Conservatism

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Second Coming of Chirst

Nicholas’s post yesterday reminded us of some important truths about conservatism.In the end, politics is a second order activity. As the third Marquis of Salisbury once said: ‘God is love and the world is what it is. Explain that?’ The answer is that we are a fallen species. At best we can produce Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and St. Francis; at worse, we produce Attila, Alexander Borgia and Hitler. We have the instincts of angels, and of demons. St Paul knew, as our faith knows, that left to ourselves we will verr off and like the dog return to its vomit. Original Sin is the one dogma that can be proven from our own experience of ourselves.

Politics can cure relatively few of our ills. At best there are some good people there who wish to make a difference to the lives of their fellows; the problem comes when they take the short cut of using the resources of others to fulfil that purpose. The intention is good, but the State is not a person and it is generally a mistake to allow its cold charity to replace the instincts of the human heart. It is best if politicians remember they are merely instruments in God’s hand and no not imagine they are that hand, or even God himself. In an era when faith in God is less, it was replaced by faith in politicians and the State; we are coming to the end of the short era in which that appeared to be a viable option to even the politicians.

This unthinking faith has been replaced for many of us with an equally unthinking scepticism. Politicians inflated the language of hope, and now that currency is devalued, we think it is worthless. How much better it would havce been had politicians tried to be more humble and more realitic about what politics can achieve. But they were not so, and now they pay the price.

 

People want to be told things are going to be all right in the end; children always want a good night story which ends well. That is not how life is. It is easy, tempting and inevitable that I should end by saying we need a Churchill. But we ought to recall that for the whole of the 1930s he was ignored and in the wilderness. The new democracy did not wish to be lectured or told that all was not going to be well. It wanted to believe that there would be ‘peace in our time’; it wanted to believe that Hitler was not evil in human form; it wanted, and got, its good night story. It also reaped the whirlwind.

‘Blood, toils, tears and sweat’, that was what Churchill promised us in 1940. That same democracy which had wanted pretty lies, woke up and took the truth on the chin. Our politicians are wrong to underestimate our capacity for hearing the truth spoken; as they are to underestimate our need for fairy stories. The values which infuse the Gospel message are as valid now as they have always been. In God alone lies real salvation, but in this vale of tears we are under an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves, as we are to conduct ourselves in a way which is worthy of a Christian. There is very little wrong that could not be cured by mankind following that message. But mankind rejected the prophets and they rejected the Lord when he came. The fruits of that rejection we see everywhere about us. It behoves our religious leaders to do what the prophets did to the cildren of Israel and speak truth unto power. Power will not like it, but so much the worse for power.

Conservative, not reactionary

The posts on Josephus and the concept of the “politeia” will resume: this is just an interlude.

I am not fond of labels when it comes to people, but I accept their use in technical contexts for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Chalcedon’s excellent recent piece on culture wars (kulturkampf) has reminded me of my own recent struggles with labels in the context of my own religious and political beliefs. When I was at school we had to study Sir Robert Peel, arguably one of the nineteenth century’s greatest prime ministers, and the re-birth of the Tory party. In today’s gauche parlance we would say that the party was “re-branded“. Around the time of the Tamworth Manifesto it acquired the name “Conservative”. What does that name imply? Guarding the past – but not living in it. You will still find many in Britain today who will happily label themselves as “conservative with a small C”. Such sentiments will frustrate a certain kind of zeal, but it is a mistake to believe that such conservatism cannot also be defended by the fire of zealots. Zeal is in and of itself neither good nor bad: the connection of zeal with a cause and the nature of that cause determines the quality of the value judgement. Zeal for necessary reform is a good thing (where reform is itself understood as good); zeal in the service of evil is misdirected.

Within the Church zeal is found igniting various causes and factions. The struggle to overturn, redefine, or extend doctrine in the face of a call to “preserve what must be preserved” creates frustration. Deception is everywhere: within the human heart, and in the voices of powers far more ancient than Adam’s race. In our desire to “stay relevant”, to keep the Gospel in the public sphere, we seek language that will neither obfuscate nor betray the message of Christ. We seek to “contextualize” it. How does conservatism fit into this picture? Carefully. Preserving the deposit of faith that Christ has entrusted to His followers means being wise. Christ exhorted the Apostles to “be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves”. The authors of Scripture warned the faithful not to be deceived. In our spiritual war we are called to “stand firm” and to be loyal to Yahweh our God.

Chalcedon alluded to Christ’s teaching on new wine. Christ’s teaching could not be contained by the Law. The time had come to transcend (not transgress) the Law. He calls us to exhibit a righteousness greater than that brought by Moses. As St. Paul teaches in Romans, the Law brought death – its letter kills – but Christ brought life. The reactionaries of Christ’s day by their own refusal to accept Him cast themselves out of the Kingdom of Heaven. But Christ also taught that He had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. Here our concept of “conservatism” as understood above takes its significance. The early Christians did not reject God’s previous message: they used it as the doorway to enter into Christ.

So should our conservatism be today. Christ said that His Spirit would lead us into all truth. If the Spirit is to lead us, then we must go: we cannot stand still. As we understand the universe better (natural revelation) and as God leads us into greater things “in the spirit” (supernatural revelation), we must continue to apply ourselves to the study of His Word. His principles do not change, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. But sometimes our understanding needs to shift. Galileo’s discoveries about the universe did not change the Gospel message, and he himself did not think that they would. They changed how we viewed the Bible, to be sure, but that change did not mean that God became somehow less awesome, less holy in our sight. As Chalcedon often says, “We have nothing to fear from the truth.” Our knowledge of the truth is growing, but our Saviour remains the same, standing faithfully beside us.

Culture wars?

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There is a line in a Leonard Cohen song which goes: ‘there is war between those who say there is a war/and those who say there isn’t’; quite apposite in the case of the so-called ‘culture wars’. Those who say that there is no war do so because their mind-set arranges things in a way which means that there really is no war. They are on the side of ‘progress’, and everyone (who matters) agrees that that is a good thing; the real progressives think it is a very good thing indeed; the revolutionaries are in such a hurry for it that they want to get there sooner. Where? There is an in-built teleology in the mind-set. Things are getting better and will get even better; history is tending in the direction of progress; one’s job is certainly to be on its side, and there are certainly jobs to be had that way; if one can direct it, there is real power to be had: ‘can we do it? Yes we can.’ No need to ask what ‘it’ is, it is progress, it is taking the steps on the road to the new Jerusalem: new wine for old, new ways for old, and even new wives for old. The past was a bad place where they did things we no longer do; we measure our progress against (self-selected) ‘benchmarks’ and, to our satisfaction, find things are better – thanks to us. So, no ‘war’ here, simply a following of the tide to a better and brighter future; there are, of course, those enemies of progress who create a culture war; but it is their fault.

There is a quite splendid piece of leger de main involved here; it places those who simply favour the status quo in the position of having to defend what is conventional wisdom; if not all that is, is good, it is at least something known and experienced; the reformers offer better jam in some distant tomorrow. Those who defend the status quo know there is a war, because they feel the foundations shifting, and they share Matthew Arnold’s view:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
There is much to admire about the faith of the progressive. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, such people continue to believe that there can be certitude and peace, and that tablets will bring relief from the pain that psychiatry cannot cure. Every fresh demagogue who promises ‘equality’ is seized upon by them with joy, allowing them, as he does, to get over the last disappointment. I am old enough to remember when that old monster Mao Tse Tung (as we then used to spell his name) was looked upon by them with the sort of reverence which their predecessors had given to Stalin. It is a mistake to think the progressives have no faith, as I am not quite sure what else one would call a belief in the socialist utopia which never comes.
For them, the Christian position is, at best, providing an opiate for the masses; for those such as myself, their position is one of jam tomorrow and jobs for the boys (and girls) today. All of which is, when you come to examine it, a shame, because, as St James tells us, true religion is helping the poor. Both sides in the culture war want a better world. To me, the Christian world-view explains why the faith of the Left in man’s ability to deliver this by himself is misplaced. But perhaps in this broken world, it is enough that we can work together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoners; they might do it for a better tomorrow; we do it because in so doing we do it to the Lord Jesus.

The Believer and the Politeia (2)

Let us begin by considering the term politeia and the related word politeuma. Both are derived from the Greek word for city-state, polis; the Greek word for “citizen” is polites. Our modern word “politics” comes from an adjective derived from the term polis, and means “concerning the life and governance of the city-state”.

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The Believer and the Politeia (1)

Some readers and contributors at AATW may know that my MPhil research focussed on the Jews during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (during which time I also studied Biblical Hebrew). Since I am known here more for my comments on Biblical interpretation than politics, it may come as a surprise that my MPhil thesis is on political theory; the thesis is entitled Josephus and the Jewish Constitution in the Roman World (http://search.lib.cam.ac.uk/). In this thesis I discuss Josephus’ adaptation of Biblical material to Greek political philosophy in the context of Jewish communities within the Roman Diaspora. I would revise much of what I have written (including the prose style), but I believe some of the ideas from that thesis may be of interest here (and perhaps chez NEO).

This first post will introduce Josephus and his works, while subsequent ones will look at his political theory. Josephus was a member of the priestly Hasmonaean family, which had ruled Judea from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes till the rise of Herod the Great. As a priest, he had studied the Torah, in particular the laws governing priestly duties and ritual purity. According to his self-serving autobiography, during his formative years he felt it his moral duty to spend time with each of the main religious sects in Judea before making an informed decision as to whose doctrine he would follow. These were: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. He chose the sect of the Pharisees, who were distinguished from the Sadducees by their belief in: the authority of books besides the Torah (i.e. the Prophets); the resurrection of the just and the wicked; angels and demons; the Oral Law.

During the failed Judean Revolt of AD 66 to 70 (Masada fell in 73), he served as General of Galilee on the Judean side until the siege of Jotapata (Yodfat). The Romans besieged and stormed this town, at which point a group of rebels took refuge in a well or cistern below ground, Josephus among them. They were offered safety upon surrender, but the majority of the group were unwilling to yield. What follows next has been variously interpreted. As Josephus tells the story (and we have only his word on the matter), the group settled on suicide where one man would kill his neighbour and so on until the last two should kill each other or the last man kill himself. According to Josephus, God providentially arranged the order so that he should be the last man, and he then surrendered to the Romans, discerning the will of God. Later historians have wondered whether Josephus calculated how to obtain the outcome he desidered and orchestrated the affair himself, never intending to commit suicide.

Josephus served under Titus for the remainder of the war as an advisor, mediator, and translator (Vespasian, his father, having departed for Rome where he became emperor at the end of the civil wars that followed the overthrow and suicide of Nero). He personally witnessed the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and his account of those days is filled with much pathos and regret. The rest of his life was spent under imperial patronage, the resources of which allowed him to write the books for which he is famous in Christian circles, not least for his admission that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (or that people thought he was the Messiah, depending upon how the Greek is interpreted, and on the answer to the question of interpolation). The works of his which have survived (not including the Discourse on Hades, which is now attributed to Hippolytus of Rome) are: the Wars of the Jews  (Bellum Judaicum); the Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitates Judaicae); the Life (Vita); and the Against Apion (Contra Apionem).

Many scholars believe that Josephus composed his Wars of the Jews originally in Aramaic for dissemination within the Diaspora of the Parthian Empire. He subsequently translated it into Greek with the assistance of scribes and scholars provided by his imperial patrons. The bulk of the work narrates the course of the Judean Revolt up to the fall of Masada, but Josephus prefaces his account with an overview of the history of Judea from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes to the conversion of Judea from a client-kingdom under the Herodian dynasty to an imperial province under a procurator or prefect directly responsible to the emperor (as opposed to legates responsible to the Senate as in Achaea, Baetica, Africa, and so on). This work along with his Antiquities of the Jews provides us with important information regarding Judea in the time of Jesus.

The Antiquities of the Jews is presented as work of history, along the lines of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Polybius, from Creation to Josephus’ own day. In part it is an adaptation of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, but it also owes much to the work of secular historians and annalists, principally Nicolaus of Damascus, who worked in the administration of Herod the Great. The vast amount that Josephus writes about the Idumean client-king would have been much diminished if that courtier had not decided to write down the affairs of that age. Josephus was not a contemporary of Herod, and in the heated political climate of his own day, it was scarcely possible to find an unbiased response to the character and actions of that potentate. Even Augustus, as related by Macrobius in his Saturnalia, is said to have quipped, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

The Life and Against Apion are shorter works. The Life was intended as an apologia against the accusations of one Justus of Tiberias, who, like later historians, considered Josephus an opportunist and traitor; it seems to have been published as an appendix to the Antiquities of the Jews, and the majority of it is concerned with Josephus’ conduct during the revolt. The Against Apion was written as a defense against anti-Jewish sentiment in the empire (which surely increased following the Judean Revolt), principally in Alexandria, where there was a long-standing friction between the Jewish inhabitants of the city (who were among its earliest inhabitants) and the Macedonian and Egyptian elements. Much of the defense is taken up with representing the Jews as pious and philanthropic and with showing the antiquity of their nation by reference to notices in non-Jewish historical works accessible to Greco-Roman scholars.

 

Church, State and identity

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A good deal of what passes in common parlance as ‘religious’ is, when examined, really cultural. One of the strongest reasons for the success of Christianity as a world religion, has been its adaptability. Our friend Bosco, like others elsewhere, sometimes uses it a a criticism that the faith took on and adapted pre-existing pagan festivals and Christianised them; this is rather like criticising Christianity for converting pagans, and perhaps stems in part for an over-literal view about what it means to be a ‘new creation in Christ’. People do not abandon, on the whole, and never have, on the whole, abandoned their existing culture. It has required converts to conform to Christian norms – no so polygamy, no same-sex marriage, no child brides – and those norms have often, even if it has taken time, changed the cultures into which the faith has come. It may be that there is a slave-owning elite which has abandoned the practice for non-Christian reasons, but the only one of of which I am aware is our own society, where in the end, the idea of owning people came to be seen as incompatible with Christianity; something of the same has happened with capital punishment. Such changes can happen only when society has evolved to a stage where they are possible, but it is still hard to see how these things would have been generally abolished without Christianity. One certainly could not point to Islam and see a similar process.

In England, the Reformation created and celebrated a link between Church and State signalled in the name of the State Church itself – the Church of England. That Church came to be seen, and, again, celebrated, as embodying things that were typically English: it was a middle way, steering clear of the ‘priestcraft’ of Rome, and the anarchy of pure Protestantism; it took ‘the Book’ very seriously, but it also valued tradition and reason, and sought to keep these three things in balance; and although it provided a way of life for the younger sons of the aristocracy, it did so in ways which gave many of them a contact they would not otherwise have had with the ordinary people, and it was, in that way, part of a wider social contract between people and their rulers. It could not fill the gap left by the dissolution of the monasteries, but it was something to be valued. The Church had a mission to all those in every parish, and to witness to Christ everywhere English men and women lived; it took that seriously enough to follow them overseas.

The failure of the national church to reach everyone should not blind us to the fact that the most numerous group of those outside was not Catholic, but even more Protestant – that is even more bloody-minded, individualistic and English: Cromwell was the exemplar of the type.

Did any of this make Christianity in the form it came to take in these islands any less Christian? That it is impossible to answer that question reveals the extent to which our faith has proved able to adapt to and to shape cultures. It is easy enough to think, as we look at the state of the institutional churches in our country that this period has come to an end – but I wonder?

A coarser politics?

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Democracy is boring. It involves discussing things in representative assemblies – aka ‘talking shops’; it means compromises – aka ‘fudging things’; it involves not always getting what you want  – aka ‘selling out’. By the nature of these processes, things tend not to happen swiftly, and sometimes they seem not to happen at all. In times of prosperity all of these things are made bearable by material well-being; in times of austerity it is not so. Aristophanes, in his play, The Knights, makes great play of the way in which Agoracritus, the Sausage-seller, is able to outbid the aristocratic Cleon to win the support of the demos –  who are easily swayed by the promise of material rewards. One of the many good effects of the Christianisation of our culture was the notion that even absolute monarchs were responsible to someone; from that grew the idea that people were more than pawns to be sacrificed at will. That isn’t to say that these ideas were always followed through – but it is to say they were there and have had important effects. But now, across the world, it seems that we see a coarsening of our politics.

It isn’t just the most egregious examples, such as Putin and Assad – men like that have always been there; but if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, there is something disturbing in the fact that neither man any long feels it necessary to pay up. It is what we see in countries where, hithertofore, it has been taken for granted that people were attached to democracy. Troublesome times often lead to the cry for a ‘strong man’, a man on a white horse. Mussolini and Hitler both served that purpose, as did Lenin and Stalin – these were leaders who promised to cut through the useless talking shops to ‘get things done’. But once go down that road, and there is no limiting what ‘can be done’ – demagogues and dictators have in common the ability to by-pass normal process in the cause of some higher good. When we get, as we did in the UK, intelligent men saying we have had ‘enough of experts’, and when we begin to move into a fact-free politics, the warning bells begin to sound.

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, that applies internally as much as it does externally. If free men and women do not insist upon protecting their freedoms, they cannot (alas) expect politicians to do it for them. The USA was founded in part on the model of the Roman Republic, and that entailed an engaged citizenry who would, if necessary, resort to arms to protect the freedoms guaranteed under law. In the UK and Europe there is little understanding of the Second Amendment; but there are many in the USA who understand it only too well – including those who wish to abolish it.

Will democracy in its current form survive? Arguably its current form is already less than optimal, in so far as vested interests and lobbyists like parasitically off the body politic. The old notion of the common good is vitiated and undermined by the modern fad for ‘identity politics’. The inability of our governments to continue to deliver the prosperity the demos demands leaves open the way for the sausage-sellers to bribe people with their own money. We might say that the centre cannot hold – except I am unsure whether there is, any longer, a centre. Christian ethics helped impose upon errant mankind a set of rules and obligations which raised it above the level to which its fallen nature leads it to sink left unaided. With that gone, and with the chaser tone we now hear, all bets are off.

Live your Religion? You are a Bigot

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peaceful-coexistence-report_350_455The American Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to our constitution, and thereby the supreme law of the land) starts this way:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This, like the other nine, have provided us with the undergirding for maintaining our rights since 1789, our founding documents stipulate that all these rights come from natural law and that the state is inherently likely to violate them.

In large measure, they are based on the English Bill of Rights (now repealed) placed into law after the Glorious Revolution, in 1689, although that was a narrower document, designed to institutionalize the protestant supremacy. In our Constitutional Convention it was not thought necessary to restate the obvious, that these rights belonged to the people, but in the ratification process the people insisted that they be included, and so they (and two not ratified) were passed by the First Congress, signed by President Washington, and sent to the states, and shortly ratified. That’s the background for this story.

I commented on Chalcedon’s post The Faith and politics, that the US Commission on Civil Rights had issued a report that is causing a donnybrook. In it they state this:

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance,” said Chairman Julian Castro. He added, “today, as in past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws.”

Well, I’m sure some very poor scholars did (and do) so, likely at exactly the time that many (maybe most) Christians were lining up to end slavery, enfranchise blacks (arm them for self-defense, as well), and pass all of the civil rights laws. These were all results of Christianity and the Churches.

In any case, Archbishop William Lori, archbishop of Baltimore and chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, replied with admirable directness, saying this:

The thought that religious institutions are inherently bigoted is absurd, he said. “Can we imagine the civil rights movement without Rev. Martin Luther King, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?” he asked.

“We do not seek to impose our morality on anyone, but neither can we sacrifice it in our own lives and work,” he said. “The vast majority of those who speak up for religious liberty are merely asking for the freedom to serve others as our faith asks of us. We ask that the work of our institutions be carried out by people who believe in our mission and respect a Christian witness.”

Via The Federalist.

I think he speaks for us all, and yes, I like his examples, a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Jew, it took a united effort to end overt discrimination.

In that Federalist article Nicholas Senz also says this

The First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a religion. But when the federal government declares ideas that everyone held until five minutes ago, supported by reason and lived out with compassion, as de facto hateful and criminal (“first they came for the photographers and bakers…”), then the government is essentially creating a new public faith and forcing everyone to adhere to it.

As Lori noted, “a pluralistic society, there will be institutions with views at odds with popular opinion. The Chairman’s statement suggests that the USCCR does not see the United States as a pluralistic society. We respect those who disagree with what we teach. Can they respect us?”

If not, we may be witnessing the instantiation of Neil DeGrasse Tyson

But the problem is deeper than that, this is an official (supposedly non-partisan) government report. And yet, it bears no relation to US Constitutional Law. Remember the Amendment above, where it says,”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” Worship is important , of course, but we all, as Christians, know that being a Christian entails much more than worship. And yet that is what the USCCR is attempting to reduce freedom of religion too.

It is hardly alone in this, in any part of what we used to call Christendom. We see it here, in the UK and in Europe, always a degradation of the people’s rights in favor of what the government wants. In a manner, we Americans are lucky, we have an enforceable text guaranteeing our freedoms, and yet, we seem to have a dearth of governmental people, both political, and bureaucratic, who even seem to understand what we are talking about. Let alone a willingness to abide by the written law. Except of course, when we violate the dogma of their secular religion, which conversely, they seem to think is an established religion.

It’s something we’ve become quite familiar with, of course. Since it’s just too hard in a republic to change the law, instead many attempt to change the meanings of the words themselves, and in such ways, is freedom itself lost.

The Faith and politics

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In the latest Catholic Herald our good friend Francis Phillips tackles the thorny question of how the Church should react when Catholic politicians in powerful places (in this case, the current VP, Joe Biden, and the likely next one, Tim Kaine) say or do things which create scandal in the minds of the faithful – such as blessing a gay marriage or endorsing abortion: the Church does not support either of these things. The obvious response is that these men have a right to advocate what they do – ‘it’s a free country’ after all. That is perfectly true, and as an ardent defender of the right to free speech (not only on ideological grounds, but also on the grounds that I have always been sure that I’d be one of the first to be silenced), I would never suggest that they should not have the right to do and say what they want. Of course, you might respond, ‘but what if they were acting illegally?’ My response would be twofold: if anyone knows a way of preventing people doing illegal acts, let us all know; and we have a thing called the Law, which provides appropriate penalties for those committing them. Thus, as in any balanced society, rights come with responsibilities, and actions have consequences. You have the right to say and do what you want, but the responsibility to do so within the Law; go beyond that and there will be consequences.

We might, perhaps, expect the same set of principles to apply in the Church. Of course, Scripture advises us against getting the secular authorities involved in disputes between Christians (a sensible precaution even now, but an essential one when the New Testament was being written), and states that we should take the matter up, first with the individual, and should that fail, we should go via the Church. Francis quotes Cardinal Burke’s sensible words on the issue of what to do about those who take a stand against the teaching of the Church. They should, he suggests, be told

“to make their public actions consistent with the moral law taught by the Church; otherwise it would no longer be possible for them to receive Holy Communion.”

But this has been something no Bishops’ conference has been willing to do. This raises a question not considered by the writers of Scripture – what do you do when you take it to the Church and get no reaction?

It might, of course, be the case that a ‘private word’ has been had with the erring politicians; it might equally be the case that there is some good reason (unfathomable to the rest of us mere mortals) why nothing is said or done to indicate disapproval. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the failure to take any action is, itself, a further cause of scandal to ‘we the people’. But it might, perhaps be said that ‘we the people’ don’t really care and we’re happy to let our politicians go with the zeitgeist, perhaps even in the hope that Tim Kaine has that it will help bring the Church into the modern era. So much the worse for ‘we the people’. The Church did not invent its dogmatic teaching, it defined it from what it has received from the Apostles, and if every Catholic in the world agreed that Jesus was just a very good man but not the Son of God, that would not alter the fact He is the Son of God. The same is true of popular views on issues where they conflict with Church teaching.

Christianity, democracy and politics

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Earlier in the week the question was posed as to how far the ethical structures we have inherited from Christianity can outlast its diminished influence? Our regular commentator thoughfullydetached offered one of his many perceptive comments on this, noting that Benedict XVI’s

conclusion was that the West is running on empty and that it is only, as it were, the fumes of Christianity that keep the ethical vehicle on the road. The further we travel without fuel the more attenuated the residual influence becomes.

That seems on the money.

The West, perhaps because it keeps spitting on its luck in inheriting the system of ethics and law it has, finds it very difficult to understand the rest of the world. Our politicians seem to proceed from the assumption that our way of doing things really is universal, and it is only the dimness or corruption of their counterparts elsewhere which prevents the rest of the world following suite. It is a version of Rousseau’s ludicrously optimistioc statem,ent that man was born free and is everywhere in chains, with the corollary that if only the chains could be struck off, his natural goodness would come to the fore. From the French Revolution, through its Russian namesake to every revolution since, what actually happens is a dreadful proof odf the teaching of the Church about mankind and original sin. But still, the Enlightenment dogma goes on its way – we have seen lately, from Iraq to Syria to Libya that ‘regime change’ does not produce democracy. And why should it?

Democracy as we know it is a conginent phenomenon, the result of centuries of struggle over the question of who rules whom and what the State exists to do? OUr ancient rulers did not just wake up one morning and think that their absolute monarchy was, when you came to think about it, a bad thing. They had to be brought, often at great cost to them and to others, to the view that the common man was not simply a human beast of burden, there to provide the prerequisites of a privileged lifestyle for the few. That remains, as any survey of political regimes will confirm, a view held by most elites, and the struggle for democracy even in the West has to be eternal. Whatever one things of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit debate, its result has been a sharp (and to elite, entirely unwelcome) reminder that democracy means the rule of the people. The American Constitution, like the European Union’s one, attempted to mitigate the effects of direct democracy, and all parliamentary systems try to ensure that the rule of the majority does not turn into a tyranny over the minority.

In the Anglosphere, the connection between the development of democracy and Christianity has been an interesting one. The Church has often found itself on the side of the elites whose favour it needed, but it has also provided the fundemental building block from which democratic ideas were formed – that every one of us ios a child of God and therefore of equal value, and not to be discarded or exploited. We shall see how that concept fares as the influence of the Faith wanes.

 

The ‘West’ finds it odd that China and other countries outside the western tradition seem not to understand that our way is the best way, and despite its best efforts to bomb parts of the Middle East into democracy, people there seem stubbornly resistant to its merits. But it really is not that surprising. Democracy on the model we have it is not a widespread phenomenon. The Americans inherited it from the British, as did the rest of the Anglosphere. Western Europe hammered it out with many mistakes, false starts and dead-ends. Despite the optimism of Woodrow Wilson in 1919 that the fall of the great empires would be followed by an efflorescence of democracy, no such thing happened. By the end of 1938 there was no democracy left east of the Rhine or south of the Pyrenees. World War II gave democracy a second chance in countries such as Italy and West Germany, but the situation remained – and I would suggest still remains, fragile. Democracy is not the natural end of political development – it may yet turn out to be a fragile growth which failed to thrive in hard times.