Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy: Theory and Evidence from Lebanon

Abstract

Why does religion sometimes increase support for democracy and sometimes do just the opposite? Using data from an original survey conducted in Lebanon, I present and test a theory of religion, group interest, and democracy. Focusing on communal religion, I demonstrate that the effect of communal prayer on support for democracy depends on the interests of the religious group. For groups who would benefit from democracy, communal prayer increases support for democratic institutions; for citizens whose groups would lose privileges in the event of democratic reforms, the opposite effect is present. I test these claims both observationally and experimentally, using a religious priming experiment aiming to mimic the effect of communal prayer. I find that communal religion, either through attendance at religious services or through the communal primes increases the salience of sectarian identity, and therefore pushes respondents’ regime attitudes into closer alignment with the interests of their sect.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Other studies have examined how other parts of the religious experience (information provision, monitoring, etc.) can have pro-group effects (Wald et al. 1988; Jones-Correa and Leal 2001).

  2. 2.

    Important exceptions include Meyer et al. (2008).

  3. 3.

    Meyer et al. (2008) also suggest that religious organizational structures might affect support for democracy, a claim worthy of further examination in cross-national settings.

  4. 4.

    Others, including Norris and Inglehart (2002), have found that Muslims and non-Muslims do not differ meaningfully their levels of support for democracy, and that traditional claims of hostility between Islam and democracy do not hold up empirically (Minkenberg 2007; Vlas and Gherghina 2012; Meyer et al. 2008).

  5. 5.

    On contextual factors, see Toft et al. (2011).

  6. 6.

    See Seymour et al. (2014) for a fine-grained discussion of the parts of the religious experience that generate in-group trust.

  7. 7.

    Unfortunately, the data used in this article cannot fully adjudicate between these two channels; both are probably present.

  8. 8.

    Importantly, recent work has shown that the type of religious cue may have a substantial effect on these outcomes as well; see McClendon and Riedl (2015); Glazier (2013).

  9. 9.

    While the general trend in the literature is that religion tends to promote group-centric behaviors, some exceptions are present (Putnam and Campbell 2010; Warner et al. 2015).

  10. 10.

    See Cammett and Issar (2010) and Cammett (2014) for a discussion of how economic allocations also reflect sectarian divisions.

  11. 11.

    March 14 and March 8 are the main two political coalitions in Lebanon formed in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. March 14, to whom most Sunnis are loyal, opposes the Syrian regime, and March 8, with whom most Shi‘a are affiliated, supports the regime. The main Sunni party (and a key player in the March 14 alliance) is the Mustaqbal (Future) movement, a loosely-organized party dominated by the Hariri family. The main Shi‘a parties are Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, which are electoral allies and typically side together with respect to the major disputes in Lebanese politics.

  12. 12.

    al-Akhbar, 2014, “Regional Developments to Determine Presidential Election Date

  13. 13.

    The ties between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi‘a on the one hand and international benefactors on the other are a significant feature of Lebanese political life. Religious organizations from both of these sects receive considerable support from (usually) co-sectarians in wealthier parts of the Middle East. Many Sunni mosques, especially in Tripoli, receive funding from the Gulf, while Shi‘a institutions receive funding from Iran (for discussions of these ties, see, Pall 2014; Rougier 2015; Hokayem 2014). It could be argued that these ties could be an alternative explanation for the results presented below due to the different institutional configurations of these states (with Iran possessing more formally democratic institutions than any of the Gulf states). However, it would be a mistake to characterize any of these states as being democratic role models in any meaningful way; funding from any of these sources is unlikely to have noticeable pro-democracy effects.

  14. 14.

    These developments are perhaps ironic, given that the Lebanese National Pact of 1943 requires that the president be a Maronite Christian.

  15. 15.

    The New Yorker, 2014, “Lebanon’s War in Syria”

  16. 16.

    al-Monitor, 2014, “Christian Villages on Lebanon-Syria Border Beef up Security”

  17. 17.

    This is not to say that Christian parties and citizens have no preferences regarding the conflict, but rather that they have no singular preference. Some Christian parties, including Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, have clearly taken the side of the pro-Syrian alliance, while others, including Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, have taken equally strong stands on the opposite side. Thus, while individual Christian parties have strong preferences with regard to the conflict, no single “Christian” position exists in the aggregate.

  18. 18.

    It could be argued that Christian preferences with respect to democracy should line up with partisan/coalitional affiliation; that is, Christians who belong to parties linked with Shi‘a parties should favor democracy while Christians from parties linked with Sunni groups should oppose it. However, Lebanese political alliances shift so frequently and unpredictably that Christians could not reliably assume that their party would always be included in or excluded from any particular coalition. The temporary promise of partnership (or threat of exclusion) would not be enough to create strong incentives in either direction for Christians with respect to democracy. Thus, the interests of “Christians” in the realm of democracy remain hazy; the bipolarity of their political landscape prevents a straightforward characterization of their interests regarding regime types.

  19. 19.

    See Corstange (2017, Chap. 3) for a discussion of intra-sect competition within the Christian community; he describes the divided Christian community as the “linchpin” of contemporary Lebanese electoral politics.

  20. 20.

    Remarks to author, Beirut, March 27, 2014.

  21. 21.

    Remarks to author, Beirut, March 2014.

  22. 22.

    These predictions are consistent with Belge and Karako (2015), who argue that the prospect of democracy (interpreted as majoritarian) is viewed as threatening by religious minorities in the Middle East, leading them to be more supportive of authoritarian rule.

  23. 23.

    Using a national survey, Salamey and Tabar (2012, p. 503) find that Shi‘a are much less likely to hold post-secondary degrees (43%) compared to Sunnis (52%) and Maronites (70%). They are also much more likely to live in areas where residential property values are worth less than 75,000 USD on average: 47% of Shi‘a live in such areas, compared to 26% of Sunnis and 20% of Maronites.

  24. 24.

    The simple income measure is problematic as a measure of group privilege for several reasons. First, and perhaps most obviously, income alone does not indicate wealth, the latter of which is presumably more likely to be targeted by state-led redistribution. Second, respondents in this survey frequently had difficulty remembering or estimating their monthly income, so the measure is not entirely reliable. Finally, asking respondents about their monthly income does not capture the source of this income. While average income for both Sunnis and Shi‘a has increased in the past few decades, the degree to which the state has provided such income is highly uneven. Both groups benefit from external patronage and clientelistic political parties, but Shi‘a have been much less likely to receive state benefits. Thus, even if certain groups report higher income, it is important to consider the source of that income: Shi‘a have increased their average income considerably, but very little of this increase is due to state intervention; they could benefit substantially from state redistributive policies despite their increasing income levels.

  25. 25.

    The qadaa (district) is Lebanon’s second-level administrative unit; the country is divided into 26 qadaa.

  26. 26.

    Since the Christian community is heavily divided regarding the major political issue of the day (Syria it is unclear what to expect from communal religious practice among Christians. As a result, the remainder of this article will focus primarily on Sunnis and Shi’a, for whom political interests are more easily identifiable.

  27. 27.

    The survey was designed by the author and implemented by Informational International, a Lebanese survey and consulting firm headquartered in Beirut.

  28. 28.

    Christian sub-groups were sampled in proportion to Interior Ministry figures regarding their population shares, so the sample proportions of each Christian denomination are representative of their population proportions.

  29. 29.

    Social desirability may be a concern in these analyses. However, a number of considerations make this unlikely. First, the predicted relationships between the two major variables (religious attendance and support for democracy) point in opposite directions for the two groups; if both of these items were subject to social desirability bias, the negative relationship among Sunnis would be counterintuitive. Second, the experimental primes presented below eliminate social desirability bias on the independent variable because the treatment is randomly-assigned rather than self-reported. Third, the fact that other religious variables, such as personal prayer, do not have the same correlation with support for democracy as the one witnessed for communal prayer suggests that social desirability is not driving these results—these other measures of “religiosity” should be subject to the same biases, but do not have consistent relationships with democratic attitudes.

  30. 30.

    Distributions of responses to this question within each sect are displayed in Fig. 7 in Appendix 3.

  31. 31.

    Communal prayer and gender are both included as additive rather than interactive terms in these models because there is no theoretical reason to expect the effect of communal prayer to vary by gender; the omitted-variable problem could potentially come from leaving out the gender variable, since gender has been shown to be correlated with mosque attendance and could independently affect regime attitudes. As a robustness check, I have run models interacting these two terms, and the substantive results remain the same, albeit with less precision for women due to the smaller number of women attending mosque.

  32. 32.

    Results (omitted here for the purposes of space) are virtually identical when including a measure of association membership or including any combination of the above variables. Including association membership as a control helps to confirm that religious group participation is indeed different from other communal practices; the effects shown here are robust to the inclusion of associational variables, indicating that communal religious practice has an effect beyond that demonstrated by associational activity in general.

  33. 33.

    This finding in itself is not new; among others, Meyer et al. (2008) find that once personal religiosity is taken into account, Muslim countries may actually demonstrate higher support for democracy than others.

  34. 34.

    It is also worth noting that based on the Pew Global Survey of Islam, Sunnis worldwide are, if anything, slightly more supportive of democracy than Shi‘a (a difference of 3–4 percentage points). This pattern likewise discredits the essentialist-theological account.

  35. 35.

    See Djupe and Calfano (2013, Chap. 1) for an explanation of the feasibility—and importance—of experimental methods in the study of religion and politics.

  36. 36.

    This term is familiar to Lebanese citizens and, importantly, not specific to one sect.

  37. 37.

    Full results for the personal piety primes are available from the author upon request.

  38. 38.

    Since the dependent variables in this section are each 5-point Likert scales, I use ordinal logistic regressions for these models.

  39. 39.

    Unfortunately, time of interview was not recorded, so it is not possible to know whether respondents were interviewed before or after the jumu‘ah congregational prayers. However, the inability to account for the time of day should bias the results of the tests downwards, since the data likely includes respondents in the “treatment” group who had not yet received the actual treatment.

  40. 40.

    For this model, Sunnis and Shi‘a are pooled because of sample size considerations. Since the “treatment” group (attenders interviewed on a Friday) is so small within each sect (29 Sunnis and 39 Shi‘a), it is necessary to combine them to achieve a reasonable level of statistical power. When analyzed separately, the sects demonstrate similar patterns, albeit with noticeably larger standard errors.

  41. 41.

    Indicates that the question was inverted such that higher values indicate greater support for democracy.

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Correspondence to Michael Hoffman.

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Replication data and code for the quantitative models are available at https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/WGSYDW. Research for this article was funded in part by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This article has benefited considerably from feedback from Chris Achen, Jaimie Bleck, Carles Boix, Dave Campbell, Michael Coppedge, Bob Dowd, Karrie Koesel, Amaney Jamal, Kevin Mazur, Jeremy Menchick, Liz Nugent, Bob Wuthnow, seminar participants at Princeton University and the University of Notre Dame, and four anonymous reviewers. All remaining errors are my own.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Description of Experiment

In the religious priming experiment, respondents were randomly assigned to complete a “word association” task consisting of five items. In each case, the respondents were presented with five words, and asked to select their closest match from three choices. The word groups were as follows:

Control group
 Delicious (a) Hungry (b) Tasty (c) Good
 Sleep (a) Tired (b) Rest (c) Bed
 Work (a) Money (b) Job (c) Time
 Newspaper (a) Read (b) Politics (c) Paper
 Shirt (a) Clothes (b) Pants (c) Shoes
Communal treatment group
 Sect (a) Group (b) People (c) Community
 Man of religion (a) Leader (b) Preacher (c) Teacher
 Shrine (a) Altar (b) Holy Place (c) Saint
 Sermon (a) Message (b) Teaching (c) Devotion
 Place of worship (a) Church/Mosque (b) Community (c) Clergy
Personal piety treatment group
 Faith (a) Belief (b) Religion (c) Dogma
 Prayer (a) God (b) Petition (c) Duty
 Fasting (a) Duty (b) Obligation (c) Sacrifice
 Heaven (a) Paradise (b) Earth (c) Eternity
 Soul (a) Spirit (b) Religion (c) Heart

Appendix 2: Description of Variables

Support for Democracy, Observational Section

For the observational models, the support for democracy measure consisted of an additive index of the following items (all questions are on a 5-point Likert Scale):

  1. 1.

    Democracy is the best form of government.

  2. 2.

    I would support a political system governed by a strong authority which makes decisions without considering electoral results or the opinions of the opposition.Footnote 41

  3. 3.

    I would support a political system governed by religious leaders.\(^*\)

  4. 4.

    I would support a political system governed by the army.\(^*\)

  5. 5.

    Democracy would be better for Lebanon than the current political system.

  6. 6.

    Democracy is better than any other form of government.

  7. 7.

    Lebanon needs to become more democratic than it is right now.

  8. 8.

    A non-democratic government is sometimes necessary for establishing stability.\(^*\)

  9. 9.

    Democracy is always the best form of government. The experimental section used an additive index of items 1-4. In both cases, the support for democracy variable was rescaled to range from 0-1 for ease of interpretation.

See Table 1

Table 1 Summary statistics

Appendix 3: Additional Information

See Table 2

Table 2 Baseline results

See Figs. 6 and 7

Fig. 6
figure6

Frequency of communal prayer and linked fate

Fig. 7
figure7

Frequency of attendance, by sect

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Hoffman, M. Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy: Theory and Evidence from Lebanon. Polit Behav 42, 1169–1200 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09538-9

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Keywords

  • Religion and politics
  • Democracy
  • Political behavior
  • Comparative politics
  • Middle east politics