February 13, 2023 | 1,198 words | Politics, Philosophy, Religion
Christianity versus Liberal Democracy
Everyone is always singing the praises of “liberal democracy” these days. Not only is it universally thought of as the best possible form of government, it’s the only one any reasonable person will even consider. This despite the strife and turmoil being experienced in democracies around the world. And despite how we here in the United States have not done a particularly good job over the last 250 years keeping some of our own golden promises, such as the “all men (and women?) are created equal” clause in our country’s founding documents.
Somehow coming up short on such a fundamental premise has not prompted Americans to re-think their enthusiasm for, or question their commitment to, the liberal democratic “rule of law.” Probably because they see it as the only game in town.
Christianity, on the other hand, has not been so lucky. It no longer elicits the same degree of loyalty it once did. In searching for a viable operational system that works for modern-day society, many elite thinkers and leading opinion-makers passed on the idea of religious belief and practice a long time ago.
And the rest of us have followed suit. Christianity is no longer seen as a reliable arbiter of social thought or and public behavior, having been relegated to a merely private matter with no bearing on the larger community.
There is a consensus among opinion-makers and common folk alike that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It enjoyed its time at the top, running the show, but failed to deliver peace and prosperity. Determined to find a better way, we adopted a system of “checks and balances” and now assume the problem is solved. But there is something askew with the conventional wisdom. Look how mightily our three branches of government have struggled to mete out simple justice over the last 250 years. Then consider how much harder it has been for Christianity to get the mass of Western humanity to embody the divine directive “love your neighbor as yourself” for the last two millennium.
Yet that degree-of-difficulty does not earn the Catholic Church, as the primary purveyor of Christianity for much of history, any wiggle room in the public eye. Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has been shunted to the side of any serious political science discussion. Apparently, the Achilles heel of Catholicism is that it operates without consulting “the will of the people.” This makes its shortcomings and outright failures more reprehensible, and less forgivable, than those of a run-of-the-mill secular institution.
My contention is this: There was no reason to abandon the Christian social order half a millennium or so ago in favor of classical liberalism – the ideology at the heart of the liberal democratic order – due to the so-called failure of the former. When things go wrong it is not necessarily the operating system in question that is to blame, but the people attempting to apply the system. Flawed human beings trying to implement the lofty objectives of liberal democracy are no better or worse than the flawed humans who have been trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.
We have been taught that liberal democracy is synonymous with reason, and is therefore the rational alternative. But instead of an objective analysis of the advantages and benefits of one system (liberal democracy) versus the other (Christianity), we have embraced liberal democracy (and rejected Christianity) based on a highly emotional appeal to liberating the individual from any prior constraint: moral, political, and economic. This liberation, it should be noted, is widely viewed as the key to “human flourishing.”
Having said that, I realize many Christians who embrace liberal democracy and the broader tenets of classical liberalism do not see themselves as rejecting Christianity. Far from it. In my experience, they typically see the liberal democratic order as a perfect embodiment of their Christian ideals. A timely update, if you will, of the Christianity they know and love and profess belief in. But to my mind that’s only because these well-intentioned souls have been let down by their teachers, and cannot see the forest for the trees.
There are many things to like about liberal democracy in the abstract: Representative government with free and open elections. The protection of individual liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. With these rights being codified in law, and therefore not subject to the whim of an unelected ruler. Along with an emphasis on the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a system of checks and balances between branches of government. But these lovely-sounding concepts are fatally undermined by the faulty premise at the heart of classical liberalism, which serves as the ideological wellspring and jumping off point for liberal democracy.
That premise involves elevating individual autonomy and individual freedom and individual rights above any other consideration, such as the common good. Classical liberalism asserts the individual knows best, does not require any guidance in moral, political, or economic matters, and should therefore be set free to direct his or her own path in life. Unencumbered by any previously-held authority, custom, or tradition.
Following this line of thought, there is a corresponding belief in the power of the individual to figure everything out as he or she goes along, and that things in the larger society will work out for the better, eventually.
If you are looking for a quick explanation of how liberal democracy currently functions in opposition to Christianity, I would offer this straightforward observation. The former encourages chutzpah in all things, while the latter encourages humility.
I would also suggest the Achilles heel of classical liberalism and liberal democracy is that it removes all limits to individual appetite. It assumes an invisible hand and enlightened self-interest will corral and mollify age-old, socially-corrosive predilections such as pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
It seems that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has spent the last century or so trying to adapt belief and practice to the liberal democratic order, in one way or another. For the Anglican Church, a seminal event might be the Lambeth Conference of 1930. For the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) comes to mind.
I am not critical of these efforts. But I do think the larger society would reap more benefit if the adaptation came from the opposite direction: If the liberal democratic order, which now reigns supreme, could bring itself to work the basic precepts of the Christian social order into its thought process.
Giving priority to individual freedom in social, political, and economic life, with the pursuit of individual happiness understood as the highest good, may sound reasonable. And focusing on limited government and economic freedom to get there does indeed make a degree of sense. Especially to the clever or advantaged among us.
But this logic ignores the larger philosophical issue. Namely, the important role humility and moderation (i.e., limiting individual appetite) play in a well-lived life, and contribute to a well-ordered society. And how practicing these virtues naturally makes citizens more empathetic toward their fellow citizens. Especially toward those citizens less advantaged or less clever than themselves.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.