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The heresy of liberal democracy part 2: where it began

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In a three-part series, Dr Joe Boot (Wilberforce Academy, Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity) argues that liberal democracy – the dominant view in political philosophy - is a form of heresy springing from beliefs that should not be held by Christians. In part two, Dr Boot looks at the origins of liberal democracy and how it has evolved to shape today’s political philosophy.
 

What is democracy?

Having considered the meaning and influence of heresy, we are now ready to turn to the concept of democracy and attempt to relate the two. It may seem somewhat shocking to some that the title of this article identifies liberal democracy as an expression of heresy. Do I not believe in the consent of the people to be governed, or their legitimate role in the election of their leaders? Do I wish to replace democratic institutions with an absolute monarchy or some dictatorial form of government? The answer is no. I have no desire to do away with the hard-won cultural freedoms bequeathed by our Christian forebears in the form of parliamentary or congressional institutions that involve responsible citizens in the election of their political leaders, whether in constitutional monarchies or republics. We have come a long way since governmental authority was a private entity in the hands of monarchs and land owners.

This being the case, what is really at issue with the question of democracy? Clearly, there are a variety of forms (or structures) of political life even in the Western tradition. Britain has a monarchy, the established church, a House of Lords and Commons. Canada has an upper and lower house (Senate and Commons), with a viceroy for the monarchy called the Governor General. The United States has a President, Congress and Senate. All have an ostensibly independent judiciary. The fundamental issue under consideration in this article is not to quibble over the varied and particular structures of political life, but with basic religious direction.What is the basis and source of final authority that gives direction to any society? Where does ultimate sovereignty (which is another word for kingship or rule) lie? What is the religious root of the idea of democracy and is it consistent with the scriptures and orthodox confessions of the church? As Rousas Rushdoony noted, “Behind all this is the question of authority: is it from God, or from man? If God is the sovereign authority over all things, then His law-word alone can govern all things.”[1]

In a book published in 1955, Lord Percy of Newcastle argued that democracy as ideology is a “philosophy which is nothing less than a new religion.” The book was called, The Heresy of Democracy: A Study in the History of Government, and it called attention to these foundational questions. The word democracy is derived from the Greek word demokratia which brings together demos, meaning ‘the people,’ and kratos, meaning ‘authority’ – in popular parlance, people power. The basic underlying principle is popular sovereignty. So, the question naturally arises, is popular sovereignty consistent with biblical truth and an orthodox doctrine of God? In a democratic order, without God’s ultimate sovereignty recognised, is it not the case that man’s theoretical political idea of popular sovereignty replaces creational and biblical revelation as the basis for social order? Ideological democratic thinkers like John Dewey held that there was a basic contradiction between the popular sovereignty of man and the absolute sovereignty of God. Christianity and the family were for him essentially aristocratic and anti-democratic and therefore incompatible with his vision of democracy.

To properly uncover whether modern liberal democracy is undergirded by heretical ideas expressed in the political sphere, it is necessary to briefly do two things. First, we need to consider the religious assumptions of the liberal democratic tradition and where it stands now. Second, we need to consider the specific claims of Christ. No orthodox view of political life can negate the claims of Jesus Christ.
 

The origins of liberal democracy

It is important to deal first with the qualifier ‘liberal’ in the term ‘liberal democracy.’ Democratic institutions are one thing, the contemporary notion of liberal democracy is quite another. Over many centuries in the English-speaking world, under the influence of Christian faith and customs, citizens increasingly participated in their own government. Inherited rights and forms of political life emerged, empowering common people – not just a landed aristocracy, the church, or hereditary monarchy – at the same time that a deepening consciousness of the inner nature of family, church and state and the sovereignty of God over all people (king and commoner alike) came to political expression. Here, democracy did not mean the will of the 51% governs (a kind of direct rule by mob), but rather increased separation and differentiation of powers with more and more elected representatives in civil government. In Britain, the Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, the mother of all parliaments) balanced one another, with the church acting as the moral compass of the nation, under a monarchy which acknowledged and defended the Lordship of Christ and the Christian faith.

Because of sin, no system of government is perfect, but over many centuries the fundamental liberties of representative government emerged in what we now call the Anglo-American tradition. Part of that tradition was the English Common Law, rooted in the scriptures, which, though notthe product of popular vote, played a critical role in the development of constitutional life. The English philosopher Roger Scruton once remarked that the English law existed not to control the individual but to free him. Thus, free democratic institutions in themselves are not problematic from a Christian standpoint.[2] However, the development of the notion of liberal democracy, following the Enlightenment and French Revolution, is a much more complicated issue.

In an important recent article, Yoram Hazony, a Jewish philosopher and political theorist, defines liberalism as referring “to an Enlightenment political tradition descended from the principal political texts of rationalist political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant, and reprised in countless recent works of academic political theory elaborating these views.”[3] He goes on to identify three core religious axioms that undergird liberal-democratic thinking: 1. The availability and sufficiency of reason; 2. The (perfectly) free and (perfectly) equal individual; 3. Obligation arises from choice.

The critical concern that emerges from this for Hazony is that “there is nothing in this liberal system that requires you, or even encourages you, to also adopt a commitment to God, the Bible, family or nation.”[4] In fact, none of the foundational forms of primary knowledge actually undergird the principles of liberal democracy. Despite the oft-heard claim that liberal democracy is meant to protect traditional belief and institutions in a separate sphere of ‘privacy,’ so as to ensure no-one is coerced to be a Christian or live life in the confines of the Christian view of the traditional family, “Everywhere it has gone, the liberal system has brought about the dissolution of these fundamental traditional institutions.”[5]

Why is that? Hazony says the answer is not difficult to find. In essence, although liberalism claims to be a form of government that ensures a wide range of individual freedoms:

“…liberalism is not a form of government at all. It is a system of beliefs taken to be axiomatic, from which a form of government can, supposedly, be deduced. In other words, it is a system of dogmas…about the nature of human beings, reason, and the sources of moral obligations that bind us…; there are no grounds for the claim that liberalism is merely a system of ‘neutral’ rules, a ‘procedural system’ that can make traditional political and religious structures work all the better while leaving them intact. Liberalism is a substantive belief system that provides an alternative foundation…[that] has not co-existed with earlier political tradition, rooted in the Bible, as we were told it would. It has rather cut this earlier tradition to ribbons.”[6]

I have argued repeatedly with several senior evangelical church leaders in England and Canada that they have completely ignored, or are in denial, about the dogmatic religious assumptions undergirding the liberal democratic ideal they are at constant pains to defend as a ‘neutral’ and purely ‘procedural’ system – despite its evident anti-Christianity on display in our time. As we will see, such a claim to neutrality is badly misguided and continues to do great damage in our culture.

Edmund Burke – one of Britain’s greatest parliamentarians, a contemporary of William Wilberforce and a formidable political philosopher – believed that the Christian religion was the only true basis for civil society and the source of all good and comfort; he openly challenged the emerging liberal idea of neutrality in political life. For him the sovereignty of God was the source of all delegated human power and authority.[7] He saw this biblical view of society under assault by the French philosophes and revolutionaries – a revolution which proved to be the mother of all subsequent political revolutions in Europe. The philosophes denied that society is a God-given historical-cultural development, and subject to His providential government. Rather, they saw it as the result of a rational social contract made by free and autonomous individuals. Burke recognised that, behind the veneer of their liberal discourse the French Revolutionaries were pursuing the abolition of the Christian faith from every sphere of life. The philosophes were radical de-Christianisers and the Revolution put their vision into action. For them political order was not something inherited or received but established by their idea of reason. Law itself was an expression of the general will manifest only within the state. Burke clearly understood that the hostility engendered by the cult of reason would not end with the church, but rather – given the attempted destruction of the Christian faith as a whole – would come with an assault on property, liberty, and life. The sheer brutality of the Revolutionary period in the destruction of churches, civil freedoms, political opponents, property and lives in a vindictive bloodbath that ended in the Napoleonic dictatorship, bears out these concerns.

The Revolution, however, did not spring up from nowhere. The French philosophes were picking up the intellectual legacy of one of the fathers of modern liberal democracy, John Locke, the progenitor of classical liberalism. Locke’s story is an interesting one, growing up as he did during the English Civil War, his father being in Oliver Cromwell’s army. He spent time living in France during a period when a politically explosive letter circulated in England which it was thought he had a hand in writing. He was also implicated in a plot to kill Charles II and fled again, returning to England after the glorious Revolution of 1688 with William of Orange.

Locke’s thought was rooted in the Enlightenment rationalistic science ideal of mathematical reasoning – a thought process in which most of the sciences were reduced to the numerical aspect of reality. The early political liberals hoped they could demonstrate that political life could likewise be reduced to a kind of mathematical demonstration. Government could surely be developed and grounded in terms of clear rational principles. This, they thought, could be done in a kind of neutral fashion that would be independent of any religious commitment. The liberals believed their vision was based on ‘self-evident’ facts, clear to all reasonable people. In pursuing a basic moral axiom that every ‘rational’ person could agree on, Locke laid the foundations for the idea that all people are perfectly free, autonomous, and endowed with natural rights.

Although Locke himself was not trying to develop a radically secular, de-Christianised democratic society, his thought lay the groundwork for more radical (that is, consistent) views, because he had set aside God’s creational and moral order in pursuit of the illusion of religiously neutral ‘facts.’ Locke was supplanting creational and biblical revelation by making man’s reason the basis of justice and civil concord rather than the Word of God. Even the older pre-modern idea of natural law as something external and given was now jettisoned in favor of natural rights that emerged from man’s reason.[8] The modern democratic perspective can be detected in Locke’s words:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that all being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”[9]

This view of the human person as rational, virtuous, independent and equal (in a pseudo-mathematical sense) is nowhere to be found in Scripture. In biblical faith, man is a fallen sinner. His human understanding, or reason, is distorted by rebellion against God, often leading him radically astray, and he is anything but independent and autonomous. From the Christian standpoint, man is under law in every area of life and not only is he dependent upon God and subject to Him in the totality of his being, but he is set in profound mutual interdependence with other people – including those long dead who shaped the culture and customs of the society in which he lives. For the Bible, a person’s life is embedded in created and covenantal reality in relationship to God and others, not in a religiously neutral, self-evident, contractual arrangement between abstract individuals in an idealised state of nature. Although all people are made in the image of God having equal intrinsic value and worth, equally subject to God’s law in all things, biblical faith nowhere says that all people are perfectly free and equal in the rationalist sense. As Hazony notes:

“Whereas Hebrew Scripture depicts human reason as weak, capable only of local knowledge, and generally unreliable, liberalism depicts human reason as exceedingly powerful, offering universal knowledge, and accessible to anyone who will but consult it. Similarly, whereas the Bible depicts moral and political obligation as deriving from God and inherited by way of familial, national and religious tradition, liberalism makes no mention of either God or inherited tradition, much less specific traditional institutions such as the family or nation.”[10]

Locke’s faulty assumptions about the human person inescapably lead to faulty assumptions about political life. Government now becomes a creation of the people, beholden to the people and dissolvable by the people, for it is simply a contract between free, independent and equal individuals. As the South African philosopher Danie Strauss has pointed out, “Social contract theories of the early modern period proceed from the fictional abstraction of ‘isolated’ individuals, postulated in order to give a hypothetical (and therefore non-historical) account of the existing order within known societies – as if human individuals are only incorporated in social interaction in a derived sense.”[11] Moreover, in keeping with these philosophical axioms, Locke wanted to neatly keep the concerns of church and state radically separate, because like the social contract in political society, the church is just another kind of voluntary society occupying the private space. The affairs then of religion and the affairs of the magistrate are supposedly entirely unrelated. The state (the public area), is ostensibly free of metaphysical religious claims and so in theory should leave the ‘private’ sphere of religion to organise and go its own way. Samuel Burgess’ analysis of this naïve position is telling:

“Locke consistently attempts to avoid the conclusion that in disputed cases the state may need to take its own theological character seriously…. [T]he state is not a neutral arbitrator, but necessarily has is own ethical and indeed theological values so the citizen is at times confronted with a clash of civic and religious duties.… And herein lies one of the fundamental problems faced by modern liberal democracies: they have forgotten that their own beliefs are theological in nature and not simply the product of reason. The idea of human beings as bearers of natural rights is not a theologically neutral position. The state makes judgements as to which expressions of religion are acceptable in the public sphere according to its own theological account of humans as rational, autonomous beings who are equal and bearers of natural rights.… [T]he assertion of subjective rights is incoherent without the theological roots of those rights.”[12]

Locke, like modern liberals, also overlooks the fact that his own beliefs did not emerge from an autonomous, independent reason. The idea of basic inherent rights and responsibilities for all people in human society arose in a Christian culture, where human persons are viewed as God’s image-bearers.

The misplaced belief that the ‘truth’ of liberal, egalitarian democracy is evident to all reasonable people of goodwill– because it arises from a supposedly religiously neutral public reason and thus should be the basis of all valid government – eventually led to a remarkable degree of intolerance. With the French Revolution, these assumptions led to a ferocious anger toward Christian people and churches, despite explicit legal provisions for freedom of religion. This leads us to a consideration of liberal democracy as it confronts us today with its claim to promote the rights of citizens over and above the promotion of any particular conception of the good.
 

Read Part 1

Read Part 3



1. R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 25.

2. For an excellent study in the emergence of political freedom in the English-speaking world see Daniel Hannan, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (New York: Broadside, 2013).

3. Yoram Hazony, “Conservative Democracy: Liberal Principles have brought us to a dead end”, First Things, January 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/01/conservative-democracy.

4. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”

5. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”

6. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”

7. This point is argued extensively in an excellent new study, Samuel Burgess, Edmund Burke’s Battle with Liberalism: His Christian Philosophy and Why it Matters Today (Exeter: Wilberforce Publications, 2017).

8. Samuel Burgess, Edmund Burke, 43-44.

9. Cited in Burgess, Edmund Burke, 45.

10. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”

11. Danie Strauss, Philosophy: Discipline of the Disciplines (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2019), 503

12. Burgess, Edmund Burke, 52-53.

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