Democracies in Crisis Course Combines Political Theory and Religion

October 23, 2015

In their Democracies in Crisis course, Professors Germaine Walsh and David Baer are melding political theory, philosophy, and religion. The class allows students to not only meet a general education requirement, but experience a class focused on global studies. This type of interdisciplinary teaching—a method used to teach and apply knowledge, principles, and/or values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously—lets Walsh and Baer combine and share their expertise with TLU students.

As colleagues with offices in the same building, Baer said he would often stop by and chat with Walsh about political issues and their respective research. Those conversations developed into an idea to teach the class.

“I had been studying French philosophers—like 19th-century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville—for quite some time and their critiques of democracies,” Walsh, professor of political science, said. “I noticed that current philosophers were also commenting on how unattainable the aspirations of the European Union (EU) have become. That was when I started also thinking about the current economic crises in Europe and stresses on the EU. David had recently returned from Hungary where he had direct experience seeing a country dealing with its own crisis concerning religious freedom, so we decided to design the course.”

Over the past four years, Baer, professor of philosophy and theology, has spent much time examining and writing about religious freedom in Hungary—specifically a 2012 law that stripped most small religious communities of their legal status. He recently attended the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) conference in Warsaw, Poland where he and other members of Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF) called on the Hungarian government to amend the law per FOREF’s recommendations.

“One of the things we’re focusing on in the class is sort of the devolution of democracy in Hungary,” Baer said. “For the longest time, democracy was seen as sort of the model for the world and we’re now seeing how that glamour is fading in places like Europe.”

The course is also an avenue to educate students about what it means to be global citizens.

“We want them to be more informed about the world they live in,” Baer said. “We want them to become intelligent observers with a better understanding of world issues, and even evaluate politicians and presidents better.”

Many group discussions occur in class, and in their online discussion boards, as they continue to present the pros and cons a democracy imposes upon a country.

“Tocqueville said we must be democracy’s friend and not its flatterer,” Walsh said. “So, we continue to present those strengths and weaknesses in different ways every class and there is a lot of discussion and interaction among ourselves and students. We definitely want to keep teaching the course, hopefully again in fall 2016. We focus a lot on East Germany and the rise and fall of communism. Our goal is to eventually add a travel component where we would take students to Germany so they can see how what they’re learning in class is still very visible today.”

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