Is democracy Christian?
The question in my title is rhetorical. Of course democracy is not Christian, how could it be? No system of secular government, no Caesarean Constitution, could possibly be Christian, except insofar as it tries to reflect divine and natural justice (which are not finally detachable from each other). Are a bad people more just than a good king, or a moderate junto? Are a good people better than a bad king? Et cetera. These are meaningless questions. The Church herself has had to cope with all regimes, and will not be replaced by one or another. Justice is as justice does, and in the complete absence of any instructions at all from Jesus Christ, on how we should organize ourselves politically — it is really quite astonishing, the lengths to which he went to avoid this question — we might almost stop our thinking there. And yet, thanks to democracy, we can’t. We are obliged to vote on it. We are asked for our consequential opinion on something most of us know nothing about, and which does not touch on the most important matters. Tyranny comes in this door.
Or perhaps we can and do ignore the issue. The number of people genuinely interested in political questions is itself, from what I can see, a small proportion of any population. Many of these few are obsessive, however, and so make their weight tip far above “equality” on the scales, enlivened as they are by the aphrodisiac of Power. For the great majority, politics are not something in which they participate, but something that happens. What does democracy really mean to them? They receive unearned money, or have the money they’ve earned taken away; but also, there is a huge and constantly increasing burden of form-filling to do, plus security checks, body searches, elaborate signage and warnings, and in cities especially, the occasional sudden take-down.
If the diktats came down from kings and royal courts, rather than from politicians and departmental bureaucrats, it would make no difference to the citizen’s level of “empowerment.” In either case the influence of the “man in the street” rounds out to zero. The State expects him to do what he is told, promptly; and to take his punishment should he hesitate, or talk back to any government official. In a small kingdom, or a small town, he might represent perhaps a visible power of inertia. Perhaps even in a vast people’s republic there is cellular resistance to being pushed around. But to say that the citizen of a democracy, today, is governed by his own consent — when items of legislation fill ten-thousands of pages in Kafkaesque obscurity, with serious penalties for non-compliance, to be enforced or not enforced at the government’s whim — is at best silly. Should the citizen be charged with any crime, the conviction rate, at least in the United States, approaches that in Stalin’s Russia (to be fair, it is far lower in Canada and Europe), and his only hope is to “confess” and agree to a plea bargain.
This is the normal working of democratic government today. Anyone who has had his taxes audited knows how much power he has against the State, and what kind of people the tax department hires. He knows that his very livelihood depends on their “judgement calls,” and that he had better adopt a cringing subservience before his masters. He knows that “innocent until proven guilty” is a pious fraud, and that unless he has millions in his war chest, no court will help him. Such abuses are of just the sort the old Common Law served to prevent, standing for centuries against the arrogance of power on behalf of the common man. Today, in his terrible anxieties, he can only turn to prayer.
Elsewhere I have written about the inevitability of the Nanny State, once the “ideal” of democracy is established. It is as socialism has proved, when proposed as a programme for economic efficiency: for it is not something that seldom works, but something that can never work at all. Democracy, in its modern, representative form, appeals to people at the level of what they want, or are told they might get by voting in blocks together. In that lies the divisiveness which Thomas Aquinas and other mediaeval critics of democracy foresaw, long before anything like modern democracy emerged to illustrate the points they were making. Democracy factionalizes a society that might otherwise have remained contented and peaceful; it keeps class envy and the hope of retribution constantly upon the electoral table, and eventually they get out of hand.
Yet the real significance of a citizen should not be what he wants, but what he is. As an ensouled human individual, he is an irreducible thing. His natural liberties begin with his right to life, and corresponding duty (not right) to defend himself. Insofar as they were recognized under previous systems of government, rights corresponded generally to duties — duties which can never be identical, from person to person, until Procrustes has finished his savage work.
This, I allow, is no longer understood, and therefore cannot be said without wide misunderstanding. The entire conception of human liberty, with which Western man started, has been trickling away, along with the religious order which gave it meaning, and the foundation of human within natural and divine law.
The laws must be obeyed. But we cannot understand this concept unless we also understand that the moral laws will be obeyed — as surely, in the end, as the laws of physics. Human legislation itself may err, and ultimately any law that is written in defiance of the divine and natural order will, necessarily, perish — for in the end, evil does not triumph. The true law, written into nature and men’s hearts, was never created by men. Rather it is discovered by them, often by means of trial and error, and thus over long periods of time. Yet in a coherent system of doctrine, internal contradictions are eventually exposed, and mistakes and misdirections corrected.
Hence, the Scottish jurisprude who said: “We do not break the law. We break ourselves upon the law.”
The contrary notion that law is whatever the government decides, and therefore in a democracy what the people decide their government should impose, produces law that becomes progressively more and more incoherent, and thus ever more arbitrary and unjust. My rightwing friends like to point to hypocrisies they find in leftwing schemes of social engineering. Examples are very easy to find. And yet these hypocrisies did not require malice to come into being (much though they may be enhanced or compounded by ill-will). It is sufficient to have a system in which decisions are made not in light of precedent, and gradually settled by experience; but according to the passions of the moment, expressed in electoral fluctuations, manipulated by polling and publicity specialists.
Parliament itself has changed in its nature over time. Outwardly it has been transformed from a gentleman’s club of the landed and privileged, in which members were well known to each other, and by inclination resistant to change. By increments it became something genuinely responsive to paid lobbies and current fashion trends. The quality of thinking and debate has been in consistent decline, and Parliamentary declamation now consists almost exclusively of playing to the gallery. Envies and resentments are openly exploited, by Members who themselves could not hope to be elected except with the help of big party machines, and by going huckster. Much depended, in the past, upon the dignity and prestige of Parliament. Little of that survives.
This was not some natural decay within the institution itself. Institutions may be organic in the sense that they develop historically, but they are not biological entities fated to grow old and die. Like buildings they survive so long as they are competently maintained and repaired; are kept in proper use. What happened to Parliament, gradually over the course of the 19th century and more quickly after the Great War, was an ideological transformation. Abstract demands for “equality” and “democracy” and “liberty” amounting to licence, transformed a gentleman’s debating club into the cockpit for crude factional battles. The franchise was spread without qualification, and in the strictest sense, Parliament became vulgar. In appearance it is now a circus or professional sports arena: the party leaders prancing before the cameras, and their competitively ranting fans.
Somewhere or other I once described modern representative democracy as, “England’s poisoned gift to the world.” By this I did not mean to criticize the legal and political institutions which had evolved in England — from unambiguously mediaeval roots. Nor was I necessarily referring to the notion of “rule by the people” in itself, for that kind of nonsense has arisen independently in many other countries — is endemic within barbaric tribal cultures, and is everywhere the cause of gratuitous bloodshed.
Rather I meant to denounce a peculiarly English success in packaging. The English genius, first clearly exposed in the Industrial Revolution, and now copied around the world, was for making shoddy goods seem temporarily respectable. The trappings of the (ancient and reasonably impressive) English constitutional order were used to frill and decorate something quite opposed to its spirit. “Representative democracy” emerged as a new industrial product, associated in the dreamy public mind with the delivery of abstract incompatibles — “liberty” and “equality” being the most obvious mutually contradictory terms.
It was a most remarkable development, in the end much like the gimmicks used by property developers and manufacturers of cheap goods. They use poetical terms from a vaguely-remembered past to brand products utterly unlike their descriptions. I remember as a child looking at a fresh suburban street sign which identified “Mountainview Boulevard,” and asking myself where is the mountain. Soon I learnt that the whole point of mass advertising is to associate a product with what it is not; and that “honesty in advertising” is not really obtainable. It is against this background, but also contributing to it, that “representative democracy” has flourished. For in a real democracy, the electors vote directly on public issues which they themselves have framed; whereas, in a “representative” democracy, they do not.
Products must be sold aggressively. Any salesman can tell you that being shy about it won’t land the contract; that the whole point of salesmanship is to push the customer a little beyond where he wants to go. The abstract “democracy” in the venerable “Parliamentary” box, whether or not it was an organic development in its land of origin, was sold abroad with chutzpah.
English-speaking chauvinism — whether it comes in British, North American, Australian, or other provincial forms — has been a moral danger to ourselves, but a source of tyranny to others. We present ourselves as a “chosen people” when in the event we were never chosen, except by ourselves. The arrogance has come to be embodied within our English language, through four centuries of special pleading for what I will call the Protestant State; and the chance success of British colonial and imperial endeavours. Today the mindset has degenerated into atheist and State post-Protestant posturing, yet the myths behind the propaganda endure — supporting the rather quaint assumption that we, who acquired our English from the crib, are “the best and the brightest,” with much to teach and nothing to learn. The word “exceptionalism” could be bruited here: a received term for the “American way” that seems to have floated over on the Mayflower, and still communicates the Puritan’s “holier than thou.” Yet the whole scheme originated earlier, and in England, not in some exalted “separation of powers,” but in the State’s appropriation of the Church.
Nowhere is this idea of “exceptionalism” better expressed than in the notion that the English-speaking peoples were trained through history and social development in the functioning of democracy, and in its various components — civil society, rule of law, individual responsibility and all that. In other words, we do not affirm our luck or our unworthiness, but a conviction of our own superiority. And if democracy fails elsewhere, as anything suddenly imposed will tend to do, then this is because those foreign peoples were not ready for it. (Or in the extreme: might never be ready.) When we look at what we have actually achieved — the features of the Nanny State that I was ticking off above — our claim to maturity is not only proud, but risible.
The people cannot form a government, and never could, in England or anywhere; democracy did not even work for long in ancient Athens, where only a small part of the adult male population had been enfranchised. It is not physically possible for “we the people” to do such a thing. We can elect our rulers, or even at that, a tiny proportion of them. Under any system of government, the great majority of office-holders will be appointed, to sinecures often outlasting those who appointed them. The calibre of appointments depends ultimately on the character and astuteness of the men or women who make them. Who can seriously believe that people voting in the mass, to choose between demagogues known to them only through sound bites and the glaze of mass media, will alight upon candidates whose judgement of persons and policies is sound?
And then we must consider the decadence of public religion. I am using the word “religion” not in a mystical sense, but in the classical, as the bond of common belief and assumption, that holds a society together; which governs man by custom, and by the education of his conscience teaches him to govern himself. Christianity has been almost consciously discarded as our common ground, and replaced by a secular religion on whose tenets man will write, as opposed to discover, what is the law. Spiritual qualities have been transferred from divine to human agencies, in the false belief that they were being abandoned. Magical properties become associated with words that once had specific meanings, chiefly “democracy” itself. We come to think that simply by introducing “democracy,” to a cesspit of conflict, every problem can be solved; and then we are utterly puzzled when the conflict is exacerbated.
Let me draw this together, for today if not for the year, by quoting that fine old Austrian sage, Eric Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–99). A broadly learned man (who travelled everywhere, and read in twenty-five languages), his political thought became focused on the rise of the Left — which, since the Enlightenment, has been filling the vacuum of a retreating Christianity. He grasped that the Left (or to my view, “politicization”) flourished precisely in a modern environment where political thought has become abstracted, and religious teaching is replaced by “ideals.” The book from which I will quote is, Leftism: from de Sade & Marx to Hitler & Marcuse. I select this early passage because I think it brings home, at a practical level, the consequences of democratic smugness, both in ourselves and in our imitators abroad:
“It is precisely the unwarranted identification of democracy with liberty which has caused a great many of the recurrent tragedies of American foreign policy (as well as a number of internal American woes). We have to remember all the wars, all the propaganda, all the pressure campaigns for the cause of democracy, how every hailed and applauded victory of democracy has ended in terrible defeat for personal liberty, the one cause really dear to American hearts.
“This is by no means a new story. Even Burke welcomed the French Revolution in the beginning. Eminent Americans praised it. But it all ended in a forest of guillotines. Mr Woodrow Wilson enthusiastically welcomed Alexander Kerensky’s government which was to make Russia ‘fit for a league of honour’. But how long did it last? The Weimar Republic, the near-republican Italian monarchy, the Spanish republic, the ‘decolonized’ free nations from Haiti to Tanzania, from North Vietnam to Indonesia, Latin America from Santo Domingo to Buenos Aires — all have been grievous disappointments to ‘progressive’ Americans, all terminating in dictatorships, civil wars, crowded jails, confiscated newspapers, gallows and firing squads, one-party tyrannies, sequestrations, nationalizations, ‘social engineering’.”
One might redundantly add the Arab Spring, developments in Burma, or within the last few weeks, the fruit of our attempts to impose “power sharing” and “democracy” upon the new nation of South Sudan — thousands and thousands of unnecessary corpses, and we, through our pink filters, unable to see the blood on our own hands.
It is important to be clear, however, that for all these objections to the actual operation of democratic “ideals,” I am not against elections and Parliaments per se. Elections of some sort are among the many ways to choose a government, or have one chosen, without the need for succession massacres and routine civil wars. I am against unqualified “democracy” because it is what Doctor Johnson called a “canting term.” But I do not propose to overthrow the government (at least not until I have my ducks in order); and I recognize that we must start from where we are, and make the best of what we have. Even where we have made terrible mistakes, we should find ways to reverse them gradually and through existing law, carrying the common people along with us, as even monarchs in the end must do. And while the restoration of the principles of mediaeval monarchy in a revived Catholic Christendom would be a good thing, I do not anticipate this in the foreseeable future.
The limit of my instruction is therefore: “Stop using ‘democracy’ on banners.” Start thinking the consequences through, including the consequences to our own souls of excessive participation in politics.