Is Jamaica a Secular Democracy?

January 3rd, 2020

Our son is traveling in India at the moment, so we are looking at what is happening there. In my previous post, I discussed the ever-increasing habit of certain governments – shutting down the Internet at times of social or political unrest. This has been happening across India in the past few weeks.

The situation in India has come about because of protests across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which specifically fast-tracks immigration from “Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014.” Muslims (currently around 14 percent of the total population of India) are excluded. There are also concerns about an upcoming National Population Register or census that some fear may become a discriminatory tool. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist.

The Indian Constitution describes the largest democracy in the world, with a population of around 1.4 billion at last count, as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.” 

I listened to Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Christmas message to the nation and was struck by its heavily religious tone. It was very specifically “Christian.” It could easily have been a sermon in church. The Prime Minister intoned:

As Christians we believe in the Immaculate Conception and birth; the life examples and teachings, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the fundamental pillars of our faith…

We must love God and believe in Him…

Let us start by renewing our personal faith in God…

And so on. The Prime Minister assumed that “we” are all Christians, as he is. Of course, his personal faith is his own – but not necessarily “ours.” As a national message, I would have preferred something more inclusive – a broadening of the message of love and peace that would reach out to Jamaicans of different faiths, or no faith at all. I was disappointed.

As a result of this semi-official pressure to submit to the majority religion, a practice has arisen in recent years that I find an imposition. At the beginning of every public (or even private) meeting or seminar, a Christian prayer is uttered. What does someone of a different faith do? Or someone who is not of any particular faith? Are they obliged to close their eyes and mumble an insincere “Amen” at the end of the prayer? What would happen if that person left the room until the prayer is finished? Or is it acceptable for him/her to remain seated, stare into space or look at their phone, while the faithful listen to a prayer?

I just wish there was a more inclusive way to begin a meeting. A moment’s complete silence, while each person concentrates their thoughts and says a silent prayer or meditation, would be an excellent way to start. To listen to five minutes of passionate exhortations to Jesus to guide our thoughts is not a comfortable experience for me – and, I am guessing I may not be the only one.

The whole point of freedom of religion is that we not only tolerate, but embrace diversity of faith. I am aware of the side glances – even frosty looks – I often receive when I say, “Well, I don’t go to church…” When I don’t “stand up and bow my head” as ordered at the beginning of every meeting, so that I can participate (willingly or not) in Christian prayers, I know that I am regarded as somewhat “beyond the pale.” 

My lack of participation in a prayer or ritual which does not accord with my “personal faith” is, apparently, seen as disrespectful to others who do share that faith. Do I submit to the majority, then (if, indeed, they are the majority)?

However, I see my own spiritual beliefs as my choice, and others’ beliefs as theirs. To me, it is a personal thing. I would not wish to discuss my beliefs with others, unless they asked me. However, it is generally assumed that one is a Christian, so no questions are asked and very little interest is expressed in other religions.

In a secular democracy, we all have a choice. In a secular democracy, the beliefs and traditions of minorities should not be frowned on by the “majority belief.” And, taking it a step further, this is something we need to keep in mind:

Tyranny of the majority is worse than the tyranny of the few, because it has a semblance of legitimacy.

After all, in a democracy, the majority (religion) holds sway. This seems to be the general view – also, one senses, that of many of our political leaders.

One definition of a secular state is “a country where religion does not play a part in law-making.” Can we honestly say (looking at areas of law-making such as those related to reproductive rights, for example) that religion – I would suggest fundamentalist Christianity – does not play a part in Jamaica? How much influence does religion have on decisions made in the Jamaican Parliament?

Is Jamaica a “secular democracy” or a “religious democracy”? I am guessing we are somewhere between the two…

What do you think?





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8 Responses to “Is Jamaica a Secular Democracy?”

  1. Dennis Jones says:

    A more-inclusive way of starting meetings is to just start them, perhaps with some greetings.
    How much religious comes into the framing of laws and policies we may never know, but obviously many Jamaicans claim to be Christians, of various stripes, so it’s highly likely that they are guided by their Christian principles. Sometimes, policy makers have been left with no other proposals than to suggest prayer.

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes – just get on with it – I agree! Hahaha!! I know what (who!) you are referring to about the prayer. That was a moment of desperation!

  3. Stephen Wedderburn says:

    When the statement about Tyranny of the Majority was made hundreds of years ago, people could not imagine how pervasive and pernicious Tyranny of the Minority would become. Nowadays the majority can’t practice the longstanding traditions that define our culture without some minority claiming to be offended. Despite a lot of Christian practices in the public sphere, Jamaica has an outstanding record of inclusiveness, existing long before “inclusiveness” became a popular word. One example is the Jews who fled to Jamaica to escape persecution in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. I believe that we as a society are in a much better place than those which try to bend over backwards trying not to offend any minority. Putting up with a few opening prayers is a trivial price to pay for being part of a culture that readily accommodates those who are different from the majority.

  4. Nat Hrynuik says:

    HHave you ever listened to, or sung, the words of the national anthem ?
    That should answer the question you pose.

  5. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes, of course – many times. Point taken. It’s a Christian prayer.

  6. EmmaLewis says:

    I will have to think this over. I only partially agree with you. I agree thought that compared to some other countries, we are in a much better place as far as religious freedom is concerned. However, Jamaican society is in my view conservative at its core. I am not sure how many things are “readily accommodated” these days – even by (or especially by) Christians. It’s also very easy to mix up religion with “long-standing traditions” and “culture” and come out with…a certain dominance of belief and behavior. I am still struggling with this issue, from the perspective of a non-Christian.

  7. Bruce McKnight says:

    I think you conflate two distinct ideas in this piece. The idea of religious freedoms and the idea of religious offense; the difference between laws and norms.
    Jamaican laws provide protection from persecution because, or in the practice, of your religion. It does not and cannot protect you from being offended by the practice of religion.
    I personally am offended by the frequent use of horns on Jamaican roadways: I think it discourteous. But I am not in a legal or ethical (or political) position to impose my preference on the majority.

    Tyranny is not disobeying practices but overturning the rule of laws. What you’re describing is perfectly legal if uncomfortable for you.
    The great danger to this argument, which I’m not suggesting is your intent, is when taken to an extreme, the removal of all prayer because someone, somewhere might be offended.

    “Ridiculous”, you say “that would not happen”. In the Canadian province of Quebec they found themselves in a pickle because some group decided to be offended by the Muslim hijab, because it represented a “symbol of female oppression”. It resulted in Bill C21, a law that bans the wearing of ALL religious symbols in government spaces.
    Again, I’m not suggesting this is your intent but a possible effect of your protest.

  8. EmmaLewis says:

    I see what you mean, but am not convinced that there is much difference, in people’s minds, between laws and norms – not when it comes to religion. I would not expect to be protected by law and I was talking about norms and assumptions that people make. It is simply my personal view – I am personally offended by the imposition of someone else’s religion on me, in public. By “tyranny” I was referring to that very imposition of views. Nothing to do with laws. I see the point you are making, however.