Christianity's Transforming Spirit

KIM PAFFENROTH

For democracy and freedom to endure there must be some order and necessity, to use Plato's terms, in the citizens' lives. But such order and necessity are not intrinsic to democracy. As shown by the work of the Founders and Tocqueville, religion can fill this void in a democracy, guaranteeing freedom by forming and guiding it.

Lord Acton
1834-1902

Critiques of democracy similar to those made by Lord Acton are ancient indeed. They go back even to Homer: "The rule of the many is not good."[1] That Lord Acton would make such a critique is not surprising: he was both an admirer and critic of American democracy.[2] Plato and Aristotle, the authors of the two best books according to Acton's list, also criticized democracy.[3] Acton incorporated their critiques, and Plato's in particular, into his own view of democracy in two ways: 1) the extreme freedom enjoyed in a democracy leads to a loss of moral and intellectual standards, resulting in personal and societal anarchy; 2) the resulting anarchy often leads to the establishment of tyranny and the loss of freedom. This essay will examine these two observations on democracy and the solution religion offers to this problem of morality in a democracy.

Plato vividly described the democratic person and the democratic regime as "coats of many colors." They are appealing for the variety of traits and habits they display, but this variety is ultimately empty and frivolous:

"Then," I said, "he [the democratic person] lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it's money-makers, in that one. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed he follows it throughout."[4]

Such a person values no desire or impulse above any other: all are equally important or unimportant to him or her. But the habit of being able to choose freely between all options becomes extremely important to such a person, so much so that a society of such people will tolerate no limitation on their ability to choose:

"Then, summing up all of these things together," I said, "do you notice how tender they make the citizens' soul, so that if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can't stand it? And they end up, as you well know, by paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all."[5]

According to Plato, the citizens of a democracy indulge their desire for freedom so completely that they finally cannot obey or tolerate any laws or lawgivers. They degenerate into a lawless and anarchic state in which they pursue pleasures and diversions that ultimately make no difference to them. However, they have grown so used to being able to pursue these empty desires without any restraints that it is now the only good they can imagine. It is not the pursuits themselves that they wish to hold on to, but rather this meaningless freedom, a freedom with "neither order nor necessity."

As Acton wrote that "Moral defects lead to the loss of liberty," so too Plato believed that the moral vacuum fostered in a democracy will ultimately lead to the loss of freedom. The personal and corporate anarchy to which democracy leads cannot last long:

"And, really, anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction — in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, in particular, not least in regimes."

"That's probable," he said.

"Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for private man and city."

"Yes, that's probable."

"Well, then," I said, "tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy, I suppose — the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom."[6]

For Plato and Acton, too much freedom ironically results in too little freedom. If freedom is conceived of as complete autonomy and lack of any societal or moral restraints, then democracy has pursued and fostered this type of freedom only to find that it cannot be held on to or maintained; such a freedom only destroys itself and those who have pursued it.

Does the Christian concept of human nature in any way change this evaluation of the merits of different forms of government? Plato believed in the perfectibility of human reason and therefore could be expected to prefer a monarchical or authoritarian government, in which either one or a small number of enlightened persons rule wisely over others for the common good. On the other hand, if one believes in the Fall and universal sin, then it would be the height of folly to invest all power in the hands of one fallible human, prone to personal whims and prejudices. As Pascal observed: "When it comes to deciding whether we should make war, kill so many men, condemn so many Spaniards to death, it is a single man who decides, and an interested party at that; it ought to be an impartial third party."[7] Pascal even believed that Plato and Aristotle would have agreed with him, saying that they wrote their political works only to curb the power and dangerousness of rulers, not to approve of their work: "If they [Plato and Aristotle] wrote about politics it was as if to lay down rules for a madhouse. And if they pretended to treat it as something really important it was because they knew that the madmen they were talking to believed themselves to be kings and emperors. They humored these beliefs in order to calm down their madness with as little harm as possible."[8] Pascal therefore gave some qualified preference to democracy over monarchy because it is less dangerous: "Majority opinion is the best way because it can be seen and is strong enough to command obedience, but it is the opinion of those who are least clever."[9] The competing and conflicting opinions of the many will tend to nullify or at least mitigate the bad effects that each individually might have caused, and therefore will cause the least damage in the long run. From a Christian perspective, it would seem that democracy is the least dangerous form of government, a halfhearted endorsement similar to Churchill's remark that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."[10]

But Lord Acton's quotation points to a weakness in this strength of democracy and returns us to the situation described by Plato. The very fact that the opinions of the many are important and are obeyed may make those opinions seem more correct and absolute than they really are: "Democracy undermines conscience by making men prefer what others think best to what they think best themselves." To follow the majority opinion may be the least harmful course of action in public life, but if reliance on majority rule is transposed into the individual's life, the result is a moral and intellectual apathy that changes its position constantly. This is exactly how Plato described the soul of the democratic person above, and the results will be the same: a meaningless freedom, anarchy and, ultimately, loss of all freedom.

Is there any remedy to this shortcoming of democracy? In the case of America, the remedy presupposed by the Founders in their work and later observed by Tocqueville is that if a people is both democratic and religious, then both morality and freedom can flourish. While making this point, it is important to note that the Founders did not seek to impose religion on the American people:

So to those today who strike fear in others by calling America a 'Christian nation,' this is my reply: You are wrong. Sam Adams was wrong; we are not a 'Christian Sparta.' . . . To protect religious liberty, the Founders sought to outlaw a state religion and to moderate religious passions . . . All of them envisioned a government neutral between religions in particular but sympathetic to religion in general.[11]

Indeed, to impose any single religion on the American people would have been an impossible course of action, given the great variety of denominations to which the American people and the Founders themselves belonged. It would also have been profoundly unnecessary: Americans were already deeply religious. But the Founders realized the vital importance of religion to the constitution and state they were creating:

Washington, a Virginia Episcopalian, warned in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." John Adams, a Massachusetts Unitarian, agreed in no uncertain terms: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." ... Jefferson, the great deist who was always skeptical of sectarianism in any form, asked, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"[12]

The free and equal society the Founders sought to create could work only because the American people were so deeply religious. Their religion could be relied on both to secure and to restrain their freedom.

Tocqueville also wrote of the desirability of religion for the maintenance of democracy. In words remarkably similar to Plato's description of the democratic person, Tocqueville described the person living without religion:

When a people's religion is destroyed, doubt invades the highest faculties of the mind and half paralyzes all the rest. Each man gets into the way of having nothing but confused and changing notions about the matters of greatest importance to himself and his fellows. Opinions are ill-defended or abandoned, and in despair of solving unaided the greatest problems of human destiny, men ignobly give up thinking about them. Such a state inevitably enervates the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage.[13]

For Tocqueville, unlike Plato, it is not a democratic or free person per se who lives in a state of moral and intellectual confusion and apathy, but rather a free person without religion. Thus he could conclude that when democracy and religion are both strong, they serve to complement and support one another: "Thus religious people are naturally strong just at the point where democratic peoples are weak. And that shows how important it is for people to keep their religion when they become equal."[14] And Tocqueville observed exactly this fortuitous confluence of religion and democracy in American society: "It was religion that gave birth to the English colonies in America. One must never forget that . . . In the United States there are an infinite variety of ceaselessly changing Christian sects. But Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact which no one seeks to attack or to defend."[15] The democratic society the Founders created for a religious people continued to function, with its citizens free and equal, in part because the people continued in their religious faith.

In conclusion, for democracy and freedom to endure there must be some order and necessity, to use Plato's terms, in the citizens' lives. But such order and necessity are not intrinsic to democracy; indeed, democracy is hostile to these qualities, as observed by Acton as well as Plato. But as shown by the work of the Founders and Tocqueville, religion can fill this void in a democracy, guaranteeing freedom by forming and guiding it. Religion thus upholds democracy by checking its excesses and filling its deficiencies: "Christianity introduced no new forms of government, but a new spirit, which totally transformed the old ones."[16] Such a transformation of democracy by religion contributed to the success of the experiment the Founders began.


Endnotes:

  1. Homer, Iliad, 2.204; Aristotle quotes this passage in Politics, 1292a.
  2. See R. L. Schuettinger, Lord Acton. Historian of Liberty (LaSalle: Open Court, 1976), pp. 36-37.
  3. For Acton's list, see Schuettinger, Lord Acton, pp. 237-39. Acton places Plato's Laws in first place and Aristotle's Politics second.
  4. Plato, The Republic, trans. A. Bloom (New York and London: Basic Books, 1968), 561c-561d.
  5. Ibid., 563d-563e.
  6. Ibid., 563e-564a.
  7. Pascal, PensCes trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), pensCe 59 (296). Pascal's PensCes is thirteenth on Acton's list of the hundred best books.
  8. Ibid., pensCe 533 (331).
  9. Ibid., pensCe 85 (878).
  10. Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947; see Winston S. Churchill. His Complete Speeches: 1897-1963, ed. R. R. James (New York and London: Chelsea House, 1974), 7: 7566.
  11. William J. Bennett, Our Children and Our Country. Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture (New York: Simon: and Schuster, 1988), pp. 178-79.
  12. Ibid., p. 169.
  13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer; trans. G. Lawrence (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1966), p. 444.
  14. Ibid., p. 445.
  15. Ibid., p. 432.
  16. Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1907; reprinted 1967), p. 205.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kim Paffenroth "Christianity's Transforming Spirit." Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995: 9-15.

Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute. Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 161 Ottawa NW, Ste. 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503,
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The Mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

Copyright © 1995 Acton Institute




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