Religion and Democracy in Taiwan
By Cheng-Tian Kuo, State University of New York Press, Albany: 2008. 161 pp.
This book uses case studies and statistical analyses to consider the different religious groups in Taiwan and their relation to democracy. It focuses on the governing structure within the different religious organizations and the relationship between lay people and the clergy, as well as observes how different religious groups interact with the state and how the views of religious leaders affect voters in their congregations.
Some of the findings may be surprising, but others tie into the contemporary theory that some religions may be more or less predisposed towards democratic government models based on their own structure and belief system. In Taiwan, Kuo finds that Taiwanese Presbyterians have the most democratic values and democratic behavior among believers of all religious groups. This may be partially due to the fact that “by the time Christianity was introduced to Taiwan by missionaries, [the missionaries’] home countries had established democracies. Their theology and ecclesiology had incorporated various democratic elements, such as the priesthood of all believers, human rights, and checks and balances against the sinful nature of human beings.” Arising from this influence, in the 1960s Taiwanese Presbyterians “constructed a comprehensive democratic theology composed of human rights, political participation, democratic institutions and Taiwanese nationalism.”
Although more authoritarian in its internal hierarchies of head clergy, monks, and lay people, Taiwanese Buddhism provides some opportunity for some democratic values and behavior to arise, due to its “emphasis on humanistic Buddhism and its heavy reliance on lay believers in its vast nonclerical organizations, where believers can lean democratic values and behavior.” However, unequal status between clergy and laypeople in Buddhist practice, and between men and women in Buddhist theology, may be deterrents to establishing democratic values or behavior.
Taiwanese folk religions and Daoism are the least predisposed to reinforce democratic values or behavior. This is somewhat attributable to the decentralized nature of much folk religious and Daoist practice in Taiwan, where worshippers pray at many different temples individually and/or irregularly and are not usually members of a congregation. However, in terms of democratic structure, Kuo writes that the Mazu belief (regarded as both Daoist and folk religious) “could have developed a very democratic ecclesiology,” because “lay believers hold an equal, if not higher, status than clergy in liturgy and in major decisions of a temple.” However, in practice “family elders, local elites, local factions,” and even “gangster” groups can unduly influence the temple’s decisions and activities, undermining the tendency towards democracy.
Yiguandao, or the Way of Unity, is a syncretistic religious sect incorporating Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, and Islamic elements. Unlike most other religious groups in Taiwan, Yiguandao is active in political affairs. (The other exception is the Taiwanese Presbyterian community, which supports Taiwanese independence.) Former President Chen Shui-bian was an initiated member of Yiguandao. Due to the prominent positions that head Yiguandao leaders often occupy in Taiwanese society, the political opinions of these leaders can decisively influence Yiguandao members at elections. However, writes Kuo, Yiguandao theology is “far from democratic. It does not address the importance of human rights, nor does it support checks and balances among governmental branches. Heavenly mandate plus a wise emperor is regarded as the best form of governance for both [Yiguandao] and the nation.”
In concluding this study, Kuo writes that civic organizations – like religious groups – are not always conducive to democracy. Rather, the relationship between democratic values and civil society is “highly contingent” on the values of the civil organizations; Kuo writes, “If civic organizations do not enthusiastically embrace democratic ideas, and if they do not practice democracy within the organization, they may be irrelevant or even harmful to democratization.” Extrapolating from this, Kuo concludes that “Taiwan’s democratic consolidation requires scholars, theologians, and activist laity to work with these religious groups to develop democratic theology and ecclesiology.”