Question: Do democracy and religion require the same
kind of faith?
Ian Buruma: No, I don’t think the two are quite the same
thing. In a religion you have to have… you have to believe in some
otherworldly or metaphysical force. I don’t think that that is the case
with democracy at all. Democratic governments ought to be neutral as
far as those big questions about the meaning of life, what happens after
death and so on, are concerned. I do think there has to be a common
agreement to abide by certain rules and laws, and without that things of
course would collapse very quickly.
Question: How much does religious freedom in the U.S.
owe to its Protestant heritage?
Ian Buruma: I think that the particular nature of the
separation of church and state in the U.S., as is true of Protestant
countries in Europe or majority of Protestant countries in Europe, does
have a lot to do with that. And that the authority of the Vatican, of
the Catholic church, was much more opposed to democratic development in
the past than the Protestant churches were. The Protestant churches
have a tradition of being suspicious of authority, certainly of absolute
authority, encouraging a certain kind of individualism since every
individual according to the Protestant faith has his own pipeline to God
and doesn’t need to go on his knees or her knees to priests.
Question: Has its immigration history made the U.S. more
receptive to outside religious beliefs?
Ian Buruma: Yes, I do think that. It’s very clear what
it is to be an American citizen. It’s a political concept more than
anything else. It means that you are loyal to the Constitution and
you’re a good citizen and then you can have whatever culture you wish in
your private life, so you have the hyphenated citizen. It’s much
harder for Europeans to accept that this is possible. Also the fact
that so many Americans still themselves are religious makes them much
more accepting of other people who are equally religious even though of
religions that, you know, are not Christian or are not all that
Question: Does entrepreneurship trump religion in the US?
Ian Buruma: Yes, I think that is probably fair to say.
Also the U.S. has a long history of a kind of folk Christianity in the
form of evangelism, evangelical faiths, which in itself is very close to
business and entrepreneurship. People who start mega-churches or
promote their religious faith on television are businessmen as well as
preachers and that goes back you know almost the beginning of the United
States. That is why I started my book with the story of Elmer Gantry.
Recorded April 21, 2010