« Should liberal democracy be the goal to strive for from a Catholic perspective? » – François-Xavier Malartre

Fig. 1. Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

In The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society[1], Professor Brad S. Gregory sheds light on a crucial element when trying to understand the birth of liberal democracy. Indeed, this kind of political system appeared in order to resolve, according to him, an issue concerning what society meant to itself. The common framework of Christendom that structured Europe since the 9th century was breached by the Reformation. This signified that the way life was structured and organized by practices embedded in principle in Christianity became unfit for societies plagued by religious strife. Protestants of different denominations rejected Catholic practices that they saw as impious or not relevant, therefore refusing to participate in communal life that was essential in the society of late Medieval Europe. The solution found by political leaders to respond to these issues was what was going to become liberalism and liberal democracy. Indeed, these officials, as in the Netherlands, refused to establish a State associated with a normative view of the Truth (that they would enforce)[2].

          They preferred to promote tolerance through the guarantee of religious liberty. This measure was mainly done in order to create peace. The new motor or essential aspect of society would therefore not be the communal practice of the Christian faith but the pursuit of individual gain through economic enterprise. This last emphasis became the new social glue. The different states that were experiencing a process of major centralization encouraged this aspect, developing their capacity to lift taxes and therefore to levy troops and ensure their existence. My point is to emphasize on the fact that liberalism (therefore liberal democracy) consecrates the defeat of the existence of a common understanding of society. Liberal political regimes are structured around other ideas and ways of thinking than Christianity. There is therefore a risk that has been confirmed in history that Christians and Catholics in particular that support liberal democracy support a system that ultimately acts against their Beliefs.

            I will start by showing how a “liberal democracy” has difficulty when relating to founding principles and in particular Christian ones. Secondly, I will argue that a consistent Catholic has legitimate reasons in mistrusting a “liberal democracy” in order to defend his or her religious freedom and the common good.

            The main reason why I wanted to attend this issue was because I find in the academia and in modern political science an overly positive view of liberal democracy. It is sometimes presented as the only regime possible, the only regime that impedes us from falling into a tyrannical regime or totalitarism. Samuel Huntington, in his civilizational categories[3], associates under the same banner liberal democracy and Christianity. He does the same when associating the West and especially Europe simultaneously to the Enlightenment and Christianity. Seeing this as non-contradicting is a very modern and liberal opinion. Philosophically and historically this has not always been the case nonetheless. Liberal democracy emphasizes on the individual rights of its citizens to practice their religion or to believe in what they wish; property and economic rights are also part of the picture. These principles can be seen as satisfactory for people who have endured religious conflict and wish to get ways to start over. However by this very aspect relativism is the new norm and truth and error cohabit within a same space. The main consequence of this is the creation of a society structured between the public and the private.

             Owing to the fact that religion becomes merely something private, the state consecrates new principles in founding its power. Indeed, rather than presenting itself as the “Defensor of Truth”, it sees itself as the expression of the law of the majority. There are of course limits to this aspect but one can nonetheless pinpoint to the fact that if a majority of the citizens or representatives vote for a law it can be enforced regardless if it is in conformity with justice. Liberal democracy promotes therefore possibly a Promethean ideal in which man deprived from God can rule as he can see fit. This is a tremendous blow to the way laws were envisioned and how the State legitimates itself. Another consequence of this kind of society is the fact that individualism becomes a legitimate principle. When pointing this out I am not saying that there should not be the existence of consent among the citizens but only that this type of vision does not take into account the existence of the common good. The state therefore defends the people’s interests but not their common good. These two elements are not always contradictory but in a liberal democracy, the first principle is always what is first pursued. Concerning the founding principles of liberal democracies, one can point out that they correspond to a balance of power at a specific moment. Owing to the fact that the people are sovereign, the same people can later on change these. For instance, in the case of the United States, the issue of the Constitution is emblematic[4]. Lawmakers and judges are debating on whether to stick to the most orthodox interpretation of this one or interpreting it in order to advance this or that issue that was not prevalent at the time of the Founding Fathers. Conservatives trying to defend the Christian idea of the family against progressives finish by giving the Constitution an almost godlike aspect that is unchangeable and rigid. When trying to defend Truth in the liberal democratic framework, they are forced to express their views in complicated manners using sometimes arguments that are not that persuasive. This raises the question to whom do we owe our loyalty first to? To God or to the State?

 

            In Professor Stepen’s article about the “twin tolerations”[5] between religious authorities and state ones, he argues that to promote democracy, one has to reach out to those among the multivocal traditions that are the most compatible with liberal democracy. This way of seeing things denotes a fact that heresy can be put at the same level of Truth. This is a purely a utilitarian way of thinking that does not take into account the notion of orthodoxy to a revealed tradition. I would say that it reveals the fact that one wants to refuse an essential debate. The participation in the system is seen as more important than defending the Truth on the long run. In the case of Catholicism in France, Christian Democrats have become seen as a way for the Church and faithful Catholics to engage in politics without answering this issue. The Founders of these movements like Marc Sangnier (1873-1950) or Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) recognized that politics is not an abstract ideal but a fragile work in the hands of fallen men and women. Consequently, one must be patient with politics, not expecting triumphant victories right away.

               Collaboration with non-Christians requires to better know their references, looking for common ground in order to pursue social justice. By doing this, they tend to enter a rhetoric in which liberal democracy is accepted and enshrined. They also develop a progressive narrative of history, trying to find friends of the “faith” among its enemies throughout history. This leads to a vision of history that before the French Revolution all was grim and sad whereas something new and great related to the Gospel has happened ever since. A sad aspect is the fact that they finish by defending more the current state of affairs rather than challenging crucial issues of this modern framework. Finally, sociologically it should be noted that many of these Christian democrats have leaned more and more to the left, being sympathetic to Marxism. As Marxists, many have become anti-clerical and revolutionary[6]. This example was intended in showing the difficulties that exist when a faithful Catholic tries to defend his views through unchristian principles in the liberal framework. Professor Gregory argues that religion in a liberal democracy becomes subjective. Indeed the faithful are incited to sort out in their religious tradition what is compatible or not with the overlapping secular principles that found the liberal democracy. This aspect echoes the consumerist culture in which the individual is King. This aspect is to be taken seriously by the faithful when thinking of politics and liberal democracy.

            To conclude, Liberal Democracy although it allows pluralistic societies to live together, promotes certain values that are in contradiction or dangerous to the Faith. The main issue here is to whom are we willing to be the first loyal to, to God or the State? This issue cannot be avoided if one wishes to genuinely defend the Faith in the most compelling manner. I do not really know in theory what to promote in the place of liberal democracy but I believe that it is good to be aware of the limitations and risks entailed in that type of framework. I am not convinced that conservative majorities are sufficient to defend the faith in politics today (especially when they compromise so much their convictions).

François-Xavier Malartre (Master 2 Anglais)

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Notes:

[1] Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Harvard University Press, 2012.

[2] There actually was increased support the Dutch Reformed Church and discrimination against Catholics until the 19th century but the modus vivendi was toleration in comparison to what happened elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries.

[3] Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations? Summer 1993, August 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/1993-06-01/clash-civilizations.

[4] Scalia, Antonin. Originalism: A Quarter-Century of Debate. Edited by Steven G. Calabresi, Regnery Publishing, 2007.

[5] Stepan, Alfred. “Religion, Democracy, and the “Twin Tolerations”.” Journal of Democracy 4 (2000): 37-57.

[6] Pelletier, Denis, et Jean-Louis Schlegel. A la gauche du Christ. Les chrétiens de gauche en France, Points, 2015.


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