The consultation and advice of religious leaders
a year ago
Recently, several prominent Buddhist monks, in a letter addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, put forward several suggestions to help manage the prevailing economic crisis, which included a number of steps concerning public funds, policies, renewable energy, business, and investment. Religious leaders playing an active role in politics and governance, either with politicians or as politicians, is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. However, this is the first time in recent memory that religious leaders went to the country’s leader with proposals that concern the national economy. At a time when the Government can use every powerful sector’s contribution in some way, this could be a good development. However, the way by which the two parties deal with each other with regard to matters that concern an entire nation is a matter both the parties should take seriously, because they come from completely different backgrounds. To benefit from this relationship, there should be a clear understanding as to each party’s contribution and expectations. This understanding starts with religious leaders ending the practice of advising politicians on national issues which are beyond their areas of expertise and potentially leading those politicians down the wrong path, and politicians ending the practice of blindly prioritising religious interests over national interests in order to gain votes or the confidence of influential religious leaders, because both situations have been prevalent in the recent past. Their relationship should be based on informed decisions, not politics or religion. Even though religious leaders are entitled to any right that the citizens are entitled to, including the freedom of engaging in politics, there should be a clear line in terms of the limits of this involvement and engagement. If they engage with politicians at a higher, influential level, those engagements should be made by religious leaders who are actually qualified and are competent to contribute to such. This is extremely important with regard to matters such as the economy, defence, and foreign policy, which require more knowledge and expertise than mere influence based on religion. Religion can be a qualification only if the matter at hand concerns matters such as religion, culture, or traditions. In this regard, both parties have a massive responsibility. Politicians should understand that they are responsible for an entire nation and that their decisions should be based on facts and figures instead of cultural or religious interests. Moreover, religious leaders should understand their role and responsibilities, and question whether certain issues which are not religious in nature call for their intervention. Identifying the importance of maintaining a gap and balance between the two parties may be somewhat alien to Sri Lanka owing to the strong bond between the two. Sri Lanka has a long tradition of kings consulting the Buddhist clergy, and post-independence, the heads of state have kept this tradition alive, mostly to appease the general population, which is highly religious irrespective of which religion they belong to. However, various countries have identified, to varying degrees, the need to maintain a healthy distance between religion and government, with a famous concept being the separation of church and state in the western world. This separation entails many social, cultural, legal, and political aspects which involve defining the two parties’ roles and influence on each other. Religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, have been an almost inseparable part of all aspects of the country, including politics, culture, and the society. Therefore, how far the State and religion could be separated or be disengaged is a topic that requires careful consideration and debate. That is not to say that religious leaders and governance should be completely separated. However, serious steps need to be taken in order to ensure that the two parties’ relationship is mutually beneficial, and even more importantly, beneficial to the country, and in this regard, both politicians and Governments and religious elders have to understand their roles and competencies. At the end of the day, religious leaders participating in politics and governance, directly or through politicians or various organisations, is not a phenomenon that can be painted with a broad brush as good or bad. Whether their interventions and contributions help the country or not can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, the responsibility lies with both politicians and religious leaders to ensure their collaborations and consultations produce synergy and a positive outcome for the nation and its people.