Mike Hoffman on How Religious Identities Influence Support for or Opposition to Democracy

Mike Hoffman shares his research on how religious identities shape support for and against efforts to democratize. He is a professor of political science at Notre Dame and the author of Faith in Numbers: Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy. This is the 44th episode of the Democracy Paradox podcast. 

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Doctrine is actually often a lot looser and more subject to interpretation than we tend to assume and the way that the doctrine gets interpreted is often partially a function of group interests themselves. If you have a religious group in a given country that believes it would benefit from democracy, it’s pretty likely that that group will find a way to interpret and frame its doctrine in a way that supports democracy.

Mike Hoffman

Key Highlights Include

  • Role of Religion in Identity Formation
  • How Communal Prayer Shapes Religious Identity
  • Ways Group Interests Shape Perspectives on Democracy
  • Description of Lebanon’s Political System
  • Why Some Groups Oppose Democracy

Podcast Transcript

The Graduate Program in Political Science at Princeton has recently introduced some remarkable scholars. Bryn Rosenfeld introduced us to The Autocratic Middle Class and Liz Nugent discussed her book After Repression about a month ago. Both of their books take a sort of sociological approach toward the phenomenon of democratization. Michael Hoffman is another graduate of Princeton who is now a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. His book Faith in Numbers: Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy explores the effects of religion on democratization. 

Like all the Princeton scholars, his work is based on a nuanced argument that I want to walk through just in case it is not clear in my conversation. He argues the experience or behavior of communal prayer establishes a sense of religious identity. Religious identity forms distinct group interests. So finally, those interests determine the support or opposition to democratization. 

What I found most compelling about Mike’s work is he does not argue religious doctrine shapes attitudes on democracy, but rather the distinct interests of the group do. We’re going to explore a bit about the theory, but we also talk quite a bit about the politics of Lebanon and Iraq and hopefully we bring this theory to life through these examples. 

But before we begin I want to remind you the Democracy Paradox is a part of the Democracy Group network of podcasts. This week we are highlighting Democracy Works. The host Jenna Spinneli offers sharp interviews with some of the brightest minds in democracy scholarship. She seamlessly introduces scholars and activists to consider questions facing democracy. Last week’s guest, Derek Black, examines the role of public education and democracy. I’m reading his book Schoolhouse Burning right now and it’s really, really good. His interview with Jenna is can’t miss. So check out Democracy Works.

Now it’s time to reflect on a new theory that weaves together ideas about religion, identity, and democratization. This is my conversation with Mike Hoffman…


Mike Hoffman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thank you so much for having me, Justin.


Mike, I found your book was more about identity than religion. It took a very sociological approach to the idea of religion, but the same time I don’t want to diminish the importance of religion in your work. The two concepts, identity and religion, they’re really linked for you. So, Mike can you help explain what makes religion such a powerful source of identity?


Yeah, this is something I’ve thought about a lot, actually. But before answering, I should say that it’s by no means universally accepted that religion is any more powerful of a source of identity than anything else. And in fact, it’s not universally accepted that religion is even any different from other sorts of identities, but I think it is. And I think there are a few possible things at play here. One is that for the most part, religion is an exclusive identity. And what I mean by that is that someone can be half German and half Japanese, but you can’t really be half Muslim and half Christian. Somebody who says that they’re half Muslim and half Christian, isn’t really either of those things.

So, because of that, it could be that religion is a more intense identity because the borders around it are harder. They’re less porous. You can’t move across them as easily. Another part of this is that religion tends to have universal rules. A lot of things that people do because of religion, aren’t just customs, as they might be for other types of identities, they’re actually rules. And in many cases that means that they apply to everyone, not just members of the religious group. So, for instance, for Catholics and evangelicals and some others in the United States, it’s usually not enough to say, ‘Okay. We’re not going to have abortions ourselves.’ They’re actually much more likely as we know to say that no one should be getting abortions.

And kind of similarly, in a case like Malaysia, Muslim religious leaders often call for the government to ban Oktoberfest parties, because they don’t want people drinking alcohol. And this is despite the fact that something like 40% of the population isn’t Muslim. And so even though this sizeable chunk of the population in principle shouldn’t be subject to these same religious rules, it’s still important for religious leaders to promote policies that are consistent with their religious teachings. So, in that way, compared to other identities, religious identities don’t necessarily lend themselves to compromise. But there’s also a part of this that I think is fuzzier, but still very important, which is that religion at the end of the day deals in these kinds of cosmic fundamental issues that other identities usually just can’t compete with when it comes to religion.

We’re talking about issues that in principle are infinitely more important than any worldly issue. So how can you compromise on something like that?  Obviously, it’s not that simple in reality because people often actually do subordinate religion to other things. But ultimately the fact that religion is focused on these kinds of immense other worldly concerns makes it potentially very powerful. And in that way, different from other types of identities.


Now you said religious identity is exclusive. Let me push back just a little bit on that and see how you answer it. In India, for example, religion is very fluid. People may believe in Hinduism, but can sometimes engage in different Buddhist practices. Religion at the Dawn of Christianity was a lot more fluid where you have Constantine apparently both believing in Christianity, but still engaging in some of the pagan practices at the time. And even today, as a Catholic I know plenty of people who say, ‘I grew up Catholic, but now I’m this type of Christianity.’ So there is somewhat a fluidity where people identify with multiple aspects of different sects of religion.


Yeah, I think that’s totally fair. I guess what I would say is that I see these things in probabilistic aggregate terms. And so, all of the things that you’re describing definitely do exist. They’re more common in some places than others, but the typical arrangement is that somebody is kind of a member of a sect and that’s the sect that they’re a part of. And it’s fairly clearly defined. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, but broadly speaking, even in places where there is more fluidity like India, most people are going to pretty comfortably be able to put themselves in one sector or another. And in order for that to happen, you have to have a certain degree of rigidity when it comes to religious identities.

But you also raised an important point about sort of the evolution of religious identities as well as the fact that what a person is born into is not necessarily what comes to mean something for them. And I think it’s important to note in that regard that you don’t have to be a particularly pious person to have a strong sectarian identity. You can be someone who never steps foot in a church or a mosque who nevertheless is a strong Catholic, a strong Muslim, thinks of these identities as being politically meaningful, views politics through that kind of a lens, things like that.

I remember meeting a guy when I was a kid, that was a friend of my grandmother’s, who was very, very active in the local Catholic church. He was a Contractor of some kind. And so, he would always do all of these free things for all the priests, was very serious about being a Catholic, never once went to mass, was not somebody who kind of follow the rules, but was somebody who identified really strongly with the group. So, again that’s probably the exception rather than the rule, but it is worth noting how these are potentially different dimensions.


Now I want to take a second to move to a very high-level conversation point, especially along a sociological framework, because it’s so important to understand some of the ideas within your work. So, you talk both in terms of identities, but not just identities, but a sense of almost group identity that then translates into interests. So how does identification in a group change how we perceive our own individual interests?


The simplest answer is that identity is what makes people feel good about themselves. It makes us feel that we matter that we’re important, that we’re special. It gives us self-esteem. So, in some sense, the group is an extension of ourselves. If the group is doing well, then I’m doing well. And we see this all over the world for just about every possible kind of group. It’s not distinct to religion, but as a result of this kind of calculus people make decisions that in a narrow economic sense are irrational because they’re good for the group. But I think that thinking of it in those ways is incomplete that the value that someone gets from any particular regime arrangement, for instance, isn’t as simple as just what their tax rate is or whether they’re going to get a powerful position or something like that.

It’s also valuable to them if their group has prestige. And in some cases that prestige, which can be thought of kind of as the pleasure that comes from being a part of a strong, powerful group can actually outweigh narrow personal interests. That’s not always the case, of course, but it’s something that we do see in various forms all over the world. And there’ve been a lot of explanations offered for that, but I think it broadly just has to do with the value that people extract from being a part of a prestigious group that is in some sense an extension of ourselves.


You use the behavior of communal prayer to establish a form of group identity. Can you elaborate on how communal prayer functions as the connection to establish group identity?


Yeah, absolutely. There’s a number of different mechanisms that are potentially at play here.  One of them is simply shared experience. Doing things with other people tends to make us feel connected to them. Think about sports games, for instance. So, research has shown that moving in unison, in particular, bowing, chanting, that kind of thing has a particularly strong effect on building group solidarity. And when we think about the big world religions, especially Islam and Christianity, there’s really an abundance of that kind of behavior during communal prayer. It’s similar to what Durkheim would call collective effervescence that bringing the people together in this sacred ritual creates this unique energy that brings the group together, that unites the group.

And this is actually another way in which religion is distinct from other types of identities, potentially when you participate in communal prayer, you’re by definition doing so alongside people from your religious group, having a pretty much uniformly in-group atmosphere only enhances the effects that I mentioned already. There are also in addition, some mechanisms that are maybe less subtle, you could say. In the book, I highlight some examples where religious leaders explicitly discuss sectarian interests particularly during sermons. This is a pretty common thing and not just in the Middle East or the Muslim world. So sometimes it’s as simple as a religious leader stoking sectarian identity. But as I said, there’s a number of ways that this could work.


Yeah. What I found was interesting is the way that having communal prayer forces people to be able to associate with people that maybe they wouldn’t normally talk to. Like you might be wealthy, but the majority of people there are not doing as well. So, it makes you change the way that you think of yourself and the interests that you have because you’re aligning yourself with the group rather than just focusing on your narrow individual interests. Why don’t we use an example to kind of explain how this works? Can you explain how these group identities through communal prayer plays itself out in a country like Lebanon in terms of its support for and against democratization?


Before I wrote this book, I should point out that there were a number of really high-quality studies that looked at the effect of communal prayer on support for democracy. And they did so in lots of different contexts, but they largely set aside the issue of group interests. And so that partially explains why Lebanon becomes central here because groups are central in Lebanon in very formal ways. But as a result of this, setting aside of group interests in the existing literature, they found very, very different results depending on the context study as well as the specific questions asked.

So, it could be, for example, that communal prayer enhances support for democracy. And this is something that’s often talked about in Western countries. Maybe because being involved in a religious community promotes civic skills or enhances trust or whatever, other things that are generally associated with support for democracy. But on the other hand, it could be the case that communal prayer has the opposite effect. It could decrease support for democracy because it promotes values that are inconsistent with democracy. It could be more enthusiasm for a tight link between religion and state. It could be just a general authoritarian worldview or lots of other possibilities. And so, I think either of those arguments is plausible.

But what I’m trying to contribute is a further emphasis on the idea that the group matters and that these effects are going to depend in many places on the context that the group finds itself in.


but it’s not just that the group matters. You have to identify with the group for it to matter. So, for instance, I loved how you took the example of – it’s not about whether Sunnis support or reject democracy. It’s not about whether Shi’ites are in favor or against democracy. It’s about whether those people who pray together on a regular basis, so they create a sense of identity together. Then we’ll encourage them to view their interests as one as to whether or not democracy will support their group or harm the interests of their group. It’s a very nuanced and sophisticated argument. I was very impressed with it.


Thank you. I’m so glad that you picked up on that and brought it up. Because I have to say I got a lot of, over the 10 years that I was with this book, you know, when it was a dissertation and eventually a book manuscript, I got a lot of comments on it that, that didn’t really pick up on that distinction that they thought of it as just saying Shi’ites are more supportive of democracy in Lebanon than Sunnis blah-blah-blah when in reality it’s about this effect of communal prayer within each community. And I think that’s really important and it’s because within any sect at a given time, the sectarian interest is kind of a constant, it’s kind of fixed. Your group is either a beneficiary of democracy, according to whatever dimension, or a group that’s threatened by it.

What varies is the extent to which people actually care about this to the extent to which people prioritize the interests of the group over and above potentially conflicting individual interests. So that could mean if I’m a member of a large group, if I’m a member of a group that would benefit from economic redistribution, to the extent that I think about democracy in those terms, then communal prayer it’s going to push me in a more democratic or pro-democratic direction because it makes me care about my group interests more than that. But let me say again, I’m very gratified that you read it closely enough to pick up on that distinction which is a tight one, but one that’s really important for the theory.


Well, and it’s not just the fact that the interests are static. You go on to show that those interests are fluid. As those interests change, the views of those groups will change. So, I mean, we’re going to talk more about this. But it’s a very sophisticated argument that says that the ideology or the doctrinal beliefs of the sect or the religion, or irrelevant to how those groups approach it. It’s the interests of the group itself which is why I said at the beginning that this is very much in my opinion about identity rather than about religion itself, determining how those groups behave within the process of democratization.


Yeah. I hope that the book doesn’t come across as too dismissive of the effects of doctrine, because I do think that doctrine probably matters in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it’s a complete explanation when we’re looking at the effects of religion on political attitudes. So, for instance, if you look at just Islam alone, you don’t have to look far to see a huge range of doctrinal interpretations when it comes to democracy. On the one hand, you have the dramatic examples that get lots of media attention where conservative religious leaders are saying that Islam and democracy are incompatible because God is the only legitimate political authority and you can’t have rule by God and rule by the people at the same time.

But on the other side, there are lots of traditions going back really to the earliest days of Islam that look pretty darn democratic. From the very beginning Islam has had these concepts like Ijmāʿ which emphasizes consensus within the community and Shura which means making decisions based on consultation. And there are tons of examples of pro-democracy movements as there are for any religious tradition, but within the Muslim community there are tons of these examples. And so, doctrine clearly only gets us so far. And I think that a part of the explanation for the ambiguity that’s inherently present in the effects of doctrine on democratic preferences is that doctrine is actually often a lot looser and more subject to interpretation than we tend to assume.

And the way that the doctrine gets interpreted is often partially a function of group interests themselves. If you have a religious group in a given country that believes it would benefit from democracy, it’s pretty likely that that group will find a way to interpret and frame its doctrine in a way that supports democracy. But on the other hand, if the group is threatened by democracy, more than likely, we’ll find a way to use its doctrine to if not reject democracy, at least kind of downplay calls for democratic reforms


And that’s seen in places other than just the middle East within Islam. We see that with the Catholic church in places like Poland, where it was very much a strong advocate for democracy during the Polish solidarity movement and in the transition away from communism. But we’ve also seen it go in the opposite direction even within Poland today as they’ve begun to support the law and justice party. And in other places around the world, like Latin American in the past, sometimes they’ve supported military dictatorships and aligned themselves with non-democratic forces there. Again, it depended on what the group’s interests were within that environment. And it wasn’t the interest of Catholics. It’s the interests of those Catholics that have a strong sense of Catholic identity based on communal prayer. Yet again, I would say.


Yeah, I think that there’s certainly an element of that there. My colleague, Dan Philpott, has referred to this as the political ambivalence of religion. And that is all part of the same kind of broader constellation. It operates on the mass level as I show, but it also operates on the elite level. As people who’ve looked at Brazil, Argentina, Poland, et cetera, have shown. So, I think that the logic is slightly different, but it’s really all part of the same broader story.


I found that the way that you think of interests in terms of democratization was very influenced by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s work in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy where they think of democratization as very much a question of economic interests. The idea that class interests are trying to negotiate their way through the process of democratization or moving back towards dictatorship. If the elites decide that they don’t want to move forward in that direction, yours is – it flips it. It says that it’s not about the wealthy, just because of their wealth.  It’s religious identities based on their economic positions. Am I reading this right?


Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the two primary interpretations that I talk about here. The other one is just kind of a numbers game that large groups would tend to benefit from further democratization because they’re going to be more competitive in elections. But it is conditional on what people think democracy really consists of. In Iraq, where you have an environment now where Sunnis had been the privileged group under Saddam Hussein and even decades further back than that, they have a lot of reason to be suspicious of democracy because, to the extent that Iraq has democratized, it’s in a lot of ways come at their expense and without kind of anti-majoritarian protections there are a lot of threats to Sunni interests in that regard.

So majoritarian democracy, if they think of democracy as just being basically ruled by the majority of ordinary people, that could be a threatening proposition for them. But on the other hand, if they’re thinking of it as being primarily redistributive, which now in the post Saddam era people don’t necessarily realize this, but by most indicators the Sunni population is now poorer on average than the Shia population post-Sadam era. So, if Sunnis are thinking about democracy as primarily being an issue of economic redistribution, then the effect flips. Then all of a sudden, communal prayer makes them more supportive of democracy because it would benefit their group in the aggregate. And then if you look at Shia the majority, but also now the economically privileged group, it’s exactly the opposite. That it lines up almost perfectly according to what people think democracy really consists of.

So, the Acemoglu and Robinson version is the kind of redistributive one. Whereas the majoritarian one is probably a more common understanding among ordinary people. I asked a few questions about this in the Lebanon surveys and broadly speaking people do think that democracies redistribute more than non-democracies, but if they have to choose one thing that democracy is about it’s much more likely that they’ll say it’s about elections. It’s about political competition. They might not say it, but essentially majority rule. So, they can simultaneously believe that both of those things are features of democracy while still being likely to emphasize one more than another.


But it’s not just a straight redistribution, like a welfare program. When we talk about economic interests it could be as simple as who gets the government jobs, who is elected to political office. Is it somebody from their group or is it person from another group? I would imagine that the economic interests are a very broad sense of how it impacts you over the long-term, rather than just being a straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to take things from one group and give it to another.’


Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And it plays out differently in different places. So, in Iraq the unique feature of oil wealth, which is an overwhelmingly large feature of the economy and accounts for an astronomical portion of the government’s revenues and things like that, you potentially can redistribute really kind of quickly in that regard. If the money is accruing directly to the state, you can do a lot of good or bad, depending on your perspective, pretty quickly by doing that. But even in places like Lebanon, where the government doesn’t have resources like that at its disposal, this often takes on kind of a regional tone that since sects tend to cluster in particular areas, the government can kind of privilege or discriminate against certain areas in a way indirectly privileging or discriminating against sects.

In Lebanon, you see this most clearly with something like electricity where the state electricity company does not have the capacity to provide for nearly the amount of electricity that the country needs on a consistent basis. And so anywhere you are in the country, you’re going to have some blackouts each day. In kind of more privileged areas, especially in Beirut, that might only be three hours. But if you go to Southern Lebanon, for instance, which is a relatively poor, very high Shia population, that number on average could be more like 12 hours. And that’s a decision that the state makes.

And so, redistribution, as you said, it doesn’t necessarily just look like standard taxes and transfers. It could also be these other things that the state does to allocate resources unfairly or disproportionately or however you want to describe it. But it’s sometimes slightly more subtle than just the Acemoglu and Robinson model of taxes and transfers.


These are also economies that are very heavy in terms of the state’s role within them. So, I would imagine that it also falls under a little bit of Bryn Rosenfeld’s idea of The Autocratic Middle Class where you have a lot of jobs that belong to the middle-class are oftentimes provided by the state. So determining who is actually in charge of offering those jobs probably has an enormous impact on which groups enter the middle-class. Is it this sect, the Sunnis, or is it this sect, the Shia?


Yeah. That’s definitely the case and that’s a good parallel to draw. I think in Lebanon it’s kind of unique because you have the sectarian system that is kind of one of a kind in the world in that so many positions of political power at almost every level are allocated based on this fixed strict sectarian formula. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no flexibility, right? There’s still lots of ways where knowing the right person or giving the job to somebody who’s locally influential or something like that can benefit you and can kind of change the rules of the game. But I think that’s exactly the right way of thinking about it.

It can be more complicated than just saying, ‘Okay, I’m someone who’s tied to the regime and thus I’m going to oppose democratic reforms or something like that.’ In these cases where you have stronger group identities, it’s not just about whether I’m tied to the regime, but whether people like me tend to be tied to the regime or not.


Can you explain the Lebanon system? And Lebanon’s an interesting case because at one point it was considered a thriving democracy within the Middle East, but it no longer is coded as a democracy, according to Freedom House, Polity, and other measures of democracy. Explain what that sectarian system is and what democratization would mean to people who live in Lebanon.


Sure. So, the sectarian system as it’s designed in Lebanon has changed a little bit in the last 80 years, but not really. So, the fundamental principle here is that positions of power are allocated by sect. So, since the end of the civil war that ended in 1989, 1990, there’s been an agreement in place that there’s an equal distribution of Christian and Muslim seats in parliament. It used to be six to five in favor of Christians, but demographic change kind of rendered that just slightly too ridiculous to sustain. So now it’s one to one Christian to Muslim, but also the top positions in government are reserved for particular sects. So, the president, no matter what has to be a Maronite Christian, prime minister, no matter what has to be as Sunni, the speaker of parliament, no matter what has to be a Shia.

The reason that they were designed this way was that theoretically it would promote competition within the group rather than between groups, because whatever district I live in the seats are what they are. I can’t make a vote that would increase the representation of my sect in any way, because the Christians are going to get whatever Christian group, because it actually is further subdivided within the Christian community, say the Maronites, are going to get whatever share of seats they’re going to get, regardless of how many votes anybody wins. They can’t get any more. They can’t get any less. And so I in principle need to be voting based on something else. And that would encourage intergroup competition and presumably by extension cross-group cooperation.

That kind of happened and kind of didn’t in that there has been a lot of collusion at the elite level where parties will kind of shift their alliances based on nothing other than bare strategic concerns in a way that does not represent the will of the people or the interests of the people. It’s also an extraordinarily corrupt and inept system that we’ve seen in the last few years increasingly vocal calls for removing the system root and branch that the whole thing needs to fundamentally be redone. And actually, the agreement in 1943 that led to the sectarian system as we understand it today called for sectarianism, for this system of political allocation to be a temporary measure. But here we are almost eight decades later and there’s,  no real indication that it’s going anywhere anytime soon.


I find it interesting though that most people would look at it and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t meet the standard of democracy, nobody represents all the people. They only represent their specific sect.’ But you mentioned how Lijphart was a big fan of this system and that it promoted his version of consociational democracy.


So, there’s an important distinction there, which is that any representative is representing a sect in the sense that the seat is allocated to their sect, but the idea is that they’re actually representing anyone in their district, anyone in their constituency. Because if I’m in whatever district, there is a seat for a Maronite, two seats for a Sunni, one for a Shia, I’m voting for all of those seats, regardless of my sectarian affiliation. So, the elected official is accountable to me, even if I’m not a member of their sect, that’s the idea. And that was part of the reason why Lijphart, who was unfortunately writing that book at a time right before everything kind of fell apart why Lijphart thought that this was a good arrangement.

Now there actually have been some calls, so the Christian community in particular in Lebanon, has occasionally called for a change to the system where kind of Christians pick the Christian candidates and Muslims pick the Muslim candidates more narrowly within each of those communities, but that hasn’t taken hold. And I think that would actually be a fundamental transformation of what the system was designed to do. That from the Christian perspective, it would mean that we’re choosing our own representatives, but from the perspective of the system, that would undo the fundamental principle of promoting within group competition and cross group cooperation.


Now, why is Lebanon no longer considered democratic? In fact, I even think I remember reading Lijphart coding Lebanon as a full democracy within Patterns of Democracy in the past. But today people don’t think of Lebanon as a democracy. It’s regularly said that only Israel and Tunisia are considered democratic within all of the Middle East.


Yeah, it’s one of those things that I think that it’s sort of death by a thousand cuts because it’s hard to point to one specific thing that says Lebanon is clearly not a democracy. But there are a lot of things that put together, make it clear that this is that this is not a democratic country. One of them is simply the level of corruption. The decisions that people make at the ballot box have almost no effect on policy, which of course we know is true in all democracies to varying extents, but it’s really, it’s really dramatically true in Lebanon. That there are elections and they are somewhat competitive, but they never lead to real change. The competition is broadly based on the kind of elite compromises that are made, who chooses to run where.

Vote buying is rampant, depending on the estimates that you trust, it could be that a majority of Lebanese actually sell their votes during elections, very hard to have a real democracy when that’s happening. It’s also the case in starker terms. Elections recently have not always happened on time. So, in the late two thousands, Parliament extended its own mandate more than one time, which it actually has no constitutional authority to do. But because there wasn’t broad agreement on an electoral law, they took this step and kind of just got away with it. That’s in my mind almost the most undemocratic thing that could happen.

But actually even prior to that, it still wasn’t really the case that Lebanon was a democracy because people’s interests aren’t represented, there’s all kinds of gerrymandering. All of these things that are present to some extent in all democracies, but to an extent in Lebanon that really makes it so that we can’t with a straight face call this a democratic country.


So how do sectarian interests affect whether they support further reform or oppose reform?


So, the story here is one of issue evolution. In 2006, 2007 that environment was one where even though Sunnis and Shia were certainly divided when it came to these core issues of electoral representation and to a lesser extent, economic redistribution, they could see their interests as being somewhat aligned against the heavily privileged Christian community, which even though it’s not as overrepresented as it was before the civil war, it’s still overrepresented.

Shia are especially underrepresented as the book notes that depending on what numbers you believe in terms of the population, because there hasn’t been a census conducted since 1932, which is certainly not an accident, but depending on what numbers you believe, they could be somewhere between 35 and 55% of the population. It’s pretty reliably established that they’re the largest group, again, depending on the numbers you trust, they might be considerably larger than any other individual group. But in the let’s say pre-2008 era, because 2008 was another moment where you saw tensions rise between Sunnis and Shia in kind of an unprecedented way where Hezbollah Shia militia uses its weapons against fellow Lebanese for the first time in its history.

But prior to any of that, prior to the Syrian Civil War, it made more sense to think of this in terms of a Christian-Muslim divide when it came to these core electoral issues. The Syrian civil war and the events in the years surrounding that, especially the regional heightening of sectarianism and all of the components that move along with that, made it in an environment where it made more sense to think about this as a Sunni-Shia split with Christians, kind of on the sidelines. So, to this day, the Christian community in Lebanon is pretty much split 50-50 when it comes to which side they take with regard to the Syrian Civil War and consequently, which Muslim group they’re naturally more allied with in Lebanon.

Broadly speaking, again, it’s not good to talk about these things as if they’re hard and fast rules. But broadly speaking, Sunnis in Lebanon sympathize with the opposition in Syria. Whereas Shia, again, generally speaking, sympathize with and support the regime. Christians are almost evenly divided, but for the most part, prefer to kind of keep their hands out of the fighting. But what that means is now that the main axis of competition is between Sunnis and Shia. Since Christians are split, it’s sort of depending on which side you find yourself on. As a Christian, you could potentially ally with either and so you could be part of a winning coalition on either side. And so, the Christian incentives with respect to elections in particular are no longer nearly as clear as they were when this community was more united on the fundamentals as they were pre-2011.

So now the fact that it’s a Sunni-Shia thing, makes the competition look very, very different and makes the role of Christians in some ways more significant, but in some ways less significant in that they’re more of a kind of pivot. They’re more of a pivot point at this juncture that they themselves can’t really hope to govern on their own, but are potentially a part of any viable coalition since the Sunnis and Shia are now so divided that they could not possibly kind of numerically overpower Christians.


I thought the civil war was what really brought your theory together because it demonstrated that it couldn’t be purely doctrinal beliefs that determine whether somebody supports or opposes democracy. It’s interests that play a significant role, and not only interests, but you emphasize that those interests are very fluid and they move fast. The way that Sunnis shifted in terms of their feelings about democratization within Lebanon, the way that they changed their political allegiance as a group. Those who participate in communal prayer within Lebanon was so fast that it couldn’t have been, ‘Hey, this is what Sunnis believe.’ It was, ‘Our interests as a group have transformed. We now as a group, believe something else.’


Yeah. That’s, that’s absolutely the right take on it. And I think as you said it really does underscore the fact that this is not primarily about doctrine per se, because Sunni doctrine did not change dramatically in six years. Right? This is a doctrine that traces back to documents from, you know, 1400 years ago almost. So, the idea that between 2006 and 2012 there would be this overwhelming shift in an anti-democratic direction in Sunni doctrine just does not seem plausible. And yes, my interpretation of it is exactly what you said.

But it points to another important feature of the way that people think about democracy which is that because the way that a lot of people think about democracy is so instrumental that makes it also very subject to minor perturbations in the political order that if people are so willing to jump ship, when it comes to either democracy or non-democracy, can we really then consider their regime preferences to be built on anything solid? And I think the sad reality is that support for democracy is almost always more fragile than those of us who are fans of democracy would like to believe. We’re seeing it in the U S right now. A large and growing segment of the U S population is openly advocating for anti-democratic policies and values because they think that representative democracy would put them at a disadvantage politically speaking.

And I think that that comes from the fact that like any other regime type democracy has winners and losers. It could be, if we’re talking about Lebanon, Iraq, the U S or anywhere else, if we’re people who like democracy, we need to find ways to frame democratic proposals as being, if not win-win than at least not clearly zero sum. I really unfortunately have no idea how you do that, but it’s an important task for the people who do this kind of work, because unconditional support for democracy probably isn’t terribly widespread anywhere. And it’s probably not enough to build or sustain a democratic regime on its own.


So, the sectarian factions within your book also represent polarized factions. We’ve got Sunnis and Shi’ites within Lebanon. We’ve got Sunnis and Shi’ites within Iraq that are both polarized in effect. And that’s holding back the democratization process in both countries. How much did Liz Nugent’s work on polarization influence your own work?


Yeah, I couldn’t even begin to tell you the ways that Liz’s work influenced mine. And actually, maybe even more than that, how much I’ve learned from her about how to be scholar. Liz started at Princeton a year after I did. And the Middle East politics community at Princeton is huge now, but it wasn’t at the time. So, Liz and I were usually in a lot of the same kind of small circles and she and I read and commented on each other’s dissertation drafts more times than either of us would probably care to count. Her book, I think, will influence or should influence just about anybody working on Middle East politics in the near future. It’s called After Repression.

I think that it’s also fair to say that the biggest way that her work has influenced mine is in the way that it talks about political psychology. So even though Liz was looking primarily at elites and I’m primarily looking at ordinary citizens, we’re both talking about psychology in a significant sense. And I don’t think I fully appreciated that until I saw the way that Liz was discussing it in what was at the time her dissertation. For both of us that meant having to consider things like how do people navigate competing interests? How do they work together? How do they evaluate political possibilities? And no matter what level you’re talking about, whether it’s the elites or the masses, so to speak, those are important things. And so, I saw a lot of parallels, even though our topics are actually quite different.


I feel that there’s almost a Princeton approach that’s being developed when I look at Liz’s work, Bryn’s work and your work where it’s almost a three-step process where experiences form identities, identities define interests, and then interests go on to shape perspectives on politics, which is especially important when we talk about the support for or opposition to democratization.

And I think that that’s somewhat novel to think of people being opposed to democratization. I think that’s really where it becomes novel, the idea that it’s not this tyrant that’s imposing their rule, but there really are people that have an interest in maintaining that system, even if they’re not a majority. I’m not trying to say it’s democratic. I’m not trying to say that we like it. But that there are actual vested interests propping that system up. And I find that to be a very novel approach that I see with an all three of your work.


Yeah, it’s, it’s too easy sometimes to think about democracy as, you know, a win-win situation when in reality, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. And public opinion data will tell you that sometimes if you ask just kind of basic support for democratic institutions questions, you get really high levels of support for democracy. And very often those numbers are kind of superficial that when you look under the hood. You see that people aren’t willing to give up what they have or are suspicious of certain features of democracy. And so, it doesn’t translate necessarily into a full blown, sincere commitment to democracy, because there are things that a lot of people could lose from democracy. And from a normative perspective that’s problematic for those of us who like democracy.

But it’s something that needs to be contended with. And people have reasons for feeling the way they do. And sometimes those are basic personal economic things. Sometimes they’re group things. Sometimes they’re ideological things. But I think policymakers would be well-served to acknowledge the fact that people do not universally see democracy as non-threatening.


Well, I think that it’s essential for the democracy promotion community, if you’re trying to promote democracy aid, you need to have a realistic view of who wants to bring it about, and who’s opposed to it and what you can do to alleviate those concerns. So, yeah, I think, that creates a clear-eyed vision towards it.

So, Mike, I started out by asking you how I felt like your work approached religion from a sociological view. And I felt that in many ways, it’s more about identity, the sense of communal prayer establishing a sense of identity, rather than it being purely about religion. Especially the way that you focus on interests rather than doctrine in terms of how religion affects it. Can your work translate to other forms of identity beyond religion? Could we think of the way that people participate in different activities that then form a group identity that then shapes their feelings towards democracy or even their feelings towards different political perspectives or views?


You know, Justin, as much as I’d love to take credit for that kind of contribution. I think I’d be lying if I said that my book is really introducing something kind of new paradigm that should make us rethink everything we know about identity. I hope that the book moves the ball forward, but the reality is that this book is building on a lot of existing work that gives really smart and insightful answers to a lot of these questions. I think that social identity theory in particular has shown us that people are often willing to leave money on the table so to speak if doing so gives their group some kind of esteem. And that coupled with the kind of unique American dream mentality would probably go a long way toward explaining why so many Americans, as we know, vote against their economic interests.

I think that my book could be used to explain this phenomenon within the context of religious groups. And that’s probably more important than a lot of people in the United States realize. But I can’t, I have to say, I can’t in good conscience claim to be breaking new ground when it comes to explaining economically irrational voting in the U.S. especially because my work really borrows heavily from a lot of really good research on that topic.


But I think what your work does do is it asks the question of ‘Why does group identity form?’ And you place it within the context of – it’s based on a behavior – it’s based on something that you do on an ongoing basis that starts to shape that sense of identity. And when I look at the work of American scholars, like the political scientist Kathy Kramer, when I look at sociologists within the United States, like Arlo Russell Hochschild, they pose the question that there are different senses of identity, especially within rural America versus urban America. But there’s no sense of what ties that together. What establishes that. And I like how your book breaks it down within a very different environment to be able to say, it’s not enough to just be a part of a community. It’s the behaviors and practices that reinforce that sense of identity over time.


Yeah, that’s something that I really wanted to emphasize here and I’m glad that it came through. I didn’t look at sectarianism in the United States in this book because this one was about democracy. And I naively thought 10 years ago that American democracy did not face all that many significant threats. So I thought that in a country where democracy is the only game in town, which I thought the U.S. was in, that this theory wouldn’t have a whole lot to say. But since the next book isn’t going to be as expressly focused on democracy, I think that I will spend a lot more time thinking about it as I have in the last few years.

And part of the motivation for this is that a lot of the great recent literature on sectarianism essentially says that we should throw away this term sectarianism because it’s just primarily used to otherize the Middle East while ignoring the fact that religious identity politics is important just about everywhere, including the United States. And I agree with the premise, but not the conclusion. I think that the term sectarianism as it’s used in ordinary conversation these days absolutely is a weapon and it’s a weapon that’s used unfairly. But my take on that, or my response to that, is that rather than discarding it, we should acknowledge that it’s actually a lot more useful for a wider range of cases beyond the handful that we always seem to apply it to.

So, in the U.S. is the tight link between evangelical Christianity and the Republican party sectarianism? In Europe is Islamophobia sectarianism? I think the answer in both cases is probably yes.


Well, Mike, thanks for joining me on the podcast. It’s been an excellent conversation. Congratulations on the new book that just came out in January.


Yes. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Key Links

Faith in Numbers: Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy by Michael Hoffman

Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Patterns of Democracy by Arend Lijphart

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