By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Paul Harvey, the Chicago news broadcaster known for his “…and now for the rest of the story” commentary, often admonished his audience that freedom in a democracy required responsibility or it would be lost. He echoed Plato and Edmund Burke who had both warned that the imperfections of human nature, or human depravity, would doom democracy. Plato said that “dictatorship is the natural result of extreme liberty,” and Burke told 18th century Americans that in a democracy they would “forge their own shackles.” Pogo the Possum simply said: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
We are just beginning to see the truth of those prophesies. Democracy was on the increase following the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990, but began a noticeable decline in 2005. Since then authoritarian regimes have proliferated, and mature democracies in Europe and America have experienced extremist demagogues who have tapped into public frustration and anger caused by an immigration crisis, political ineptitude and the erosion of the middle class by the unrestrained greed and exploitation of big business.
Extremism is replacing moderation in the world’s democracies, and religion is contributing to the problem. Increased immigration has created culture clashes based on religious differences, and the stabilizing effect of traditional Christian religious institutions has been eroded by the exit of Nones (those with no religious preference) and by fundamentalist evangelical sects. In America, evangelical Christians have supported Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, two extremist GOP candidates for President, and similar trends are evident in Europe.
Changing cultural values and the expectations of believers have challenged traditional religious values as well as those of politics. Advances in knowledge, reason and the secular concepts of libertarian democracy of the Enlightenment have transformed both politics and religion in the West, but they have had little effect in the Islamic cultures of the East, where authoritarian regimes continue to use religious laws to stifle political freedom. And libertarian democracy in the West is now threatened by political and religious extremism.
Human depravity has been a flaw in the concept of libertarian democracy since St. Augustine proclaimed it to be the consequence of original sin, with God’s grace its only antidote. Rather than rely on God’s grace, ancient Judaism and Islam relied on religious laws to control human depravity. In libertarian democracies civil rights protect minorities from a tyranny of the majority, but nothing can prevent people from sacrificing their liberty to political demagogues. There have been many examples of populist demagogues in America who have exploited human depravity to gain power—Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are just the latest examples.
The rights of democracy and freedom come with the responsibility to exercise those rights with respect for the rights of others. Moral restraint is necessary to preserve individual liberty, and when liberty becomes license, laws are needed to protect people from the depravity of others and freedom is forfeited. That is how democracy can evolve into dictatorship.
Libertarian democracy is not perfect, but it is the only true indicator of the moral legitimacy of any religion. Morality cannot be coerced by law, and where religious laws preclude the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, as with apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic nations, libertarian democracy cannot exist.
For religions to be compatible with libertarian democracy, religious standards of legitimacy, or behavior, should be limited to voluntary moral standards and not be enforced as coercive laws. Religious and political diversity require that religions embrace the principles of love over law and the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—and that includes unbelieving neighbors and those with opposing political views.
God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Politicians often use divisive issues to motivate their constituencies. In a democracy religion cannot be separated from politics. Political choices involve the welfare of others and are acts of faith, and the greatest commandment requires that we support politicians who seek to reconcile the differences that divide us by balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, and that we oppose those who exploit our differences for political gain.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The Evolution of Faith, Religion and Spirituality, February 20, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; and Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016.
On the decline of democracy and increase in authoritarianism over the last 10 years, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/democracy-in-retreat/2016/03/13/dd2e5eba-e798-11e5-a6f3-21ccdbc5f74e_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
For a statistical analysis of the support of evangelical Christians for Donald Trump by the Pew Research Center, see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/14/exit-polls-and-the-evangelical-vote-a-closer-look/.