Sunday, November 27, 2011
Politics and Religion, a Dinnertable Chat.
It struck me over the Thanksgiving weekend that there is something inherently theistic about democracy and something inherently undemocratic and indeed atheistic about modern American politics. Let me say before I go further that this is not a partisan opinion piece for a popular brand of religious politics in America, and that indeed I feel my realization and objections apply equally well to either major party in American politics today. For my readers outside of the United States, I apologize for my specifically American usages, and invite you to consider if similar truths apply to the politics of your home country.
Let me begin by defending my rather bold claim that democracy is inherently theistic. By this I do not mean to claim that a democratic society must, or even should, demand a religious affiliation or belief by each of its members, indeed I feel that it can tolerate, and perhaps even benefit from, the presence of individual members who are atheistic or adhere to wildly contra-normal creeds. What I mean is that for a society to adopt and trust in a democratic form of government carries with it a certain trust and expression of faith which would be at odds with a purely deterministic or chance view of the cosmos. At the heart of democracy is the trust of the little man; the willingness to ask the powerless, meek, and marginalized for their opinions, and then to act on those opinions. It would seem inevitable that under such a system, occasional bad choices are nearly inevitable. It would seem equally inevitable that a group proposing such a government would realize this inevitability.
To reconcile this requires an appeal to providence. If one has faith, several resolutions are possible. Perhaps one feels God will act directly to prevent too severe a calamity to the faithful. Perhaps one feels that God will allow us to make as large a mess as we desire, but will set all to right in the hereafter. Perhaps one feels God will let us go astray, but then provide to us a sign or instruction to set us back on course. Perhaps God has a master plan and knows we will move towards it. I happen to find some of these examples objectionable, but for the purpose of this argument all I seek to do is provide a variety of examples to show that to a theistic mind democracy can be trusted and upheld under a wide range of specific beliefs.
If one does not make this appeal to the divine, the circumstance is quite altered. If you allow for democracy to run free with no higher power, one accepts a near inevitability that over time corrupt, inept or actively malicious individuals will come to power and abuse the system, suffering no rebuke and driving the system ever more out of shape until it collapses. On the other hand, if one wishes to avoid this one must adopt a stand that “democracy is nice... but…” and establish a system that may put on some of the airs of democracy, but has at its heart a distrust of the little man to keep him in check so that the system will work as the original designers desire, and not as the people to come may desire. For a group that had no theistic underpinning to promote a democratic system would not be an act of bravery and courage, it would be the cackling scheme from the mad house. If one does not accept a notion of a God who will in the end check our excess and set right what we put wrong, it is an act of utter hubris and disdain for one’s fellow man to establish a government one knows will lead to abuses of the system and the suffering of the governed.
Having expounded on why I feel democracy is theistic; let me make a quick detour into some of the implications before speaking of the ways in which American politics have set themselves in opposition to this ideal. If one accepts that the typical member of society may be entrusted to select our leadership, this notion carries with it some serious truths. For if they are fit to exercise this most serious of burdens, it conveys an implicit trust to mind their affairs in all manner of more personal things. We may trust these men to select what they wish for dinner, what they desire to view or read on TV, in books, or on the internet, to watch after the children they may have chosen to rear, and to worship (or not) as they see fit. This is just a small smattering of the sorts of trust that descend by implication from a true and earnest faith in democracy. Trusts like these can be seen embodied in documents such as our Declaration of Independence and the first ten Amendments to our Constitution (the Bill of Rights). To me these bits of evidence and others imply that the founders of America really did believe in democracy, I accept that others may disagree. And what of the aberration in society, the man who abuses these freedoms and was not worthy of trust? Well, our government does establish a criminal justice system showing we were not blind to such inevitable cases, but the same appeal to theism also speaks here. If we accept a God who will see that Justice and Mercy are handled properly in the end, we can forgive ourselves a system that lets the occasional bad egg abuse the system in the now.
So how do these thoughts relate to the politics at work in modern America, what makes me feel the present system is at odds with these beliefs? In simplest terms the answer is the electorate, and the manipulation thereof. If the heart of democracy is to trust the collective voices of the least among us to be fit to guide us, then the death of democracy is the aristocratic notion that a class of citizens can be identified more fit by nature to make decisions on behalf of the rest of society. The politics and behaviors of both the Democratic and Republican parties in modern America betray just such a concept and a political creed based on the enactment of that concept. Both parties speak in language which extols their side’s adherence to democracy while decrying the other side as base betrayers of that system. I feel that both sides are reasonably just in many of their critiques, but dishonest in their self defense.
Let us look first at the Democratic Party. This party speaks much of egalitarian beliefs and a feeling of fellowship with all men driven by a need to provide for them and regulate those who do not see this cause as clearly as they do. Boiled down, the Democratic stance is to care for the little man, but not to respect his choices. They fear a tyranny of the masses, and worry that left to their own devices, the collective voice of the least of us would do grave harm to all of us, the voice must be kept in check. It is to me a great irony that this view is the most in tune with the classic mode of the Aristocrat, they simply wish to change who belongs to the privileged class. Where once land was the mark of power and wealth, now money can be real wealth with no need to be attended by real estate, a stock certificate is every bit as much power now as a deed was three hundred years ago. Just as the feudal lord did not speak or think in terms of supporting a system that provided for them at the expense of others, but rather a system that compensated them for taking on the duty of handling the needs of land for the masses, so does the modern creed seek to place a class of moneyed altruists in seats of power to handle the distribution of wealth for the rest of us. The wealth of a Soros or a Kennedy is not a social ill, for they have the best interests of others in mind and use that wealth to provide for them. The wealth of a Forbes or a Windsor on the other hand is gravely suspect for they have it by no “right” and do not use it in line with the new code of responsibility embraced by the Democratic Society. They seek to make a society in which the venture capitalist or industrial captain is redefined as the highwayman or pirate of our day, and it is acceptable for those who take on the burden of policing them and righting their crimes to enjoy more luxury than the rest of us. The aristocracy is a nebulous group of those with wealth and will to take the burden of deciding on our behalf how to care for the destitute, the deranged, and the dysfunctional in our midst. The followers of this creed seek to manipulate the electorate by a simple means, create a new class of serfs dependent upon these new Aristocrats for their daily bread, and then instruct them how to exercise their franchise so that there is no risk of any pesky popular leadership or change of political tide to disrupt their new feudal fiefdoms of benefits and dependancies.
Before too many of my readers decide that I am a dedicated supporter of Republican politics, let’s change the focus of our lens and look at the errors of the Republican Party. In some ways the Republican errors are more subtle, but in other ways they are clearer. In the present time, the Republican Party is able to wave a banner of support for democracy, pointing out victories in popular elections and widespread support for a number of ideas the party elects to champion. This, however, is a smokescreen which can be cleared away. The Republican Party does not respect the wishes of the common voice any more than the Democratic Party does, it just so happens that at the present time the common voice happens to support the Republican Party in many ways. Recognizing this important distinction, the Republican Party shows its true disrespect for the underlying mechanism of democracy just as clearly. Rather than seeking to downplay the common voice as misguided, they seek to alter the nature of the franchise, to establish rules, regulations and byzantine requirements. This will play to their present majority, if they can manipulate who is capable of using their vote, they can maintain an illusory respect for the democratic process while quietly sweeping away the democratic system. I must not forget to address the underlying aristocratic ideas at play here, either. While the Democratic Party seeks to restore the system of Feudal Lords under a new name with new members, the Republican Party seeks to establish an aristocracy of the priestly class, a borderline theocracy. At first glance, this may seem less egregious, but only if one overlooks the ideas underlying democracy. One might argue that if the majority vote speaks in favor of a creed, is it not right to make that creed mandatory? This overlooks the issue of trust in the voice of the least of us at the core of democracy. To use this system not to elect leaders, but to elect ideologies is a gross abuse of the process. To pervert democracy to be the selection of a set of ideals to lead us rather than to elect an individual to speak for us is to court disaster. For to use the system to promote laws which establish requirements of behavior on others and seek to limit and shape the underlying thoughts is to express a profound distrust of the ideals of democracy itself. It is indeed ironic that I claim a movement seeking to make aristocrats of priests denies God, but I do. It is in the expression that while democracy is fine for me, it is not to be trusted in the hands of you, or your children. That I must put God into my government, because I am not able to see he is already there. If your ideals cannot compete without the force of a state to uphold them, then perhaps they need to be looked at more closely. If you feel that your morals need the state to support them, does that not speak to a profound lack of faith in your God? If you hold to the theism at the heart of democracy, you cannot fear that democracy will destroy your God… how can an artifact of man dethrone the eternal? If anything, it expresses an unwillingness to suffer trials of faith and tribulations, a fear of having to live in a state in which your faith may be questioned and tested. This aristocracy may hearken more to the Middle East of the recent past than to the Europe of the Enlightenment, but it is just as much a rejection of the democratic heart of the American experiment.
I won’t be surprised if this post is one of my more controversial, but I stand by it. When the ideas came to me, it was purely as a defense of the true presence of God within a democracy, a presence which is real and does not need laws requiring religious practice to defend it, and which is real and so makes foolish laws to deny it. It was only in the writing that I realized the ideas expressed have in them a certain American Libertarian slant, and realizing that as I wrote this essay has given me pause to think on the irony of a political movement inhabited by many proud atheists speaking to the presence of God in our government. I will never cease to wonder at the ability of God’s creation to amaze and delight me.