Poggi, Ambra (2017). 'Is accountability important for democracy? The role of religion' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The accountability channel, described as early as 1816 by Jeremy Bentham, emphasizes the ability of citizens to use the electoral mechanism to shape the incentives facing politicians (Bentham,1999; Barro 1973; Ferejohn 1986). In such models, politicians perform well because they fear being turned out of office if they do not. Thus, elections force elected politicians to account for their performance and provide opportunities for challengers to offer citizens alternative policy choices. Moreover, accountability prevents corruption and ensures that public officials remain answerable and accessible to the people they serve. Instead, limited accountability undermine the strength of the incentives mechanism and increases the scope for opportunistic politicians to shirk from their duties or to implement policies far from voters' ideals without electoral consequences (Buchanan 1989). Accountability is, therefore, an important part of the democratic process governing the society and individuals have reasons for valuing it (Sen, 1999). However, not all individuals equally value accountability. The aim of this paper is to shed light on the factors leading individuals to value more or less accountability. In particular, we investigates the role of religion. Our hypothesis is that some religions encouraging critical thinking lead to value more accountability. 

If voters are literate, informed about social and political processes in the past and present, and can think critically, they do not simply accept without question whatever politicians claim and we will have a more robust political system with leaders kept adequately in check by being held accountable for their actions (Nussbaum, 2010). According to this view, critical thinking is necessary for both evaluating governing parties’ performance and understanding the importance of accountability for democracy. Different education models as well as different religions may encourage the developing of capacities for critical thinking at different levels. For example, Protestant have ruled out of court, ab initio, critical thinking since it has been seen as corrosive or destructive to a person’s Christian faith (Witherington, 2012). Also Islam often discourage critical thinking (Khalili Qasmi, 2000). Other religions have, however, encouraged to develop individuals’ capacities for critical thinking and autonomous ethical reflection in order to enable individuals to revive their religion and adhere to it rejecting alternative identities. For example, critical thinking skills are encouraged and developed in the Jewish community (Silbirger, 2009).

The importance given to accountability by individuals belonging to religion not promoting critical thinking can be even lower if some crucial mediating variables are present. One of this mediating variable can be income. In facts, poor individuals are more likely to rely on religion for comfort (Rees, 2009).  In facts, the local place of worship may provide material support for people’s basic needs and prayer may offer the individual the experience of social support in situations when material social support is insufficient. Moreover, personal religious beliefs can provide a buffer against adverse life events. For example, when someone is suffering it may console him or her to think that the end of the world is near and that God will bring it to a close and reward the faithful with everlasting joy. Doom and gloom predictions about the trials and tribulations that humanity will face before the apocalypse, prevalent in Christian fundamentalism, may also help some people attribute a higher purpose to their suffering, explaining it as “part of God’s ultimate plan” (Rees, 2009). Thus, a central role of religion in the individual life may lead poor individuals to accept without question whatever politicians claim when politicians explicitly share the same moral and religion traditions.[1]

In this paper, we investigate empirically the impact of religion identities on the probability that individuals value accountability important for democracy. We also test the role of income as mediating variable.  In order to do so, we use data from the 2012 European Social Survey Multilevel Data. We apply a multilevel approach to analyze individual-level factors that might affect the individual evaluation of accountability controlling for country-level factors (e.g. macro-traits and welfare characteristics of the country in which the individual is situated). Our findings lend support to the view that religion identities matter in determining the role of accountability for democracy. Religions promoting critical thinking (as Eastern Orthodox and Jewish) seem to lead to high evaluation of accountability. Instead, religions not promoting critical thinking (e.g. Christians and Muslim) seem to have a negative impact on the probability to value accountability for the population sub-groups that the most rely on religion for comfort (e.g. low-income people).

[1] Some authors show that vote choices are based on both economic and moral preferences (Roemer 1998, 2001, 2005; Akerlof and Kranton 2000; Gill and Lundsgaarde 2004)

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