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  • Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan
  • Philip Clart (bio)
Richard Madsen. Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xxvi, 191 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 978-0-520-25227-1. Paperback $26.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25228-8.

After more than forty years of single-party rule under the Kuomintang (KMT), headed first by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), then by his son Chiang Ching-kuo (1910–1988), the lifting of the state of martial law in 1987 set off a dynamic democratic development that led in 2000 to the first election of an opposition candidate to the presidency of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The rapid transformation of the Taiwanese political system has attracted the attention of many social scientists interested in the democratization of a non-Communist authoritarian regime roughly contemporary with the breakdown of the Communist party-states in Eastern Europe, especially because of its potential as a model for political change in mainland China. The role of religious institutions was one of the key research areas in the study of European democratization. While the churches (especially Protestant and Catholic) played important civil society roles and were crucial agents of political change in some Soviet bloc countries (such as East Germany and Poland), their positive influence in other countries was less noticeable (e.g., in the USSR or under the clerico-fascist Franco regime in Spain). What, then, was the role of religious institutions in the development of liberal democracy in Taiwan? This is Richard Madsen’s central question, for which he provides a number of thought-provoking answers.

As a coauthor (with Robert N. Bellah and others) of Habits of the Heart,1 Madsen belongs to a school of sociology long concerned with the role of religion in the public life of liberal democracies. While not rejecting the Enlightenment critique of the divisive public role of religions and the resultant view of modernization as ineluctably linked to secularization (in the sense of the privatization of religion and its exclusion from the public sphere), these scholars seek to balance the picture with an emphasis on the continuing need, even of secular democracies, to establish a moral consensus and an ultimate source of legitimation. Among other contributions, this school of thought gave us the controversial civil religion concept. It is significant that both Bellah and Madsen have a research background in East Asian societies, Japan in the case of Bellah, China in that of Madsen — significant because the East Asian history of religions provides test cases and possibly alternatives for largely Western-focused secularization theories. Herein lies one of the attractions that post–martial law Taiwan has for Richard Madsen and other social scientists.

Given the minor role of religious groups in the pre-1987 opposition movement (largely limited to a liberal faction in the Presbyterian Church), Madsen focuses his attention on the contributions of four major religious institutions in the democratization process after 1987. The four groups are the Buddhist Tzu Chi [End Page 214] Foundation, Buddha’s Light Mountain, Dharma Drum Mountain, and the Daoist Enacting Heaven Temple (more on the problematic nature of this Daoist label below). Madsen summarizes his two main themes as follows: “By studying several prominent religious groups in Taiwan, I want to show more generally how religion affects movements towards democracy. I also want to demonstrate how progressive forms of religion grow” (p. xxiii). For the first theme, Madsen seeks to combat

the general skepticism among mainstream scholars about the capacity of religion to play a positive public role in the building of modern, liberal democratic institutions. This case [i.e., that of Taiwan, reviewer’s note], however, is another piece of evidence for what my co-authors and I argued in Habits of the Heart and The Good Society: A purely secular liberalism — a liberalism founded simply on the rational self-interest of individual citizens — is not a basis for a viable, robust polity. It is evidence for the notion that all coherent states rest on holy ground.

(p. xxiii)

Madsen’s second theme is encapsulated in what he calls “a search for...