“Thus the world is like an oil press: under pressure. If you are the dregs of the oil you are carried away through the sewer; if you are the genuine oil you will remain in the vessel. But to be under pressure is inevitable. Observe the dregs, observe the oil. Pressure takes place ever in the world, as for instance, famine, war, want, inflation, indigence, mortality, rape, avarice; such are the pressures on the poor and the worry of the states: we have evidence of them . . . We have found men who grumble under these pressures and who say: “How bad are these Christian times!” . . . thus speak the dregs of the oil which run away through the sewer; their color is black because they blaspheme: they lack splendor. The oil has splendor. For here another sort of man is under the same pressure and friction which polishes him, for is it not the very same friction that refines him?”
– St. Augustine of Hippo
The current chaotic state of competing ideas, beliefs and “world-views” complicates any treatment of the relationship or perceived tension between American democracy and Christianity. What is democracy? Is it the democracy of the ancient Athenians? The democracy of the New England town meeting? Or the mass democracy that Eric Voegelin described as being governed by something called “public opinion,” which in turn is governed by the media? The very same democracy that the Founding Fathers despised and feared more than monarchy?
No less a problem lies in addressing what we mean when we say “Christian.” With hundreds of Protestant Christian denominations, a particularly Americanized version of Roman Catholicism, and a tiny handful of irrelevant Orthodox Christians (irrelevant insofar as having any appreciable social or political impact), how do we even begin to define or describe the Christian? Then you have the case of a close personal friend of mine who believes that he does not need a church as long as he believes in Jesus. I’m not sure how he spends his time on Sunday mornings, but this might appear to be the logical terminus of Protestant denominationalism. But it isn’t. The dominant self-identified type in America today is “spiritual but not religious.” How can one possibly sort any of this out?
Americans tacitly signed onto a religious settlement in which Christians accepted the basic tenets of secular liberalism and equality in exchange for protection from religious persecution, both from the State and from competing Christians. An example would be my friend who is a brilliant corporate attorney who earns in the high six figures who also happens to be an Episcopalian. He opposes the teaching of the Bible in public schools as well as, presumably, any religious education, because it might happen that his children would be taught by a Catholic.
That great religious settlement is now breaking down, and for two reasons. The first reason is that the more ideologically fervent promoters of the “inclusivity” of mass democracy have jumped the shark. This to the extent that young children are taught, in at least some of the more “progressive” school districts, how to masturbate and how to engage in “safe” sex with members of the same sex. Bakers are required to produce and deliver wedding cakes for same sex couples or face financial ruin, public ridicule and death threats. Pastors and priests face the very real possibility of law suits, even jail time, for refusing to marry same sex couples. And then there is abortion as a constitutional right, as determined by the Supreme Court. As if that were not bad enough from the Christian understanding of life (not to mention obedience to Christian teaching from Apostolic times), some states are guaranteeing the right to abortion to the point that if an aborted child is born alive, the doctor is required to cause it to expire so as not to upset the mother, since, by God, she’s paid for an abortion and she has the right to get one.
The secular right seems to have no answer to these problems, as, for example, the editorial in National Review Magazine which confessed that they had found no argument that could be used against same sex marriage so long as it were democratically instituted.
The second reason for the breakdown of America’s religious settlement is the rise of a fervent evangelicalism, which is overstated demographically, and yet has become active politically. The growth of fervent evangelicalism contrasts with the steady decline of what used to be called “mainline” Christianity, a term borrowed from the main commuter line from Philadelphia into the suburbs. The mainline Churches take pride in their political activism in support of democratic inclusiveness, including, especially, the “LGBT” political agenda. Fervent evangelicals are more concerned about separating “the wheat from the chaff.”
But these are all sociological observations utilizing the tools of “positive science.” Any student of Eric Voegelin knows that there is a lot more going on underneath the surface, so to speak.
For some, Eric Voegelin is a rorschach test. His students and followers include socialists, free market libertarians, traditionalist conservatives, Catholics, agnostics and Pascalians. But one thing is hard to deny: Voegelin’s withering critiques of John Locke’s theory of tolerance sounds even more passionate at times, even more brutally personal, than his critiques of totalitarianism. Included in such critiques are an implicit defense of the hierarchical structures of reality, classically understood, without any overt attack on democracy itself. For a more overt criticism of democracy, and a full-throated defense of hierarchy, see John Wild’s “Plato’s Theory of Man,” published in 1946.
It is more than just an interesting sidebar that there are really no equivalent defenders of hierarchy in politics from Christian thinkers in recent times. One may have to go back to Bossuet–not exactly the most empathetic type.
For American evangelicals, who otherwise believe in egalitarian democracy as much as secular democrats, it is a matter of defending Biblical moral principles in response to a real threat to the independence and integrity of their families and communities. In other words, it comes down to the conflict between competing rights: the right of some to be accepted by the rest of society even though, or especially because they intentionally live outside traditional Christian norms, and for whom it becomes an ideological fixation, and the rights of religious people to practice their religion without harassment.
The inability or unwillingness by Christians to critique the radical inclusiveness of contemporary democratic politics from a deeper philosophical or theological ground is a curious phenomenon, especially considering that the “Lord’s Prayer” is universally used by even the most heterodox of Christian believers. To pray to the Lord explicitly affirms a hierarchical order. Mark’s Gospel explicitly affirms that there are winners and losers in life. Those who abide with Christ will gain eternal life; those who reject him will burn. Better for them had they never been born! Likewise, Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, offers a stark choice between life and death, blessings and curses.
This is not exactly the image of inclusiveness with which the fervent democrat is comfortable, nor should he be. Because democracy is both cause and effect of a new type of man, at least in theory. It is a type of man who is autonomous and in control of his own destiny, while at the same time a tabula rasa, and as such, the product of impersonal historical and social forces. The critic of democracy will note the contradiction, yet most people who live under a democratic system cling to the thought that they have been liberated from traditional, close-minded beliefs, and that in their various modes of self-expression they are able to continuously re-invent themselves. Then, and only then, do they see themselves as truly free.
The classical view, both Christian and philosophical, is that we are created and born with an inherent knowledge of reality and its structure and the Divine Laws that govern all created things, and it is the purpose of education to act as a mid-wife to this knowledge so that those who are properly educated can and will develop into the human beings God created them to be. This is the true meaning of liberation.
Incidentally, this is what John Wild’s book is primarily about: Plato’s practical solution to the problem of injustice in the polis is education in this latter sense. It is not education in the conventional sense as practiced by the sophists. It is an education in bringing about “another sort of man.” This idea of education is not a theory of anything. It is simply a concrete, practical method of evocation.
The tensions and conflicts that seem to be expressed with increasing frequency between Christians and the democratic impulse toward inclusiveness have only superficially to do with disagreements over things like sexual morality. They represent a clash between two typologies, or two symbolisms as Voegelin would say, each with their own identifiable structures. Those among the more ideologically motivated understand that they are in the process of ushering in a new type of man, the next vital stage in human evolution. Christians appear not to understand this, and wish to focus primarily on engagement on the partisan political level to defend their right to practice their religious beliefs.
As a brilliant analyst of the problem of the reification of religious and theological symbols, Eric Voegelin penetrated to the core of the problem. The solution from the Christian perspective does not lie in more brilliant analytical advances. That work is largely complete. The identification of ideology as a libidinous obsession is one of Voegelin’s great contributions to political science. What else is there to say?
Voegelin also provided insight into the problem of participation. It is one thing to say that people ought to have some control over who is in charge of government. But democracy as we know it today is a mythology of participation. The mythology behind universal suffrage and the more radical agenda of “inclusiveness” that has followed is that historically people have suffered from a lack of any sense of political participation which in turns leads to a sense of being “less than,” in the contemporary vernacular. But there is no evidence that universal suffrage and the ongoing drive toward inclusiveness have overcome this problem or that it even was a problem under different political regimes.
The citizens of Constantinople during the era of the Eastern Catholic Empire probably enjoyed a greater sense of participation as citizens in the political order than does the average American citizen today, especially if we go by voter participation and public opinion polls that indicate approval of the most representative of the various government bodies to be in the single digits.
The citizens of Lesotho participate in an annual renewal ceremony for their monarch, dedicated to his health and well-being. The experience becomes one of renewal and well-being for the participants as well. If the King is healthy, then so are his subjects.
All of which suggests—not prove but at the very least indicates—that the motivation behind democracy is less a pragmatic desire to encourage a sense of full participation of all of the citizens of a political order and more on the order of an ideological fixation.
Ideology is a drug, and the ideologue is an addict. He is generally disoriented, discontented and alienated and the only solution in his mind to the pain of this problem is to double the dose of the drug. The political equivalent is continual revolution in which democracy has yet to deliver on its promises but will in the near future with sufficient organization and zeal. Included as a vital part of the plan is to marginalize or eliminate reactionary elements that stand in the way of progress, first through education, and failing that, through more overt forms of coercion.
This represents a type, or a symbol of a type of person. From both a Christian and Platonic perspective this represents a deformation and inversion of the true type. The created type. The democratic type, the self-creating type, perceiving the Christian as the last remaining obstacle to fulfilling his dreams of inclusiveness, will continue advocating the marginalizing of Christian participation in the public square. Nothing could be more predictable. Nor should it come as a shock to sincere Christians who will ask the wrong questions, such as: what has happened to my country? Or worse: why has God abandoned us, while they wring their hands and moan “woe is me!”
What is less predictable is how long it will take for Christians to restore its unique pedagogical heritage. For the “problem,” such as it is for Christians, is not marginalization, or even overt persecution. That’s something we are promised. The institutional problem for Christianity is how do you make a Christian in the first place–that other sort of man of which Augustine speaks. This is not an analytical problem. Nor is it an informational problem. It is a pedagogical problem, that involves going back to the beginning (a common theme for Voegelin by the way), and studying how new Christians were formed in the formative era of the Church.
The only crisis relevant to Christians is not the immorality of our age, or the plethora of false and competing world views that promise innerworldly fulfilment. That’s nothing new. The story of the Tower of Babel is three thousand years old.
The crisis lies in our inability to form new Christians who are made of more than just emotional fervency or intellectual conviction, but constitute another sort of man that can rise above the perennial pressures of existence, to be polished by them and refined until they glisten.
Eventually all ideologies will fail because, just as with any drug, more is never enough. The question is whether or not there will be exemplars who can offer a sober alternative in a way that is powerfully attractive—not for the purpose of transforming society or our political structures—but to produce “another sort of man”—a sufficient end in itself.
We have numerous descriptions of that new sort of man that are pretty scary to most people. Here is one example from the Didache, a catechetical document from the Apostolic era:
The Two Ways and the First Commandment. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.
Chapter 5. The Way of Death. And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.
The first takeaway from this teaching is that even the most radical, ideological despisers of Christianity are not the enemy of the Christian who has been properly instructed and formed. He has no enemies.
The second is that radical, democratic inclusiveness is an immanetized version of Christian eschatology. It has the power to attract and compel only insofar as Christians fail to live up to the teaching.
The third is that Christianity is about life and death, not ideas as such.
And fourth is that whatever the political or economic system in place, there will always be a tension between the demands of the political order and the demands of the Didache.
In the year 403 AD, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire which was officially Christian brought an indictment against the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. The particulars of the indictment said nothing of the true motive. The Archbishop had had the temerity to attack the Empress, Eudoxia, to her face, during the Divine Liturgy, for hoarding her wealth and her parsimony toward the poor. He was banished and marched by soldiers to his death. He is now a saint.