Does Democracy Kill Religion?

Does religion kill democracy? This was the question recently asked by a certain publication of some circulation, and a telling question it is. The author cites the decline of democracy worldwide along with the resurgence of religion, which flies squarely in the face of those who espouse the so called “secularization thesis” – the idea that as the world progresses, it will outgrow its remaining medieval superstitions. Yet, if this theory has any merit, it seems to be of limited quantity. The world has been going through an undeniably awkward progressive phase wherein it certainly seemed that religion was dying an uncelebrated death. But again, religion seems to be on the rebound, perhaps in response to vacuous system of values enforced by the alternative.

So the author wonders, does democracy kill religion? Is the decline of one attributable to the rise of the other? It is a question of the deepest political science. The author asks this question as he reviews a newly released book, Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville. At the end of the second paragraph, the author wonders, “There may be a statistically significant, inverse relationship—as political scientists are wont to say—between the two but it is not clear if, how, or why religion and democracy are incompatible.” (emphasis mine) It seems that the author of this particular book approaches the question on a strictly theoretical level, as one might expect an academic to do. He concludes with, “the insight that democracy is not only compatible with but, in fact, needs religion for cultural, moral, and spiritual health.”

I would propose differently. Revisiting the quotation from the previous paragraph, the author writes, “It is not clear why religion and democracy are incompatible.” No? And why not? That seems to me a fundamental lapse in one’s civic, or religious, or philosophic education. Of course religion and democracy are incompatible. This is not a new development, though it must seem new to those whose attention has been paid to the wrong things. It comes down to this simple fact: democracy requires and encourages individualism, and religion – any good or credible religion – staunchly opposes it. Democracy is by its very nature a disordered system, holding itself together with duct tape and non-transcendent hope, while religion – any good or credible one – recognizes the natural beauty and vital importance or order and hierarchy.

It is important to note that I write this from the perspective of the Christian religion, as I am something of a Christian myself. However, given that the matter in question is democracy’s effect on religion, I feel it would be beneficial to consider what religion is, in a somewhat broad sense. The word “religion” is, after all, a rather old word. It would be therefore a smart place to start with what religion is intended to be.

As it turns out, the word religion has an interesting history of revisions. Let us work backwards, from most recent to most distant. We get “religion” from the Anglo-French religiun used in the 11th and 12th centuries. Religiun then represented, “a state of life bound by monastic vows,” as well as “conduct indicating a belief in divine power.” This would be more or less how the word is tossed about today. Religiun, however, comes from the Old French religion, which denotes, “piety, devotion; religious community”; and religion, in turn, comes from the till older Latin religionem, which represents “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation; fear of the gods, divine service, religious observance; a mode of worship, cult; sanctity, holiness.” (5th Century).

The history does not end here, but instead becomes much more interesting. It was Cicero who suggested that religionem was derived from relegere “go through again” (in reading or in thought). When relegere is broken into parts, one finds the prefix, re– “again”, and legere “read”. Hence, to read again. From Cicero, the later Latin thinkers – Servius, Lactantius, and Augustine among them – insisted instead that religionem came from religare “to bind fast” with the notion placing an obligation on something or someone, or, “bond between humans and gods.”

Looking at the separate theories of the origin of the word itself, it is clear that religion all throughout history has meant devotion to something greater than oneself. To the French, English, and certain Romans, this devotion was to God or the gods, while to others of Latin persuasion it meant to be bound to, or to recognize a bond between man and God. Regardless of one’s chosen preferred meaning of the word, the long and short is that religion requires devotion and binding to a higher being or idea than oneself.

The article, and allegedly the book which it reviews, provide a succinct synopsis of the three men who have cornered the market on early American political thought, they being Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Others have written well on our democracy, but two of former two of these men actually laid the enlightened groundwork for this American democracy, while the latter, Tocqueville, provided the sort of cunning insight only offered by one ex machina.

Hobbes was, as his own work tells us, virulently opposed to religion, and it is to him that one may assign the lofty title of evangelist of secularization. In his would-be masterpiece, Leviathan, Hobbes puts forth a radically enlightened project the purpose of which is to snuff out entirely any light put off by religion. This would be done gradually, not so much by coercion, but rather by intentionally driving a wedge between man and his once-held religious beliefs. Hobbs was both a materialist and an authoritarian, and believed that man must be awakened to his baser material instincts. So doing would produce not an antagonism towards religion, but indifference.

Locke provides the upbeat to Hobbes’ downbeat. It is from Locke that much of American democracy traces its beginnings; where Locke wrote, Life, liberty, and property,” the American founders chose instead, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps this is the origin of the Western equation of possessions with happiness. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed in religious toleration, that religion in society does provide some benefit, so it would therefore be unwise to eliminate it, though it would be just as unwise to enshrine it. Locke believed that a society without religion could not be a moral society, and that morality could not be arrived at by reason alone (too right!). In other words, religion needed reason, reason needed religion, and society needed both. Where Hobbes believes that religion must be oppressed in over to avoid its dominion, Locke suggested to the contrary that it was toleration that leads to its minimalization. Immense pressure may turn coal into diamond, but a diamond will not keep a man warm at night.

Tocqueville, having no dog in the fight and only entering the fray decades after the issue was settled, offers not a grounding philosophy, but rather his observations as an outsider. The those on the inside enjoy one narrative, but to those without the story may be altogether different. Tocqueville came upon a Lockean America well on its way towards a Hobbesian minimalist theology. In a sense, both men have had their day in court. He notices that while men are religious, they lack fervor, and that while they are materialist, they are also religious. In this sort of balance, such as existed in the time of Tocqueville, it would appear that religion and democracy were fine fellows, each keeping the other’s more ambitious impulses in check. The morality of religion does not allow man to fly off into a materialistic nightmare, and his love of stuff keeps the man from devolving into theocracy, so thought Tocqueville. It would seem as if each needed the other.

I respectfully disagree with this assessment. There is no moral similarity to be found between religion and democracy. They are entirely at odds with one another. They work together, perhaps, but it is a tense and unnatural partnership, much in the way that two salesmen may work together, even while each is trying to outsell the other. However, unlike our salesmen, neither of whom hold the objective moral high ground over the other, with religion and democracy one may objectively say (both ways, mind you, though one will certainly be wrong) that one or the other is objectively more important.

It was Hobbes who wanted to drive the materialist wedge between man and God, and this would seem to be the case today. Religion, admittedly, has a poor sales pitch when compared to democracy, as it preaches service and simplicity against the selfishness and abundance of democracy, but this is entirely the case. Democracy preaches that the individual is supreme, that there is no inherent structure or order to society, or truth for that matter, and that everything is entirely dependent upon the will of man. Democracy may then be said to be moral anarchy.

Religion, as we all know, claims the opposite – love your neighbor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the widows and orphans, and this not as some sort of write-off, but rather as a moral requirement, a human obligation. There is no place for selfishness in true religion; in democracy there is no higher virtue.

There are other dangers of a democratic system, mind you. Because it worships ambition, it discourages virtue and intelligence. Arthur Schopenhauer put it this way:

“A peculiar disadvantage attaching to republics – and one that might not be looked for – is that in this form of government it must be more difficult for men of ability to attain high position and exercise direct political influence than in the case of monarchies. For always and everywhere and under all circumstances there is a conspiracy, or instinctive alliance, against such men on the part of all the stupid, the weak, and the commonplace; they look upon such men as their natural enemies, and they are firmly held together by a common fear of them. There is always a numerous host of the stupid and the weak, and in a republican constitution it is easy for them to suppress and exclude the men of ability, so that they may not be outflanked by them. They are fifty-to-one; and here all have equal rights at the start.”

How often has the average American lamented how foolish and unintelligent his elected officials are, or the 12 people he answers to at his job? Isn’t it interesting the disdain so regularly aimed at those who lead us? This is because democracy is a societal competition, with the reward being almost entirely material. One does not go to work for honor or glory; he goes for raises and vacations. What good, after all, is honor? That will buy you hardly anything. Competing for such lofty goals, it is in his best interests to achieve victory over his opponent – his neighbor, in the Christian sense – by any means necessary. A superior may feel threatened that an underling will supplant him – what, then would be his motivate to give such a man a promotion? This supervisor took this job out of loyalty to self, not to company, so the wellbeing of the company be damned. One must look after his own interests first.
It is important that we not buy into this system full tilt. Material gain is not inherently evil, but it provides the means for a man’s inner nature to expand and experiment. The concept of Noblesse Oblige, for instance, showed that a family could be exceedingly wealthy and use their wealth for the benefit of their community. Of course, the American system unfortunately seems to operate on the shadow iteration of Nobelesse Oblige, what one might call Nobelesse donne droit a – “Nobility entitles.”

When proper structure and order is removed from a society, man is left to define what is and is not good by his own measures. This is a strange thing, when one thinks about it, as where does one’s measures come from? For so much of human history they came from his religious system. Yet we see more and more that society is replacing religion as the arbiter of value, precisely because while there is structure in a democracy, there is also the inherent relativism that allows man to make of it what he will.

Disorder is the natural state of democracy. It would be said of company that replaced with regularity its chief executives and its board of directors, the company would be called unstable and disorderly. How could such a company ever gain traction or begin to move in any direction, much less a direction that leads to something good? How can a musician achieve mastery of his craft if he were to take up the playing of a different instrument every so many years? Unless he be of virtuosic quality, it is unlikely he will reach the heights of his talent. Yet it is within the endless haze of consumption and work – I dare not confuse work with production – that the American democracy is built . It is intended to be disordered and chaotic, and disorder will only ever produce further disorder. Religion, to the contrary, is predicated on order. The Church has both hierarchy and doctrine that give it the structure necessary to stand up. In our time, what is ordered has been unjustly aligned with oppression and tyranny, while what is disordered has been associated with freedom. So it is, but so it is not, as freedom requires structure and order. Where there is disorder, man is enslaved by his own desires.

The point I have been driving towards is this. Democracy does not kill religion; nothing kills religion. As it has always been, so it shall always, in some form, be. What democracy does do, however, if allowed to run on purely materialist ideals, is corrupt the human soul through the enshrinement of disorder. It creates a dichotomy – God or wealth? – and incorrectly draws the battle lines – democracy/freedom vs. everything else/oppression. This leads the masses to believe that freedom has no boundaries, that it is all things to all people. Surely one can have both, but again, if a society lacks the moral imagination to instill responsibility into her citizens – and bear in mind that a society may be the geographically defined by borders as well as bedrooms – it is all but guaranteed that any worldly gain will be abused.

No system of government it perfect. No legitimate system is inherently evil. It depends on the quality of the leadership. However, our democratic system exists on a foundation of individualism, confuses freedom with boundless existence, and has removed from the public consciousness any suggestion of the divine order. Our democracy can be redeemed, if only we consider these things.

Democracy does not kill religion, though it certainly is not for want of effort.


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