Does Christianity lead to democracy?

Laura Wood writes (my thanks to Stewart G. for pointing it out to me):

While 21st century radical democracy, with its insistence on the extreme separation of church and state, is indeed hostile to Christian society, democracy essentially fulfills Christianity rather than opposes it. There are obvious disadvantages to church leaders being appointed by monarchs, with the church then inevitably, over the course of time, becoming a tool of the state. When church is strong and infuses its sensibility throughout society, democracy provides for the flowering of faith. Democracy represents the evolution of Christian principles and the recognition of a God that does not force, but beckons…

This is an argument I cannot fully develop here. But one reason I chose Kalb’s quote is I was annoyed to find a Catholic blogger yearning for a day when we will be ruled by a Catholic king and all the complexities of modern life will be resolved in a theocratic utopia. This longing is misplaced. Theocracy destroys a society’s love of God.

I am flattered to infer that Mrs. Wood still reads this blog.  (If she’s found another Catholic theocratic utopian, I hope she’ll provide a link.  My kindred spirits are hard to find.)  The Thinking Housewife is probably the best reactionary weblog on the internet, and I recommend that everyone read it daily and take Mrs. Wood’s arguments seriously.  One should note that she insists that it’s not “radical” democracy that Christianity is supposed to lead to.  Her ideal would be a limited franchise and an informal Protestant establishment.  If I were going to get behind any kind of democracy, that would be the one I’d find most attractive.  However, as someone who thinks that theocracy is actually the natural expression of society’s love of God, and democracy the expression of insubordination, I owe it to my readers to present the seldom-heard alternate point of view.

I will be interested to see how The Thinking Housewife develops this idea of a correlation (of any kind) between Christianity and democracy, given that it seems to be so completely and consistently contradicted by the historical record.  History, I think, backs up us Christian theocrats.  Christianity has only ever flourished under empire or monarchy.  Democracy has always been the work of unbelievers, and it has always brought ruin to public faith.  For many happy centuries, the Church worked with monarchical governments to build Christian societies; more than this, it was primarily the Church that lifted the barbarians from tribal democracy to territorial monarchy.  Then two centuries ago, a gang of usurpers–atheists and freemasons all–imposed democracy first on English America and France, then on the rest of Europe.  Christianity in the West immediately died everywhere–yes even in America, where the public culture is aggressively atheistic, and the Christianity of the majority is purely nominal.  The historical piece of evidence Mrs. Wood presents–the fact that Christianity collapsed in France after monarchy-established Catholicism was replaced by republic-established atheism–actually backs up my claim.  France had been proudly Christian–with an enormous bounty of saints and theologians–for a millenium under the Catholic monarchy, and it could have been Christian for another millenium if deist freemasons hadn’t imposed an accursed democracy.  The argument I’m always seeing is “We were doing A and it seemed to be working fine.  Then we switched to B, and all hell broke loose.  That means that A wasn’t really working as well as we thought, and we should keep doing B.”  But that doesn’t follow at all.  The fact that the majority apostasizes when apostasy is made official dogma does not mean that they weren’t really Christian when Christianity was the officially inculcated belief system.  By that reasoning, we should assume that Europeans today aren’t really agnostic liberals, but only pretend to be out of fear of hate crimes litigation.  This is obviously wishful thinking.  The majority always accepts its society’s ideology.  They accept it without thought or interior reservation.

Here is the really interesting question:  what explains the consistent and enduring affinity between monarchy and Christianity?  Why is it that a society that embraces one finds itself more receptive to the other?  What is it about the idea of serving a king that speaks to the hearts of Christian men, even as the same idea inspires repulsion in “free-thinkers” and deists?  Here we must remember that a government is not to be thought of primarily as a machine for gathering taxes, waging wars, and the rest.  Above all else, government is a symbol.  It is first of all a people’s symbol of itself, the embodiment and voice of the collective (what Voegelin called society’s “existential representation”).  But the government also symbolizes a peoples’ vision of the order of the cosmos and their collective relation to moral and sacred absolutes (the “cosmological” and “psychological” representations).  Certain forms of government may better capture a people’s spiritual intuitions than others.  I claim that democracy is essentially an anti-Christian symbolic structure; it’s an atheist’s vision of the world expressed in institutions.  Conversely, monarchical symbolism is extremely congruent with the Christian worldview and attractive to the Christian sensibility.

  1. The fundamental Christian policital principle is the social kingship of Christ:  all authority comes from God.  God’s sovereignty extends not only over all individual souls, but over all human collectives.  All Christian nations have developed a clear way of expressing this in their coronation ceremonies.  This is a distinctly Christian ritual that began in Byzantium, spread to the West with Charlemagne, and is still practiced in officially Christian lands.  The king is annointed by the senior prelate:  a sign that authority comes from God, and also a sign of the Church’s superiority to the state.  The Church mediates our contemplative union with God, while the State makes God’s sovereignty over our wills concretely present.  As the intellect is prior to the will, and the king’s legitimacy rests on faith in God’s will taught by the Church, the Church must be the superior power.  The king takes an oath to preserve the traditions of the nation he shall guard, and the people by their acclamations pledge their fealty to their temporal sovereign.  The king is no creature of the popular will.  His claim lies in his birth, that is his organic (indeed biological) connection to his nation’s past, and therefore to its beginning, the quasi-mystical time when that people constituted itself as a sacred order.  Symbolically, mythologically, the beginning of a nation recapitulates the ordering of the world out of chaos by God “in the beginning”.  Beginnings symbolize God–the ultimate source of Being and so the ultimate “beginning”–by their very nature.  Hence the sacrality of tradition and ancestors.
  2. On the other hand, democracy denies God’s sovereignty, blasphemously claiming to derive authority from the will of “the people”.  Elected representatives are–and, more importantly, are seen to be by the symbolism of their election and installation–creatures of popular will.  They are not bound by God or national tradition.  They represent the people’s unfettered will.  It is no wonder that, when a democracy is in power, it quickly displaces Christianity as the official creed with an ideology more suited to its essence, namely the worship of freedom.
  3. Monarchy also makes itself congruent to Christian sensibilities by making the king a quasi-sacramental figure.  His distinction from the ecclesiastical ministry is always clearly maintained (a king cannot confect the Eucharist), but a vaguely sacral aura nevertheless affixes itself to him.  It was not at all out of place, for example, for the king to offer blessings.  Disrespect for the royal family was vaguely sacreligious.  There is no idolotry here; Christianity is a distinctly sacramental, Incarnational religion.  God’s efficacy is spread out through creation.  He acts and shows Himself through visible signs in which members of Christ’s body, the Church, participate.  Bringing the temporal power into this economy of grace is pleasing to the Christian imagination; in fact, the Christian imagination suffers from its absence.
  4. Democracy, on the other hand, makes the temporal order wholly profane.  It is a machine engineered to satisfy whatever temporal desires we happen to possess.  No man ever felt nearer to God from an encounter with Congress.
  5. Finally, democracy is stupid and vulgar, while Christianity is sublime.  Therefore, they naturally repel.

29 Responses

  1. @Bonald – “For many happy centuries” – I think you mean Holy not Happy – happiness is beside the point.

    Mrs Wood’s response was to my ‘Orthodox’ response to Jim Kalb’s Western Catholic argument for the necessity of spearating Church (Pope) and State (Monarch) –

    this is a summary of the Orthodox position (as I understand it):

  2. […] Throne and Altar, Bonald argues that monarchy is the solution to the ills of modern society and the highest form of government. […]

  3. “I will be interested to see how The Thinking Housewife develops this idea of a correlation (of any kind) between Christianity and democracy, given that it seems to be so completely and consistently contradicted by the historical record.”

    One of the strangest aspects of modernity is that it requires us all to utter belief in things we know intuitively to be false and even evil. So, for instance, people who believe abortion is an evil are nevertheless required to profess a “right” to it, as if there were such a thing as a right to do evil.

    When I realized this fact — that (modern) democracy actually requires us not only to repudiate our convictions and principles not only in practice but even in thought — it struck me what a deeply pernicious and vile creation democracy is.

  4. From reading her response it would appear you are not the mystery the monarchist.

  5. It may be worth pondering a slightly larger perspective here. First, that the condition of monarchy and the understanding of monarchical governance as being rooted in a sacred order has been, by and large, the normative condition of human societies throughout history. The limited franchise of Athenian democracy or the rule by senatorial consensus under the Roman Republic, although they loom large in the modern imagination, are exceptional historical cases. Second, that the advance of the general rejection of monarchical governance, as Boland has noted, was not widespread across civilizations or periods, but rather originated, quite specifically, in the West during the Enlightenment. The implications of democracy for the life of faith are much as Boland has outlined above. The obvious question, however, is “Why was the historically Christian West the seedbed for the undermining of monarchical rule, rather than some other civilization?” If monarchy is, in the main, a spiritually superior condition of governance to democracy – a claim with which we have great sympathy – then the undermining of monarchy in the West is a specific judgment against it, one that must be met and seriously addressed.

    Let me mention, in conclusion, two books, neither of which I have yet had the opportunity to study closely, but both of which seem germane to the present exchange: Ian Bradley, “God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy”; Jean Hani, “Sacred Royalty: From the Pharaoh to the Most Christian King”.

  6. We feared that tyranny and misrule would inevitably result from monarchy and thus reached for a mechanism that would allow us to remove the human element entirely from the equation. C. S. Lewis, in Present concerns, explains this best:

    I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man.

    I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government.

    The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .

    The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

    However, as you have found, within our democracies we all must be careful to “utter belief in things we know intuitively to be false and even evil”, least we are next to have our lives crushed by the tolerant elite who sit atop our nations. Thus we find the mighty mechanism of democracy has not thwarted the evil, that kings might have done, but made it never ending and ubiquitous.

  7. I revere Lewis, but he was writing about 70 years ago and I am sure he would by now have changed his mind about democracy (even though he had serious reservations about democracy even then).

    We are much further down the slippery slope – nobody could regard the systematic vote-buying, dependency-generating and population-replacement that we have now now in the West as any kind of safeguard against the Fall.

    Tolkien was of course emphatically *not* a democrat.

  8. The problem isn’t democracy, the problem is universal suffrage.

  9. There are checks and balances in monarchy that we can go back to, mostly that of the church. And I doubt Lewis would have penned this if he could see democracy in action today…

  10. There is an important strain of theology within Protestantism that teaches that The Divine is meant to be approached directly, personally, and from within. No mediating structure is required, nor is one needed to remind the believer of his/her religion. This sort of believer does not see the need for ultimate legitimacy in government. It is just the government – that does governmental things – and can and should be changed when the time comes. It could be completely overturned and the Puritan sort of believer would be untroubled in Spirit. Being the Elect and being taught to expect rejection from the World has this effect.
    I think this dimension has been overlooked in your analysis of nation states that were in fact deeply influenced by this theology.

  11. The problem is not democracy per se, the problem is women voting. Even at this late date, if we could eliminate the female vote, society would become radically conservative overnight. Democracy is not necessarily a violation of Christianity, but women voting surely is.

  12. “For many happy centuries” – I think you mean Holy not Happy – happiness is beside the point.

    Happiness as a measure has always been a part of traditional ethics, including Christian ethics. To declare happiness irrelevant seems to me a pretty radical break with pre-modern religious views.

  13. The coercive resources of the modern state are much greater than they were back in the pre-modern and early modern eras. I am concerned about putting that much power in the hands of one man in an absolute monarchy. I think though we can talk about a mixed constitution involving some sort of monarchy, but that would still involve an assembly of some sort, which has traditionally included some form of popular representation.

  14. It is also worth noting that the divine right of kings is a rationalizing and simplifying ideology from the early modern era. The main theorist was Jean Bodin from the 1500s.

  15. I’m also not sure that either the form of government or the composition of our elites is particularly the problem. The big problem seems to me to be prosperity. When people are rich, comfortable and secure they quite spontaneously and naturally lose reverence for religion, hierarchy and traditional virtue. Just putting a king on top of everything isn’t going to much change things.

  16. Lawrence Butler responds to Bonald:

    …I found Bonald’s argument to be pretty sloppy. Not only does he ignore the democratic foundations (which, like many things at the time, were logical continuations of Greek and Roman political developments) in the Middle Ages, he seems to disregard the prevalence of Christian morals in America’s founding. While the liberation and ’social justice’ theologies of today can easily contort Christian morals, that does not mean that Christianity and democracy are incompatible. I don’t know why Bonald sees the “happy centuries” (a gross oversimplification) as ending after the days of widespread democracy. There were many Christian tyrants before Christian democracy, and there were many Christian tyrants within Christian democracies. The problem is that, without virtuous citizens, no political system can stay uncorrupted. Democracy can only flourish when a majority of voters possess a sound moral compass. Monarchy trusts that one person is following a well-formed moral compass. While one might argue that the odds are better that one person remains virtuous over many, it’s also true that power corrupts one person sooner than it corrupts many. Since a democratic system also diffuses those bad decisions within a larger, more active political community, it has better built-in damage controls than a monarchy…

  17. Conversely, if power corrupts, democracy corrupts everyone — corrupts society itself.

    Why in the world you would want to spread this corrupting influence on a society-wide basis?

    America has existed as a democratic state for not much more than two centuries and is already collapsing. There are individual monarchical dynasties that have outlasted us.

  18. Even if a absolute ruler does become corrupt, he still has a financial incentive to rule the realm justly and efficiently; just as any business owner has an incentive to run his corporation efficiently.

    Also, it seems obvious to me that one who SEEKS power is much less to be trusted with it than one who is thrust into it.

  19. tenkev

    You are simply being naive if you think that monarchial systems gave real power to an heir who did not actively seek it. A thousand years ago in Europe – when Kings actually ruled – the passing of a King was generally followed by a bloody contest among the possible heirs and their factions. If the eldest legitimate son won out that was nice but it was usually after he had killed off his younger rivals.
    Our modern Royals are not like that, of course. But neither are they monarchs except on TV.

  20. The Royals of Lichtenstein have real power. They do not seem to be killing each other.

    Likewise Monaco.

    Is it different with the non-Western monarchies in the modern era?

  21. My point stands.”Real power” is by definition power worth fighting over.
    L.Stein and Monaco are joke countries which are “sovereign” only because they will do anything to avoid annoying their neighbors.
    Here is a rule: No one is ever given power. If you did not take it you cannot keep it.

  22. Fighting for succession is not the rule, but, the exception. Most established monarchies had painless, legal successions. They only became violent when the king had no sons, when religion was a major issue (i.e. 16th century England), or when someone tried to change the rules of succession (i.e. Charles VI and the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 and 1723).

    In either case I’d prefer someone who had won supreme leadership through a test of his leadership abilities in battle than someone who had won leadership through a test of his tongue-wagging abilites in an election.

  23. Jesus was the ancestor of all the royal families of Europe as well as the Presidents of the United States, so Christianity is the political party of religious monarchism, with the King and President as God-Father.

  24. Monaco is a very interesting case.

    By the 1960s, it had become a rats’ nest of tax evasion, much as activists on the left accuse it of being today.

    In 1962, President De Gaulle, who was not what one might call a pinko leftist, marched the French army up to the border and turned off the water supply.

    The Monégasques had a sudden and fortunate change of heart, and agreed to make a more realistic contribution to the French treasury.

  25. If we could only do one thing, I think shooting all of the journalists is the surest ticket to societal health.

  26. I have mixed feelings. It’s too bad to know I’m not the center of attention, but good to know there are other Catholic theocrats out there.

  27. If women didn’t have the vote in Britain, we would have had unbroken left-wing governments for almost the entire period since WW2. One of the stereotypes was that women were naturally conservative, a notion reinforced by the male nature and ethos of the labour movement.

  28. […] system of Government is never a guardian of religious liberty, but rather its chief persecutor.  The historical record clearly shows that Christianity has only ever flourished under empire and mona…. As Catholicism recedes in cultural significance, there is no reason to think that a right to […]

  29. Expansion of the vote is a function of democracy, because one faction in the contest will be advantaged when vote expansion occurs. It is just too difficult for the other faction to argue against that expansion; it makes them look like they are denying rights to some people. Denying rights to some people, no matter how sensible, contradicts the ethos of democracy. Look at today: the Democrats want to expand the vote to illegal immigrants.

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