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The heresy of liberal democracy part 3: the claims of Christ

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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 three, Dr Boot looks at today’s model of liberal democracy and asks: will we stand with liberal-democratic heresy, or will we make our stand with Christ?  
 

Today's liberal democracy

Many modern thinkers took up the liberal mandate of John Locke, pushing it to much greater levels of abstraction, but perhaps none more notable than the American thinker John Rawls. Rawls looked to refine the contractarian thinking of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant for the twentieth and twenty-first century. Like his predecessors, Rawls begins with an idol – an abstract rational man as free and equal with natural rights from which we can deduce a form of government. He offers no metaphysical validation for his claims about the human person; they are creedal, dogmatic statements of belief. For Rawls, man is a political animal, justice is ‘fairness’ and reasonable, rational citizens will support such a view of society that is based on the overlapping consensus of reasonable individuals, not theological foundations from revealed religion. This view inevitably leads to the situation inherent in modern liberal democracies today – that there can be no public privileging of any one religion. This enforces the interiorisation and relativisation of religious belief. Christianity can have a voice only insofar as it can make common cause with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or paganism.

Like Locke, Rawls thus separates religious belief from the sphere of government but does so by arguing for a distinction between privately held religious ‘beliefs’ and common reason. Beliefs that are not obvious and evident to the common public reason of other citizens are ruled out of bounds for political life. But this just begs the question: what is reasonable, fair and just? Moreover, who has the right to decide what are private beliefs and what constitutes common reason? In reality, liberalism is a comprehensive doctrine which asserts itself over the Christian faith and tradition, despite beginning from a supposedly purely political conception.

The result is that the influence of Christianity is severely limited by liberal democracy within its political-doctrinal confession of man as a reasonable, equal being, in possession of natural rights ascertained by the reason of the sovereign common people! A radically denuded, abstract concept of man as rational, atomistic, asocial, equal, free and solitary is an idol that bears no relationship to created reality and which places man, either individually or collectively, in the position of ultimate sovereignty – the creator of rights, authority and government in terms of his idea. Freedom for Christianity exists here only insofar as its confession leaves untouched and unchallenged the basic premises of the liberal contractarian creed. Institutions and organisations which challenge this creed today are under threat because liberalism must isolate and destroy the challenge to political man’s sovereignty. If possible, dissenters must be cured of their religious disease in the public school. As Jonah Goldberg points out:

“Beneath the individualistic rhetoric lies a mission for democratic social justice, a mission [John] Dewey himself defined as a religion. For other progressives, capturing children in schools was part of the larger effort to break the backbone of the nuclear family, the institution most resistant to political indoctrination.”[1]

Within the liberal democratic view then of popular sovereignty, rooted in autonomous human reason, we see a secularist theory in political science (remember the sciences are a secondary area of knowledge acquisition) taking the place of creational and biblical revelation, being fashioned into new articles of faith to underpin social order – it has become an impersonator of primary knowledge and a new confession of faith. This religious confession of liberal-democracy has as its primary target Christianity. As the Italian political philosopher and politician, Marcello Pera, has pointed out, “Since Christianity is the religion proper to Europe and the West, it is Christianity that liberalism wishes to banish to the private sphere or to oppose as an important religion and public point of reference.”[2]

Today, this political faith is everywhere around us, permeating every aspect of people’s lives. Rousseau claimed that the social contract gave the body politic (the general will) an absolute power over all its members, which initially seems ironic given his definition of freedom as ‘obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves.’ But since the state (body politic) was all-encompassing, subsuming all parts of society, anybody departing from the ‘general will’ was in fact disobeying their own will and must be forced to obey in order to be free! This helps us understand the concerns of the Polish political philosopher, Ryszard Legutko, when he writes:

“What we have been observing over the last decades is an emergence of a kind of liberal-democratic general will. Whether the meaning of the term itself is identical with that used by Rousseau is of negligible significance. The fact is that we have been more and more exposed to an overwhelming liberal-democratic omnipresence, which seems independent of the will of individuals, to which they humbly submit, and which they perceive as compatible with their inmost feelings. This will permeates public and private lives, emanates from media, advertising, films, theatre and visual arts, expresses itself through common wisdom and persistently brazen stereotypes, through educational curricula from kindergartens to universities and through works of art. This liberal-democratic general will does not recognise geographical or political borders…. [T]he liberal-democratic general will reaches the area that Rousseau never dreamed of – language, gestures and thoughts…; this will ruthlessly imposes liberal-democratic patterns on everything and everyone…”[3]

The common practice of referring to democratic society illustrates the problem today. Society itself (which is much more than the state) is manifestly not democratic. The family, church, local school and business are not democracies! Only if the state embodies a total order (i.e. the state absorbs all of life) can we speak of democratic society, rather than simply referring to a democratic state.

This pervasive democratic thinking brings with it the overwhelming temptation for believers to attempt a synthesis of liberal-democracy with Christianity. Just as the second-century Gnostic philosopher and heretic Carpocrates sought a synthesis between Greek thought and the Christ of Scripture, the modern Christian risks accommodating Christ the Lord to the pretensions of liberal-democratic reason. The Carpocratians had statues of Jesus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle together in their shrines. For them Jesus was a man of pure soul, a wonderful philosopher, and anyone had the potential to rise to His level or surpass Him. He was not the sovereign Creator, Redeemer and Lord, the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev. 1:5). This Greco-Roman Jesus had a shelf-life only as long as that synthesis culture lasted. Once that culture collapsed, the relevance of their imaginary Gnostic Jesus disappeared with it. If we re-shape Christ in terms of the democratic general will, reducing Him to the servant of man’s political reason or relegating Him to an artificial private sphere with every other religious teacher and philosopher, our relevance, and that of the truncated gospel we preach, will disappear with an apostate society, just like the heretics of the past.
 

The claims of Christ

This brings us to our concluding concern, the claims of Jesus Christ. The imperial prerogatives of Christ are clearly set forth in Scripture (Psalm 2; 24; John 1; 1 Cor. 15:24-26; Eph. 1; Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 1; Rev. 1:5;) and are as plain as the doctrine of God. In addition, consider the references to Christ in Scripture as ‘the Lord of glory’ (Jas. 2:1); this was a term reserved for absolute royal power set forth in the Oriental kings and emperors who thought themselves representations of God in time. When Herod, dressed in garments to reflect the sun, which according to Josephus were made of silver, stood in the Temple and sought to claim all the glory for himself, he was struck down by God (Acts 12:21-24). The commission Christians received from the Lord of glory in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, states and presupposes the absolute authority of Christ to possess and rule the nations. Blazing fire (a symbol of glory) appeared over the heads of the disciples at Pentecost as they were equipped by the Holy Spirit for this task. The notion that this commission and empowering was intended for a limited private ‘religious sphere’ as defined by a liberal or pagan state is fatuous:

“The ascendancy of the King of Glory, Jesus Christ, to all pretended kings of glory is most obvious. To suggest that Christ’s realm should be controlled or licensed by pretenders is absurd and blasphemous. The modern state, through many symbols, claims to be the bearer of true glory.… The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Glory. It is thus the duty of the modern state to let Him in and to submit to Him, not to control Him.”[4]

The gates of all life, including political life, must be lifted up to let Him in, or they shall be broken down! All spheres of human authority are derived from or conferred by, and are subject, at all times and places, to the sovereign and absolute authority of Christ the Lord, in terms of His Word.

This is a far cry from the popular perspective even in the church of our era. With today’s religious confession asserting a liberal-democratic general will – where man’s reason and his political society is sovereign and morality and justice are created by the state, not revealed by God – we are witness to what Herman Dooyeweerd called “a strong revival of the ancient pagan conception which claimed all of life’s spheres for the state, considered all morality to be state morality and was therefore not aware of the problem of the relation between individual conscience and state law.”[5] There has been a radical departure from our Christian moorings in acknowledgment and confession of the sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ for human society. As Abraham Kuyper observed, “Christian Europe has dethroned the One who was once its King, and the world city has become the queen under whose scepter people willingly bow down.”[6]

In substance and content, these secular dogmas are heretical in their assertion of popular sovereignty, their denial of God’s sovereignty, of human sin and fallenness, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The cry of eighteenth-century liberalism, ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ (the voice of the people is the voice of God), echoing down to the present and informing the thinking of our era, is heresy, and is no less so because, as political doctrine, it is unlikely to get a Christian into trouble with their local presbytery, diocese or elders.

The liberal account of sovereignty, uncritically adopted for the public space by so many Christians today, has a poor record of preserving freedom, justice and human dignity for persons made in God’s image. With all its emphasis on human autonomy, it seeks to recreate society in the image of a rebellious and sinful humanity. With Edmund Burke we must be quick to remind fellow believers, and our culture at large, that neither regent, nor commoner, is ultimate sovereign. To deny total sovereignty to Jesus Christ in every area of life, like all heresy, is an act of revolution against God.

Groen Van Prinsterer, an important Dutch statesman, a contemporary of William Wilberforce and founder of the Anti-revolutionary party in the Netherlands in the years following the French Revolution, wrote with insight:

“In its essence, the Revolution is a single great historical fact: the invasion of the human mind by the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of man, thus making him the source and centre of all truth, by substituting human reason and human will for divine revelation and divine law. The Revolution is the history of the irreligious philosophy of the past century; it is, in its origin and outworking, the doctrine that – given free reign – destroys church and state, society and family, produces disorder without ever establishing liberty or restoring moral order, and, in religion, inevitably leads its conscientious followers into atheism and despair…. For Christians of whatever church there is now a common cause. They have to maintain Christian faith and law against impiety and anarchy. But if they are to be adequate for this task, nothing less than Christian truth is required…. [T]he Gospel is, and always will be, the ultimate anti-revolutionary principle. It is the sun of justice that after every night of error, appears over the horizon and scatters the darkness. It destroys the revolution in its root by cutting off the source of its deceptive reasoning…. [W]e must take up once more the work of the Reformation and continue in it…; the Reformation put the Christian principle – obedience out of love for God and as the servant of God – into practice, and when in every sphere it placed human authority under God’s authority, it validated power by putting it back on its true foundation.… [T]he Revolution starts from the sovereignty of man; the Reformation starts from the sovereignty of God.”[7]

In an era of liberal-democratic heresy, we can take our stand with Carpocrates or Christ. Only one of these has a future.
 

Conclusion

We have clearly seen that what we believe about God and the nature of human beings has massive implications in every sphere of life, not just the institutional church. Indeed, heretical thinking in the lives of Christians often only comes to expression in attitudes and decisions outside of the life of the institutional church. We cannot haul the ‘state’ before a church counsel for heresy, both because the state is a public juridical entity, not an individual person professing the faith, and heresy is an offense within the church, not the sphere of the state. However, all Christians, including Christians working in the sphere of the state are accountable to God and to his church for faithfulness to an orthodox Christian confession. That confession needs to be worked out consistently in every aspect of our lives and we need to help one another to see where we are living in contradiction to our own confession. This means it is possible, as I have argued, to hold political views that are grounded in an erroneous doctrine of God, authority and man, even when we are unaware of it. To persist in such views when we know better is heresy – and many Christians today are in the grip of it in the name of political neutrality. The myth of neutrality needs to be exposed and political heresy brought to light by the Word of God.

We have also seen that the state as a democratic institution is more blessing than curse in modern history. We can and should be thankful to God for bringing to light the inner nature of the state as a public and distinct area of life to the feudal family and the church, with its own particular nature, structure and purpose as God’s servant. Governmental institutions that are accountable to the people and where people from all areas and walks of life can stand for election to parliament or congress to represent their constituency has played an important role in limiting a lawless use or abuse of power in a fallen world. However, any constitution that claims that ‘the people’ have ultimate sovereignty (rather than seeing government as a delegated sovereignty under God) is, by definition, a tyranny. Where truth is immanentised (rather than being found in the transcendent God) and the ‘divine’ (vox dei) is located in creation, then law, power, authority and justice are made the creations of ‘the people’ and oppression and persecution are only around the historical corner, especially for Christians. This is an era of cultural conflict because we are in the grip of a struggle for sovereignty. Does it belong to God or to man?
 

Read Part 1

Read Part 2



1. Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 326-327.

2. Marcello Pera, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians(New York: Encounter Books, 2008), 33.

3. Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies(New York: Encounter Books, 2016), 65.

4. R.J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State(Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986), 73-74.

5. Herman Dooyeweerd, The Struggle for A Christian Politics: Collected Works, Series B – Volume 17(New York: Paideia Press, 2008), 71.

6. Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship: Collected Works in Public Theology, Vol 1(Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 72.

7. Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution (Aalten, The Netherlands: WordBridge, 2015), 8, 88-89.

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