Reflections on the 'Democracy in Crisis?' symposium on 7 January, by Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Sarah Clowry

Published Date: 
Wednesday, 23 January 2019

On a tranquil morning, early in January 2019, Cumberland Lodge, in partnership with the Council of Christians and Jews, gathered together leaders and representatives of religious communities, inter-faith activists and academics to discuss ‘Democracy in Crisis? Moral and Spiritual Resistance’. The aim was to ignite lively debates around the challenges facing democracies, and to explore how faith groups might support liberal freedoms and social cohesion today. 

‘We have grown comfortable with the smug assumption that democracy will naturally prevail indefinitely…’ 

The event began with addresses by Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK, and Charlotte Knobloch, Head of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria. Both offered a bleak impression of the political landscape in Europe. 

Wittenberg lamented the poverty, fear and hopelessness experienced by so many communities in our increasingly unequal continent. He commented on the weakness of our political leaders, and expressed concerns about the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ (which, incidentally, formed the focus of the 2018 Cumberland Lodge colloquium, reported on by my fellow Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Alexander Blower, here).

Knobloch’s assessment went even further; she argued that a loss of trust in our democratic institutions is not only widespread, but represents an ‘existential threat’. 

Although Wittenberg and Knobloch outlined the capacity of religion to connect individuals, to offer community and continuity, to strengthen values inherent to liberal democracy, and to support the most vulnerable in our society, faith was neither presented as an all-encompassing, nor straightforward, solution. Indeed, Wittenberg stressed that, in some cases, religion can  pose a threat to democracy, with its potential to provoke exclusion and division.   

Charlotte Knobloch at Cumberland Lodge

Charlotte Knobloch

‘There is a need to embrace the “Other”, to go to their community and listen to what they have to say.’ 

Next, four panellists were tasked with discussing the ways in which faith communities are currently responding to this alleged erosion of our democratic norms.

Sughra Ahmed considered the role that religion plays in promoting co-operation, claiming that spirituality can nurture the values required to engage with the ‘Other’.

Reverend Bruce Thompson followed, by expressing his concerns about online extremism, and his own attempts to combat such discourse, while Rosemary Nuamah Williams highlighted ways in which poverty can be ‘exploited to populist, anti-democratic ends’. She continued by noting the commitment to social action by many churches and the potential for places of worship to unite people from very different backgrounds.

Finally, Dr Kishan Manocha questioned the extent to which the public sphere is receptive to religious voices, and urged the audience to find common ground, not only between different faiths, but also within secular spaces. 

‘Could all our progress be washed away?’

The symposium concluded with a series of breakout discussions, in which participants shared imaginative ideas for integrating diverse religious communities, and explored the importance of political education from a young age, together with the value of grassroots movements for change.

As the various working groups fed back their thoughts, graphic facilitator Pen Mendonça added the finishing touches to her artistic representation of the day. The quotations and images she highlighted in this graphic recording demonstrate that, while both hope and creative strategies were expressed during the symposium, fear and pessimism also dominated many of the conversations. 

Closing the event, Guardian journalist Andrew Brown reflected that, despite divisions and doubts regarding the role that faith communities play in defending democracy, and although the scale of the challenge can seem overwhelming, participants nevertheless agreed upon the enduring significance of religion in modern society.