The Jesmond Conference 2015: Session 1: Democracy
Let me being with something on what we should be doing and thinking as Christians at this critical time and with these critical issues.
First, I will begin with something about Christians and political issues. I am sure Archbishop William Temple got it right when he said:
The Church and the official representatives of the Church must keep themselves from the entanglements of party politics. Their business is something far more fundamental and important; it is the formation of that mind and temper in the whole community which will lead to wholesome legislation by any party and all parties.
But as a caveat to people who see the importance of social issues, he said this:
If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former.
However, he obviously thought both were necessary. And, with that in mind, our particular goal today and tomorrow is to get our own thinking clearer about the issues and then persuades other with a view to changing Britain.
Secondly, before we blame others for the serious situation we are in, let me quote another great Christian social thinker, Christopher Dawson, on his view as to why we have, as a nation, culturally drifted to where we are now:
Our civilization has become secularized largely because the Christian element has adopted a passive attitude and allowed the leadership of culture to pass to the non-Christian minority. And this cultural passivity has not been due to any profound existentialist concern with the human predicament and divine judgment, but on the contrary to a tendency toward social conformity and too ready an acceptance of the values of secularized society. It is the intellectual and social inertia of Christians that is the real obstacle to a restoration of a Christian culture.
And, thirdly, a quotation from Marcello Pera, a distinguished Italian academic and former President of the Italian Senate. He is a Professor of the Philosophy of Science and of Politics. Looking back over the second half of the 20th century and the situation today. This is how he sees the public world. I need to add, he is not a Christian; so this has particular poignancy:
My overall view … is that if we remove the Christian underpinnings from human rights, not only will liberal doctrine collapse, but Western civilization will fall along with it. This would be a catastrophic event, but it wouldn't be the first time. Europe has already collapsed in the recent past, when it turned from Christian to pagan or materialist. At the time, great liberal thinkers recognized that Europe's descent into hell had been precipitated or promoted by the rejection of religion and of Christian ethics.
Today, politically speaking, liberals have won for the most part. The West has liberal constitutions, liberal institutions, liberal economies, and liberal systems of education. But we are so far from "the end of history" that the same breach between liberalism and Christianity that shook our civilization a few generations ago is now presenting itself in a new form. Not in the violent forms of Nazism or communism, but in the form of liberal secularism. For the destinies of Europe and the West, this ideology is no less dangerous; it is rather more insidious. It does not wear the brutal face of violence, but the alluring smile of culture. With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into licence, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.
But since 2008 when Pera wrote that, secularism has presented new challenges. First, the minority that is forcing the secularist pace has majored on a sexualist and often homosexualist agenda. This has led to the socially divisive imposition on a number of Western Democracies, especially Britain, of so called Same Sex Marriage, which morally sanctions the perversion of homosexual genital activity and anthropologically infertility. Secondly, since 2008, at the opposite extreme, is extreme Jihadist Islam. This has taken secular Britain and the West by surprise. But secular British culture has sunk so low (in art to the public celebration of perverted pornography such as 50 Shades of Grey) that this has created a spiritual, moral, social and cultural vacuum which has to be filled. In Britain (and Europe) the only serious options to fill it are confessional, creedal Christ-like Christianity or Jihadist Islam. For in the West moderate Islam of which much is perceived by the Jihadists as corrupt because secularized, has less of a pull on serious educated Muslims wanting to get back to the text of the Koran than the pull of some Jihadists. They may have read Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood, God-father to other extremists, Koranic scholar, and author of a key Jihadist text or tract, Milestones, where he is black and white on Western decadence:
Among jahili societies [meaning 'corrupt societies'], writers, journalists and editors advise both married and unmarried people that free sexual relationships are not immoral … Obviously a society which intends to control the animal characteristics, while providing full opportunities for the development and perfection of human characteristics, requires strong safeguards for the peace and stability of the family, so that it may perform its basic task free from the influences of impulsive passions. On the other hand, if in a society immoral teachings and poisonous suggestions are rampant, and sexual activity is considered outside the sphere of morality, then in that society the humanity of man can hardly find a place to develop. Thus, only Islamic values and morals, Islamic teachings and safeguards, are worthy of mankind, and from this unchanging and true measure of human progress, Islam is the real civilization and Islamic society is truly civilized.
But the new Jihadists, unlike modern Christians, believe that to achieve the goal of the good society, in which the family is fundamental, the Koran allows them to use violence. However, more of this later.
With that necessary introduction, we must now examine our first British value - Democracy.
Democracy, working well with its equality and respect for the individual is obviously attractive. But "democracy" unqualified as it is in the Government's statement of British Values is by no means an ideal.
John Adams, the second President of the United States, said this:
Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
That was true of classical Athens. The democracy of Pericles and his funeral oration recorded in Thucydides was so fragile, as Plato argued at length. By the time of Alexander democracy had almost disappeared from the world.
Then skip the centuries to the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries and Europe's great experiment with Democracy in the French Revolution.
What did that lead to? - Terrible bloodshed!
And the American Founding Fathers were worried about the illiberalism of democracy and the tyranny of the majority with 51% enslaving 49%. In England John Stuart Mill worried about the fact that the majority could "predominate over individuals". In France, Tocqueville was worried about democratic societies reducing individuals to insignificance. He wrote:
"It is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd."
But Democracies can certainly be tyrannical. The repressive East Germany was known as the German Democratic Republic. Currently the official name for North Korea is "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (DPRK).
So why should we have democracy as a primary value in Britain? Well, what the Government has in mind is not technically democracy but the British constitutional monarchy which has a basic democratic component, namely two houses to advise the Queen, the Lords and the Commons, with the Commons elected. Then she has to act to endorse Parliament's decisions because she has promised to govern subject to "the laws and customs" of Britain. However, she is also to "maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel." And she is ordered to receive the Orb "set under the Cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer". So the Queen is a Christian and a Constitutional monarch. She has to assent to the British constitution and to the role of Christianity in the public life of the United Kingdom. Of course, she has to ensure the freedom for other religions if they keep the law, but not at the cost of having the Christian faith and tradition air-brushed out by this coalition Government – the faith and tradition that alone can secure long term liberal democracy and the other values if interpreted in the light of the Christian faith and tradition.
However – liberal democracy (we must stress "liberal") – is a remarkable phenomenon. For the freedom people, as humans want, is hard to come by without democracy. So while democracy is not a sufficient condition for liberty as we have seen, today it seems to be a necessary condition. There are no truly free countries that are not democratic.
Peter Berger the sociologist argues that this is due to the unprecedented power modern states exercise through technology, such as modern electronic communication, transport, mass education and mass taxation. Ancient Rome or the period of the Reformation does not compare for power.
So to limit this power modern liberal democracy institutionalizes routines. First there is a periodic opportunity to get rid of the government or give it further support; and secondly there are institutional limitations as to what it can do through having second chambers, separate judiciaries and, essentially, a free and representative press and media, which is no all free and truly representative in Britain.
But also liberal democracy seems to require not only political freedoms, but economic freedoms to survive. For over recent history liberal democracy, as distinct from illiberal democracy, is correlated with a democratic form of capitalism as distinct from Marxist socialism.
Capitalism, of course, can be defined by two things: one is where production is determined by market forces and not by State decisions; and, two, where the basic means of production are owned not by the State but by citizens outside the direct control of the State or as we say, privately owned.
And this, too, reduces the power of central government, which is an ever present danger to freedom due to the temptations and seductions of power that come to the selfish and sinful men and women that we are.
Apparently income distribution in societies is not correlated with the mode of production (private or Government) but with modernization and technology. And it is pretty certain that the amount of income to distribute is higher with capitalism than with Marxist type socialism.
The debate, therefore, between the left and the right in Western democracies, which are now all capitalistic, is about the role of the state in making capitalistic economic processes less painful, more rapid and more equitable.
So liberal democracy seems to require economic freedoms, as well as political freedoms.
But also, and, very importantly, liberal democracy is correlated with and seems to require religious, in fact, Christian freedoms which antedate modern democracy and gave rise to it.
For the Western liberal tradition comes from the Reformed and Puritan Christian tradition in the 16th century and 17th centuries and the suffering caused through the Wars of Religion and Christians seeing that much of this wasn't Christian at all. The seminal Letter of Toleration from John Locke, the father of Western Liberalism was mostly concerned with religious freedom.
Furthermore the right to express and practice your religion, other things being equal, is not just one right and liberty. It is the single most important right and liberty for a liberal political order. Religious liberty is fundamental because it posits the ultimate limit on the power of the state. So people argue that the status of religious liberty in a country is a very good measure of the general condition of rights and liberties in that country.
And Christian religious liberty is the most fundamental of all, for Jesus' assertion that there is God as well as Caesar (or the State). So the State is not all there is. There is a higher authority and the citizen has a duty to that higher authority as well as to the State. Hence there is a motive to resist to all totalitarianisms fascist or religious.
That all means that for a liberal social order, like a three-legged stool, you need not only a healthy political order, which comes with liberal democracy, you need an healthy economic order which comes with democratic capitalism, but you need a healthy religious or spiritual order which as a matter of fact has mostly been the Christian tradition.
But there is one other essential for healthy democracies – healthy mediating structures, which the mainstream Christian tradition gives you through orthodox churches and healthy families. Sadly this is currently a major problem in Britain.
Liberty and democracy simply demand strong families – with the norm being a married family of a father and mother producing and then caring for, and being responsible for, their children. The reason for this need is that for human flourishing the State requires mediating structures between the individual and the State and other large institutions of public life (such as great businesses). It needs them to supply personal needs in a way the impersonal state cannot. And the primary mediating structure is the family. Besides the human family other mediating structures, of course, include the Church which 1 Timothy 3.15 calls the family or "household of God". These and other mediating structures are absolutely vital for a liberal society. The Harvard Law Professor, Mary Ann Glendon, suggests why:
The preservation of all liberty that is not license requires citizens with virtues that can be developed only within such groups. If so, it is a paradox of liberty that it may require attention to the maintenance of associations which are not themselves models of democracy and freedom, groups which may in fact be little hotbeds of inequality and constraints.
So as the family and the Church disintegrate or are progressively destroyed, unintentionally or intentionally, the State takes on more and more power. It embraces and regulates more and more of our social and individual lives. When the State does that its impersonal totalitarianism allows it, before long, to employ inhuman horrors to achieve its goals.
All that is why we must have as a background to the British value of democracy the Christian tradition and why Lord Selbourne was so wise, in 1944 with Hitler still undefeated and in his famous Education Bill speech, to say that Anglo-Saxon democracy cannot function "unless it is based on the Christian ethic, and if it is transplanted to any country where that ethic is rejected, it would wither and die amid great human suffering."