retained another: that whilest they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols, and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.
Now it is Krauthammer's turn to suggest to Americans that we use this proven process as we attempt to spread Democracy throughout the world:
Read the entire article here. I think Krauthammer is hitting the nail on the head, though it may appear as heresy to the utopian perfectionists on the left. At any rate, if one likes a bit of historical irony with their political opinions and coffee in the morning, here it is.
"My mother always said, democracy is the best revenge."
-- Bilawal Bhutto Zardari,
son of the late Benazir Bhutto
Of all the understandings of the democratic idea, none could be more wrong than this one. Democracy at its very core is an antidote to the kind of dynastic revenge young Bhutto was suggesting.
For the Bhuttos, elections are a means for the family to regain power. . .
Democracy was meant to be the antithesis of feudalism. Popular sovereignty was to supplant divine right; free elections to supplant dynastic succession (a progression Americans have not completely mastered either). It is clear that Bilawal meant to put the best gloss on his mother's dictum. He, like she, would avenge the political murder of a parent not with violence but through the ballot box. Nonetheless, his unmistakable assumption of aristocratic entitlement clangs against his professed fealty to democratic means.
His mother was the same. In more than one journalistic profile, she was characterized as "a democrat who appeals to feudal loyalties." Part of the reason for the precariousness of Pakistan's democracy is precisely that it remains a largely feudal society practicing democratic forms.
But Pakistan is hardly alone. The very same week Pakistan nearly imploded, a close and disputed election sent Kenya, heretofore one of the more stable democracies in Africa, into a convulsion of tribal violence. These bloody eruptions come against a background of less dramatic but equally important defeats for the democratic idea. Russia acquiesces cravenly as its nascent democracy is systematically dismantled in return for a bit of great-power posturing and a measure of oil-fueled pottage doled out by Czar Vladimir. China even more apathetically continues to concede stewardship of its market economy and modernizing society to a Leninist dictatorship. How many decades will it take before we acknowledge that the axiom that economic liberalization leads to political liberalization may not be axiomatic?
This comes after the Palestinians, in their first post-Arafat parliamentary election, give the mandate to a terrorist group. And as Lebanon, the leader of the Arab Spring of 2005, watches Syrian proxies systematically kill one member of parliament after another to deny the democrats the quorum they need to elect a like-minded president.
These defeats, marking the cresting of the 30-year democratic wave that had swept through Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia and even parts of Africa, raise more than theoretical questions. They challenge the core Bush notion that American foreign policy should be predicated on trying to spread democracy. Six years after Sept. 11 there still is no remotely plausible alternative to the Bush Doctrine for ultimately changing the culture from which jihadism arises. But while spreading democracy may be necessary, can it, in fact, be done?
We know that it can, of course, as demonstrated by our success in turning Germany, Japan and South Korea into important democratic allies. But there we had the rare advantage of the near total control that came with uncontested postwar occupation.
What is required in conditions of far less control? A healthy respect for the enduring power of local political primitivism and a willingness to adapt to it.
In Afghanistan, that means accepting radical decentralization and the power of warlords. In Iraq, that means letting centralized, top-down governance give way, at least temporarily, to provincial and tribal autonomy as the best means of producing effective representative institutions.
And in Pakistan, that means accepting both the enduring presence of feudal politics and the preeminent role of the military, Pakistan's one functioning national institution, as a guarantor of the state -- even (as in another secular Islamic country, Turkey) at the cost of giving it extra-constitutional authority. It also means accepting the reality that Pervez Musharraf, however dubious his democratic credentials, is not to be abandoned because his fall would unleash the deluge.
These are hard days for democracy. That is not a reason for giving up on it. It is a reason for the prudent acceptance and nurturing of local variants, however imperfect.
The Roman Church learned that spreading the creed required tolerance for the incorporation of certain pre-Christian practices as a way of strengthening the new faith and giving it local roots. For the spread of democracy today, we need to practice our own brand of syncretism and learn not to abandon the field when forced to settle for regional adaptations that fall short of the Jeffersonian ideal.