By Peter Berger | 17 July 2010
In an earlier effusion of wisdom, in reference to conflicts between secularist elites and religious voters, I compared the Supreme Court in the United States with the military in Turkey. In each case, the two institutions are used to circumvent the actions of democratically elected legislators. Of course these institutions are very different from each other, but they are indeed similar in providing limits to the democratic process. The Turkish military, which antedates the advent of real democracy in the country, has long been officially defined as the guardian of the secular republic established by Kemal Ataturk. Along with the bureaucracy, the judiciary and much of the intelligentsia it constituted an explicitly secularist elite, a barrier against any incursions of Islam into the public arena. While for a long time this barrier functioned very effectively, the mass of the population, especially outside the big cities, remained strongly committed to Islam. Of course, in the view of the elite these people were unenlightened provincials. The trouble with democracy is that unenlightened provincialsvote. As the state became more democratic, these votes had tangible political consequences. Islamist parties acquired power, first locally, then nationally. The military fought hard to stop this, with diminishing success.
I think the comparison here sheds light on the “culture war” in the United States. This country does not have a secularist political elite—Washington is full of important people who attend prayer breakfasts and say grace when they eat in posh restaurants. But there is certainly a secularistcultural elite in America, which also looks down on those who would push religion into the public arena as unenlightened provincials. In a democracy, lamentably or not, these peoplevote—and there are a lot of them. If items of the secularist agenda are put to the vote, they will usually lose. It is only naturally that the groups that believe in this agenda will seek to circumvent the democratic process. It so happens that the Supreme Court, and indeed the entire federal judiciary, is the leastdemocratic component of the American political system. I think that Supreme Court justices would have little in common with Turkish generals if they had to spend a long weekend together. What they do have in common, as brakes on democracy in the service of secularist goals, is interesting enough to point out. (To do so is an application of the theater technique called Verfremdungby Bertold Brecht. It may be translated as “bestrangement”—using the unfamiliar to shed light on the familiar.)