The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
Christianity's Transforming Spirit
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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, phone:
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