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Can American Self-Government Sustain Itself Without Religion?


At its ancient Greek roots, the word democracy evokes the strength or force of the people. The word contrasts with the words that denote other forms of government, also traceable to ancient Greek. Those words (monarchy, oligarchy) are compounds that combine some reference to number (one, a few) with an ancient Greek word that refers to “the beginning”, as in the phrase “in the beginning God created…etc.” As in the case of creation, the word has a temporal, but also causal, motive and hierarchical significance. It indicates those who are first in order and, when it comes to action, first in terms of their influence as motivating powers.

Now, these force or powers distinguished from ‘the people’, also have labels connected with their power. Words such as ‘plutocracy”, evoking the power of wealth; aristocracy, evoking the power of superior ability or virtue, or even kakistocracy, which ascribes power to those who respect no standard but their success in doing what they please, by any means necessary. But except for the latter, the others, though they denote force, do not always connote rule. Ruling depends on how effectively power is applied in relation to the whole. Since the numbers of people endowed with effective power (i.e., force decisively applied) is always relatively few, the term “oligarchy” makes do in this respect for all of them.

Why is it then that no compound word, similar to “monarchy” or “oligarchy, is generally used when speaking of ‘the people’? Perhaps “demarchy” is not in use because the force of the people can only appear when those who comprise it are moved to act in concert. But what is it that moves them? It may be some natural impulse, like fear. Or it may be some passion or conviction consciously roused and brought into focus. But in that case there must be some focal point, some person or group of people determined to exacerbate passion or conviction, and armed with the ability to do so effectively.

Seen in this way, however, the concerted action of the people appears, in effect, to be an instance of oligarchy, since one person or a few prove their power to motivate the rest. These days, we more readily understand this in terms of leadership. Without leaders, people have no focal point for action. The force they might exert in common never materializes. To be sure, an overwhelming impulse of passion may temporarily take hold of many, as when single-minded fear surprises an army that disintegrates in panic. A sense of outrage may similarly take effect, impelling people to move as one against whomever is seen to be responsible for it. But this requires, at the very least, someone or a few to call attention to the outrage and its significance.

Thus, though in one respect ‘the people’ always counts as the greater force, in another they may end up doing so only very briefly, or to little but momentary effect. In both military and political terms, this may be enough to win a battle, particularly against an adversary momentarily unprepared to expect a confrontation. But be it in war or politics, the foresight, planning and organization required to sustain one’s forces over a longer period; or, in the case of government, consistently over much space and time, is beyond the capability of ‘the people’. Leadership and other abilities inevitably found only in a few, are always required.

Thus, for lasting effect, democracy has to rely on undemocratic forces and influences. But how can such forces and influences be relied upon to act for ‘the people’ as a whole? After all, relatively few possess them. Like most human individuals, those few are prone to act for themselves. Their superior abilities allow them to do so more effectively than others. So, they grow accustomed to getting their way. They therefore become focal points for group activities informed and carried out under their direction. In most times and places, once even a few such people agree to act effectively in concert, they can overcome the resistance of all the rest.

This simple train of thought explains why oligarchy appears as the most common, and in this sense natural, form of human government. History (referring to the circumstantial account of human experience, not some ideologically worshipped concept of power alleged to be at work in its events) shows no instances of unalloyed democracy that worked for any significant length of time. Athens or these days even the United States may be cited as exceptions, but in both cases the rule is proven by the institutional facts that gave them the appearance of longevity.

All in all, a reasonable person might conclude that “democracy’ doesn’t work. In fact, one might say that whenever it appears to work effectively, it’s because it has, effectively, ceased to exist. The focal points of activity amount to one or a relatively few individuals or groups whose regular activity accounts for all of the daily activity of ‘the people’. But if, in considering its effective existence, we also take account of the overall end or aim of the activity, a different conclusion becomes possible.

For the rule of ‘the people’ also refers to the guiding premises that bring to light their common good. This means what, as individuals, they commonly understand to be good. But it also means the good they all of them see and are willing to serve, the good they have in common. For better or worse, either of these two categories of good may divide ‘the people’ as much or more than it unites them. Gold, for example, long stood for something all common understand to be good. But what substance has more often caused violent conflicts. Life, and all that is essential to sustain it, are seen as a good all people have in common. But when it is good, people fight to keep it so; and when it is not they fight to retain it, bad as it may be, in fear of death as something worse.

Like democracy, in human terms good does not seem to exist as such, all unalloyed. There persists, however, a sense of good beyond the impossibilities of existence. It is the sense that sometimes overwhelms us when, a piece of music or a tale of heroism reminds our inner self of its most precious belonging. Or the sense of justice expressed in our applause when a verdict comes in, defending the innocent or showing due regard for fairness. Or when some action, great or small, reveals the sacrificial caring, the mutual respect and aid we long to give and approve, even when, we ourselves cannot attain that for which we long.

These are the sounding mystic chords of memory, albeit sometimes resounding things that maybe never were. In contradiction with such nagging realism, however, somewhere within we stubbornly cling to the sense that they forever were, and are, and will be. All this came to my mind today because my friend Bill Federer took a minute to relay a report about “a Marxist economist from China… coming to the end of a Fulbright Fellowship… asked… if he had learned anything that was surprising and unexpected. And without hesitation he said ‘Yes, I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy.”

Echoing what the Bible says about fear of the Lord, this remark is “the beginning of wisdom.” The Fulbright scholar went on to observe that “the reason why democracy works…is not because the government was designed to oversee what everybody does. But…because most people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”

I would add that the attainment of wisdom comes into view when we ask, “Whose law?” The answer implied when the subject is religion is “the law of God.” Now, here’s the rub: Knowing what makes “democracy work”, one may also know the key to destroying it. For the people who most need to be brought into voluntary observance of the law are not ordinary folks, who are by nature and relative frailty inclined to follow the ordinances. Rather, it’s the extraordinary few, on whom democracy must depend for its focus and staying power. Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses. Religion is the reasonable power human nature recognizes but never fully understands, that prepares the goodwill of the capable, influential few, to do right even though their abilities leave them free to do otherwise.

The Christian religion isn’t the only one that has helped the free and powerful to achieve self-rule. But it may be the only one that brings them to the point of doing so with the intention of allowing the whole people to experience that same liberty. This intention of God in Christ, to exalt the lowly (as Christ’s mother proclaims), was shared by America’s prevalent Founders. But much evidence suggests that opponents of their wholesome intention have been working, from the first, to banish Christ and his offer of self-rule under God, from the America way, which is republican without being simply democratic, oligarchic or monarchical.

Behind a sham of mutual opposition, these elitist forces now seem poised to achieve their goal. Themselves corrupt, they systematically work to corrupt the goodwill and ordinary good sense of the people. Using the passions of democracy, they subvert its strength, as heretofore in human history they have always successfully done. That historical pattern was broken, for a time, by the people of these United States.

When we professed to have no King but Jesus, we ruled ourselves, in Jesus name. Seduced by the siren songs of the selfishly ambitious few, we have lately been abandoning liberty (self-government) in the false name of licentious freedom. With the sacred bonds of Christ-given liberty cast aside, how long before the renewal of human bondage is complete? To be sure, the appearance of democracy outlives democracy—but only for a moment. Those not yet awake to the danger may well sleep through the change.


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