Christian Concern’s Joe Boot examines the challenges presented by liberal democracy.
The question of authority
The inescapable question that confronts us in every aspect of life is the question of authority. Whom and what will we believe, how will we live, and by what standard? There are a variety of ways we come to know and believe, and there are various activities by which we arrive at our convictions and acknowledge authority. One human activity giving rise to a certain kind of authority is that of science.
There are numerous sciences – the natural sciences, medical sciences, operational sciences, not to mention what are often referred to today as social sciences, examining things like anthropology, archaeology, economics, history, human geography, jurisprudence, linguistics, psychology, sociology and political science. Theology is an important science where we examine Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the church, to deepen our understanding and insight into them. When certain individuals have spent much time studying a given area, reaching a certain degree of competence, they may establish themselves as an ‘authority’ in their field.
However, when a Christian reads the Bible, prays, or sings the Psalms to meditate on God’s Word and engage in worship, it is not a scientific enterprise. The act of believing the Word of God is different from scientific analysis of biblical languages, for example. Moreover, when we live by the Word of God given in creation and His Word revelation, we do not establish its authority, but acknowledge and trust it. Nonetheless, there is a deep connection between our believing activity and the analytical conclusions we reach in any of these areas we now call the sciences. This connection is critical. Both historically and in terms of the structure of our thought as human beings, all our scientific or theoretical knowledge is preceded by a more original, primary knowledge. This is the everyday knowledge of experience, of practical, factual, full and ordinary life in created reality which deepens and grows with time – it is the experience of being human in God’s world. In this everyday knowledge we encounter norms like good and evil, and come upon the laws of God for creation in every aspect of living. One does not need to be a physicist, for example, to discern a law that causes objects to fall to the ground. We ‘know’ this reality regardless of whether we can formulate the law of gravity symbolically on a whiteboard.
The root of this primary knowledge is a kind of basic trust that is necessary for every other kind of knowledge to be established. All other forms of secondary knowledge must presuppose this basic trust – without it there could be no science. This trust rests on a fundamental kind of faith knowledge, or what we might call religious knowledge that is inescapable to human beings as created, religious creatures. This knowledge can be supressed and distorted, but it cannot be escaped.
In the final analysis, all our knowledge is grounded in a created reality which, as a mystery, cannot be fully comprehended by human thought in its totality, because human thinking itself and the scientist himself, are part of the creation he is trying to understand: a cosmos held together and fully dependent upon Christ, the Word of God. By divine revelation, we are given knowledge of the true origin of all things and the problem of sin which introduced the sense of confusion, ambiguity and anxiety that persists in human life and culture. Egbert Schuurman draws the important conclusion that:
“This ‘knowledge’ and this ‘recognition’ imply a knowledge whose content is understood by faith. With our minds we cannot get beyond this faith content, because it is itself the foundation of all our thinking. The knowledge that comes from a basic trust…is knowledge in the sense of ac-knowledge, it is knowledge of the heart. This knowledge which concerns the basic direction of our life is given concrete expression in our faith knowledge, in our assent and obedience to the divine revelation. This faith knowledge keeps every scientific knowledge in its limited, relative, abstract and provisional place.”
The danger in every area of human thought is that people can start to believe and trust in what a given theoretical activity of science says, and so elevate a secondary, provisional form of knowing to the place of the primary knowledge in their lives. In other words, their faith subtly shifts from God to man, from revelation to scientific theories, from basic trust in God’s created reality and Word, to human abstractions. This is not to say that human theoretical knowledge is not very important. The sciences as a tool have the capacity to deepen our understanding of a given area of life, but they cannot displace created reality or revelation, remake the world, or provide primary knowledge – they are a fallible and secondary instrument. Final authority resides only in the Author of all creation, who places human beings in his creation, made in his image, and subject to his law-Word for all things. This is no less true in biology and history than in political science or theology.
The concept of heresy
This foundational understanding of the relationship of the sciences (various fields of knowledge and inquiry) to belief and revelation is vitally important when considering the problem of heresy, because the heretic is one who seeks to establish independent authority rather than acknowledge it. Here, a secondary form of knowledge acquisition – based in personal theorising and revising of accepted Christian doctrine – replaces the primary knowledge of revelation to be confessed and believed. The word heresy comes from a Greek word (hairesis), the essential meaning of which is a taking or choosing for oneself. The heretic is one who, in their belief, confession or teaching, has placed their personal, eccentric choice or opinion above that of accepted and received authority: ultimately, the authority of God and His Word. That is why a person engaged even in the science of theology (a discipline with as many pitfalls as biology) must take great care not to confuse their novel opinion with authority, or primary knowledge. Which is to say, theological concepts and systems are not identical to Scripture. They must be weighed against Scripture and the testimony of the Church down the centuries from the time of the apostles. When theologians have conflated their novel ideas with Scripture itself – with biblical authority – the propagation of heresy is the end result.
The faith knowledge of the heart variously given with creation – manifest in Christ, inscripturated in the Older and Newer Testaments, confirmed by the Holy Spirit and concretised by the confessing orthodox church down the centuries – is primary knowledge,while theological systems and conceptual models – though vital and helpful in deepening our understanding – are secondary forms of scientific knowledge, provisional and always in reform. Heresy then, is essentially false teaching which clearly contravenes the biblical Word and orthodox deposit of faith, denying their binding authority. The early church was found almost immediately battling heretical ideas, arising from creative theologies that sought to fuse Christianity with forms of paganism. Several of the most important creeds of the church were the product of that battle for a faithful reception of legitimate authority, rooted in Christ and his Word.
Obviously, without a received authority as the basis of orthodoxy, there can be no heresy – the concept would be meaningless! This means that the Christian concept of heresy will not be tolerated by a culture that rejects, scorns, or makes light of the authority of Scripture, the orthodox creeds and confessions of the church, as well as church discipline. In fact, such heresy will be viewed as unimportant, irrelevant or even impossible to define. At the same time however, a new source of authority that has subtly replaced Scripture and biblical confessions within that culture – for authority never disappears but is simply transferred – will be taken very seriously and a new orthodoxy enforced with the tools of discipline adhering to that new sphere of authority – typically the state. From the Christian standpoint, all true authority begins and resides in the sovereign God and His infallible Word, and this sovereignty (i.e. absolute kingship or rule) of the triune God, as Creator of all things, is a foundational article of faith. The Apostles’ Creed declares:
“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…
And he will come to judge the living and the dead”
In a similar fashion the Nicene Creed begins:
“We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God…through him all things were made…”
Notice that these two foundational ecumenical creeds, which summarise the basic teaching of Scripture, affirm that the triune God is almighty and the creator of all things; that Jesus Christ is Lord and God and the judge of all. In short, they affirm the sovereignty and Lordship of Jesus Christ. To deny this Lordship and sovereignty to Christ is therefore heretical.
The influence of heresy
Typically, when Christians consider the subject of heresy, we invariably think of church councils, ecclesiastical tribunals and church order; we regard these matters of doctrine as essentially confined to the church institute. After all, what relevance could a person’s rejection of God’s sovereignty, or Christ’s atoning death for sin have on political life, for example? Without doubt, these church-oriented considerations are vitally important for understanding and addressing heresy. The church must confront heretical teaching, refute it, and discipline members. But what we rarely consider are the implications of heretical ideas and teaching as they impinge upon life outside the institutional church. This oversight is serious because if we ecclesiasticise the concept of heresy and regard it as having relevance only for the life of the church, we will fail to see how heretical thought profoundly affects other vitally important areas of life – including the political. In fact, what we believe about God’s sovereignty actually has far-reaching implications forpolitical life and thought!
It is evident that there are times when heretical thinking is only clearly brought to light outside the ecclesiastical sphere. Because of the tendency among Christians today to acquiesce to secularism’s radical dualism – a way of thinking which divides faith and reason, private and public, religion and politics, into separate storeys of reality as though they were hermetically sealed domains – one foundational truth about reality can supposedly bear authority in the church institute (a supposedly ‘private’ sphere of religion), whilst a contrary commitment can hold, at the same time, for cultural and political life (the ‘public’ sphere of reason). Because of this latent dualism, it is possible for this contradiction to persist without the Christian ever clearly recognising a basic incoherence. This means that a Christian within the confessing church community may believe themselves to be essentially orthodox as far as the fundamental tenets of the faith are concerned (in the ‘religious’ sphere) yet hold, at the same time, to a radical liberal-democratic or even Marxist view of cultural and political life for the public space. They may even suggest to fellow believers that the acceptance of ‘alternative lifestyles’ and the redefinition of marriage is a good thing for ‘society out there.’ In these instances, arising either from ignorance or an arrogant setting aside of Scripture, heretical views of God which deny His total sovereignty in all of life have manifested themselves in areas outside the church institute (where they have remained quietly hidden), because inside the church institute God is ‘permitted’ to be sovereign.
This pervasive influence of heresy is inevitable. Because faith-knowledge and religious presuppositions are the point of departure for every area of life and thought – not just in the church or the science of theology – heresy never confines its influence or application within the ecclesiastical sphere. Very often as a result, Christians who are inconsistent in their thinking and lack a comprehensive biblical worldview can unwittingly adopt views and practices in other areas of life that are rooted in heresy. In short, Christians frequently adopt heretical political theologies and even humanistic ideologies as suitable for the life of society, sometimes without ever realising they are in denial of fundamental confessional truths of Scripture and the creeds.
What is democracy?
Having considered the meaning and influence of heresy, we are now ready to turn to the concept of democracy and attempt to relate the two. It may seem somewhat shocking to some that the title of this article identifies liberal democracy as an expression of heresy. Do I not believe in the consent of the people to be governed, or their legitimate role in the election of their leaders? Do I wish to replace democratic institutions with an absolute monarchy or some dictatorial form of government? The answer is no. I have no desire to do away with the hard-won cultural freedoms bequeathed by our Christian forebears in the form of parliamentary or congressional institutions that involve responsible citizens in the election of their political leaders, whether in constitutional monarchies or republics. We have come a long way since governmental authority was a private entity in the hands of monarchs and land owners.
This being the case, what is really at issue with the question of democracy? Clearly, there are a variety of forms (or structures) of political life even in the Western tradition. Britain has a monarchy, the established church, a House of Lords and Commons. Canada has an upper and lower house (Senate and Commons), with a viceroy for the monarchy called the Governor General. The United States has a President, Congress and Senate. All have an ostensibly independent judiciary. The fundamental issue under consideration in this article is not to quibble over the varied and particular structures of political life, but with basic religious direction.What is the basis and source of final authority that gives direction to any society? Where does ultimate sovereignty (which is another word for kingship or rule) lie?What is the religious root of the idea of democracy and is it consistent with the scriptures and orthodox confessions of the church? As Rousas Rushdoony noted,“Behind all this is the question of authority: is it from God, or from man? If God is the sovereign authority over all things, then His law-word alone can govern all things.”
In a book published in 1955, Lord Percy of Newcastle argued that democracy as ideology is a “philosophy which is nothing less than a new religion.” The book was called, The Heresy of Democracy: A Study in the History of Government, and it called attention to these foundational questions. The word democracy is derived from the Greek worddemokratia which brings together demos, meaning ‘the people,’ and kratos, meaning ‘authority’ – in popular parlance, people power. The basic underlying principle is popular sovereignty. So, the question naturally arises, is popular sovereignty consistent with biblical truth and an orthodox doctrine of God? In a democratic order, without God’s ultimate sovereignty recognised, is it not the case that man’s theoretical political idea of popular sovereignty replaces creational and biblical revelation as the basis for social order? Ideological democratic thinkers like John Dewey held that there was a basic contradiction between the popular sovereignty of man and the absolute sovereignty of God. Christianity and the family were for him essentially aristocratic and anti-democratic and therefore incompatible with his vision of democracy.
To properly uncover whether modern liberal democracy is undergirded by heretical ideas expressed in the political sphere, it is necessary to briefly do two things. First, we need to consider the religious assumptions of the liberal democratic tradition and where it stands now. Second, we need to consider the specific claims of Christ. No orthodox view of political life can negate the claims of Jesus Christ.
The origins of liberal democracy
It is important to deal first with the qualifier ‘liberal’ in the term ‘liberal democracy.’ Democratic institutions are one thing, the contemporary notion of liberal democracy is quite another. Over many centuries in the English-speaking world, under the influence of Christian faith and customs, citizens increasingly participated in their own government. Inherited rights and forms of political life emerged, empowering common people – not just a landed aristocracy, the church, or hereditary monarchy – at the same time that a deepening consciousness of the inner nature of family, church and state and the sovereignty of God over all people (king and commoner alike) came to political expression. Here, democracy did not mean the will of the 51% governs (a kind of direct rule by mob), but rather increased separation and differentiation of powers with more and more elected representatives in civil government. In Britain, the Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, the mother of all parliaments) balanced one another, with the church acting as the moral compass of the nation, under a monarchy which acknowledged and defended the Lordship of Christ and the Christian faith.
Because of sin, no system of government is perfect, but over many centuries the fundamental liberties of representative government emerged in what we now call the Anglo-American tradition. Part of that tradition was the English Common Law, rooted in the scriptures, which, though notthe product of popular vote, played a critical role in the development of constitutional life. The English philosopher Roger Scruton once remarked that the English law existed not to control the individual but to free him. Thus, free democratic institutions in themselves are not problematic from a Christian standpoint. However, the development of the notion of liberal democracy, following the Enlightenment and French Revolution, is a much more complicated issue.
In an important recent article, Yoram Hazony, a Jewish philosopher and political theorist, defines liberalism as referring “to an Enlightenment political tradition descended from the principal political texts of rationalist political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant, and reprised in countless recent works of academic political theory elaborating these views.” He goes on to identify three core religious axioms that undergird liberal-democratic thinking: 1. The availability and sufficiency of reason; 2. The (perfectly) free and (perfectly) equal individual; 3. Obligation arises from choice.
The critical concern that emerges from this for Hazony is that “there is nothing in this liberal system that requires you, or even encourages you, to also adopt a commitment to God, the Bible, family or nation.” In fact, none of the foundational forms of primary knowledge actually undergird the principles of liberal democracy. Despite the oft-heard claim that liberal democracy is meant to protect traditional belief and institutions in a separate sphere of ‘privacy,’ so as to ensure no-one is coerced to be a Christian or live life in the confines of the Christian view of the traditional family, “Everywhere it has gone, the liberal system has brought about the dissolution of these fundamental traditional institutions.”
Why is that? Hazony says the answer is not difficult to find. In essence, although liberalism claims to be a form of government that ensures a wide range of individual freedoms:
“…liberalism is not a form of government at all. It is a system of beliefs taken to be axiomatic, from which a form of government can, supposedly, be deduced. In other words, it is a system of dogmas…about the nature of human beings, reason, and the sources of moral obligations that bind us…; there are no grounds for the claim that liberalism is merely a system of ‘neutral’ rules, a ‘procedural system’ that can make traditional political and religious structures work all the better while leaving them intact. Liberalism is a substantive belief system that provides an alternative foundation…[that] has not co-existed with earlier political tradition, rooted in the Bible, as we were told it would. It has rather cut this earlier tradition to ribbons.”
I have argued repeatedly with several senior evangelical church leaders in England and Canada that they have completely ignored, or are in denial, about the dogmatic religious assumptions undergirding the liberal democratic ideal they are at constant pains to defend as a ‘neutral’ and purely ‘procedural’ system – despite its evident anti-Christianity on display in our time. As we will see, such a claim to neutrality is badly misguided and continues to do great damage in our culture.
Edmund Burke – one of Britain’s greatest parliamentarians, a contemporary of William Wilberforce and a formidable political philosopher – believed that the Christian religion was the only true basis for civil society and the source of all good and comfort; he openly challenged the emerging liberal idea of neutrality in political life. For him the sovereignty of God was the source of all delegated human power and authority. He saw this biblical view of society under assault by the French philosophes and revolutionaries – a revolution which proved to be the mother of all subsequent political revolutions in Europe. Thephilosophes denied that society is a God-given historical-cultural development, and subject to His providential government. Rather, they saw it as the result of a rational social contract made by free and autonomous individuals. Burke recognised that, behind the veneer of their liberal discourse the French Revolutionaries were pursuing the abolition of the Christian faith from every sphere of life. The philosophes were radical de-Christianisers and the Revolution put their vision into action. For them political order was not something inherited or received but established by their idea of reason. Law itself was an expression of the general will manifest only within the state. Burke clearly understood that the hostility engendered by the cult of reason would not end with the church, but rather – given the attempted destruction of the Christian faith as a whole – would come with an assault on property, liberty, and life. The sheer brutality of the Revolutionary period in the destruction of churches, civil freedoms, political opponents, property and lives in a vindictive bloodbath that ended in the Napoleonic dictatorship, bears out these concerns.
The Revolution, however, did not spring up from nowhere. The French philosophes were picking up the intellectual legacy of one of the fathers of modern liberal democracy, John Locke, the progenitor of classical liberalism. Locke’s story is an interesting one, growing up as he did during the English Civil War, his father being in Oliver Cromwell’s army. He spent time living in France during a period when a politically explosive letter circulated in England which it was thought he had a hand in writing. He was also implicated in a plot to kill Charles II and fled again, returning to England after the glorious Revolution of 1688 with William of Orange.
Locke’s thought was rooted in the Enlightenment rationalistic science ideal of mathematical reasoning – a thought process in which most of the sciences were reduced to the numerical aspect of reality. The early political liberals hoped they could demonstrate that political life could likewise be reduced to a kind of mathematical demonstration. Government could surely be developed and grounded in terms of clear rational principles. This, they thought, could be done in a kind of neutral fashion that would be independent of any religious commitment. The liberals believed their vision was based on ‘self-evident’ facts, clear to all reasonable people. In pursuing a basic moral axiom that every ‘rational’ person could agree on, Locke laid the foundations for the idea that all people are perfectly free, autonomous, and endowed with natural rights.
Although Locke himself was not trying to develop a radically secular, de-Christianised democratic society, his thought lay the groundwork for more radical (that is, consistent) views, because he had set aside God’s creational and moral order in pursuit of the illusion of religiously neutral ‘facts.’ Locke was supplanting creational and biblical revelation by making man’s reason the basis of justice and civil concord rather than the Word of God. Even the older pre-modern idea of natural law as something external and given was now jettisoned in favor of natural rights that emerged from man’s reason. The modern democratic perspective can be detected in Locke’s words:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: andreason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that all being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
This view of the human person as rational, virtuous, independent and equal (in a pseudo-mathematical sense) is nowhere to be found in Scripture. In biblical faith, man is a fallen sinner. His human understanding, or reason, is distorted by rebellion against God, often leading him radically astray, and he is anything but independent and autonomous. From the Christian standpoint, man is under law in every area of life and not only is he dependent upon God and subject to Him in the totality of his being, but he is set in profound mutual interdependence with other people – including those long dead who shaped the culture and customs of the society in which he lives. For the Bible, a person’s life is embedded in created and covenantal reality in relationship to God and others, not in a religiously neutral, self-evident, contractual arrangement between abstract individuals in an idealised state of nature. Although all people are made in the image of God having equal intrinsic value and worth, equally subject to God’s law in all things, biblical faith nowhere says that all people are perfectly free and equal in the rationalist sense. As Hazony notes:
“Whereas Hebrew Scripture depicts human reason as weak, capable only of local knowledge, and generally unreliable, liberalism depicts human reason as exceedingly powerful, offering universal knowledge, and accessible to anyone who will but consult it. Similarly, whereas the Bible depicts moral and political obligation as deriving from God and inherited by way of familial, national and religious tradition, liberalism makes no mention of either God or inherited tradition, much less specific traditional institutions such as the family or nation.”
Locke’s faulty assumptions about the human person inescapably lead to faulty assumptions about political life. Government now becomes a creation of the people, beholden to the people and dissolvable by the people, for it is simply a contract between free, independent and equal individuals. As the South African philosopher Danie Strauss has pointed out, “Social contract theories of the early modern period proceed from the fictional abstraction of ‘isolated’ individuals, postulated in order to give a hypothetical (and therefore non-historical) account of the existing order within known societies – as if human individuals are only incorporated in social interaction in a derived sense.” Moreover, in keeping with these philosophical axioms, Locke wanted to neatly keep the concerns of church and state radically separate, because like the social contract in political society, the church is just another kind of voluntary society occupying the private space. The affairs then of religion and the affairs of the magistrate are supposedly entirely unrelated. The state (the public area), is ostensibly free of metaphysical religious claims and so in theory should leave the ‘private’ sphere of religion to organise and go its own way. Samuel Burgess’ analysis of this naïve position is telling:
“Locke consistently attempts to avoid the conclusion that in disputed cases the state may need to take its own theological character seriously…. [T]he state is not a neutral arbitrator, but necessarily has is own ethical and indeed theological values so the citizen is at times confronted with a clash of civic and religious duties.… And herein lies one of the fundamental problems faced by modern liberal democracies: they have forgotten that their own beliefs are theological in nature and not simply the product of reason. The idea of human beings as bearers of natural rights is not a theologically neutral position. The state makes judgements as to which expressions of religion are acceptable in the public sphere according to its own theological account of humans as rational, autonomous beings who are equal and bearers of natural rights.… [T]he assertion of subjective rights is incoherent without the theological roots of those rights.”
Locke, like modern liberals, also overlooks the fact that his own beliefs did not emerge from an autonomous, independent reason. The idea of basic inherent rights and responsibilities for all people in human society arose in a Christian culture, where human persons are viewed as God’s image-bearers.
The misplaced belief that the ‘truth’ of liberal, egalitarian democracy is evident to all reasonable people of goodwill– because it arises from a supposedly religiously neutral public reason and thus should be the basis of all valid government – eventually led to a remarkable degree of intolerance. With the French Revolution, these assumptions led to a ferocious anger toward Christian people and churches, despite explicit legal provisions for freedom of religion. This leads us to a consideration of liberal democracy as it confronts us today with its claim to promote the rights of citizens over and above the promotion of any particular conception of the good.
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.”
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.”
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…”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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, aspolitical 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.”
In an era of liberal-democratic heresy, we can take our stand with Carpocrates or Christ. Only one of these has a future.
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?
1. Egbert Schuurman, “Creation and Science: Fundamental Questions Concerning Evolutionism and Creationism,” The Reformed Ecumenical Synod,Vol. VIII, No.2, August 1980, Edited by Paul G. Schrotenboer.
2. R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 25.
3. For an excellent study in the emergence of political freedom in the English-speaking world see Daniel Hannan, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (New York: Broadside, 2013).
4. Yoram Hazony, “Conservative Democracy: Liberal Principles have brought us to a dead end”, First Things, January 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/01/conservative-democracy.
5. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”
6. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”
7. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”
8. This point is argued extensively in an excellent new study, Samuel Burgess, Edmund Burke’s Battle with Liberalism: His Christian Philosophy and Why it Matters Today (Exeter: Wilberforce Publications, 2017).
9. Samuel Burgess, Edmund Burke, 43-44.
10. Cited in Burgess, Edmund Burke, 45.
11. Hazony, “Conservative Democracy.”
12. Danie Strauss, Philosophy: Discipline of the Disciplines (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2019), 503
13. Burgess, Edmund Burke, 52-53.
14. 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.
15. Marcello Pera, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians(New York: Encounter Books, 2008), 33.
16. Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies(New York: Encounter Books, 2016), 65.
17. R.J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State(Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986), 73-74.
18. Herman Dooyeweerd, The Struggle for A Christian Politics: Collected Works, Series B – Volume 17(New York: Paideia Press, 2008), 71.
19. Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship: Collected Works in Public Theology, Vol 1(Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 72.
20. Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution (Aalten, The Netherlands: WordBridge, 2015), 8, 88-89.