What's the Point of Freedom and Democracy?

What's the Point of Freedom and Democracy?

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"I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reasons. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believe in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on these grounds is that they're not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure.

"The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters."

C.S. Lewis, "Equality" (1943), in Present Concerns: Essays by C.S. Lewis

This isn't the sort of quote we normally hear on Independence Day. It is, however, exactly the sort of quote we should hear. It points us to a more mature — and Christian — understanding of freedom and self-government than we'll get from the culture around us.

In the U.S., a lot of people (politicians, especially) lionize Freedom and Democracy and the Will of the People as if these are naturally, inevitably good things. No, not just good things, but the best things — things that make us the best country there ever was. It's part of the civil religion that even some Christians can get caught up in. But the civil religion, like all religions not built on God, is a false faith and a kind of idolatry.

The truth is, neither freedom or democracy is inherently good. They're only as good or as bad as the people themselves. And even the best people are still sinful. They often abuse their freedom. They often abuse democracy too, sometimes at the expense of freedom. For example, some voters  use their power to seize the freedom and property of others, imagining that the democratic process makes it all legitimate. (You don't have to agree with everything the early libertarian Fredric Bastiat said to appreciate his term for this: "legal plunder.")

Of course, this doesn't mean that some form of dictatorship is an improvement. On the contrary: If power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (per Lord Acton), that system is liable to be the worst system. Moreover, freedom may not be inherently virtuous, but it is a prerequisite to virtue — which by its nature can't be coerced, or it's not really virtue, just fear of punishment. Government can restrain vice somewhat — a legitimate and necessary function, up to a point — but it can do fairly little to create virtue. That's the job of other institutions, like the family. As Samuel Johnson said, "How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" (They can cause more of what we endure than the days when Johnson wrote, but they still can't cure much.)

As for the job of government, it's mainly (to use the same words I did in a post a couple weeks ago) "to preserve basic civil order and justice so that we may be free to live peaceful and godly lives (e.g., Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2)." Freedom and democracy — for the latter, a better word might be self-government — should be means to that same end. That, rather than self-indulgence, is their proper purpose: to help enable lives of faith and virtue. Those are the things that matter most: Freedom and self-government should play a supporting role.

Interestingly, though, faith and virtue also support freedom and self-government. The Founders knew that and said so repeatedly. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," John Adams wrote. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." And as George Washington put it in his presidential Farewell Address:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to a political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim that tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness. We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained."

Words to remember — and a heritage to treasure — on Independence Day. May they remain with us long after the parades and the fireworks are over.

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  • --John Adams was right. Sadly, though, he has no solutution for what can be done when morality and religion are ushered out from the public square.

  • --I've become an expert on social freedom having spent over a year in one of the most horrible cities on planet earth, Medellin, Colombia. It's a seeming hedonist's paradise. People start having sex shortly after puberty, take it about as seriously as a back rub, and have no responsibilities towards each other. They are incredible liars, because there's an unwritten pact that says everybody gets to lie to everybody. If you object to the pact, that is, object to being lied to, they're literally stunned. You're A Creature from Another Planet. How can you not know the rules? A "serious" relationship is more than two dates. Prostitution exists at a level unimaginable outside of the area, whether for sex or just spending time with a girl. When I mentioned the prostitution thing to a cabbie, he said he thought it was fine because you could have sex or do something else fun with a girl and then just go about your way.

    Also, unwed pregnancy rate is incredible. MOST women over age 22 have children without a daddy. There's no sense of shame whatsoever. And getting married? Only a prelude to divorce. One of the last girls I met started having sex at 14, got married at 15, now separated. They actually don't usually bother with a divorce. They just stay separated.

    All of this reflects what the cabbie said. FREEDOM. You don't commit to other people in any way. You don't keep your word, you don't show up because you said you would, you lie and lie and lie. And they all think "Ah, this is the life!" As if they had any idea. No, actually compromising your life to get along with somebody else can be win-win. You feel better about yourself and you can have a long-term relationship. But it's bad freedom. They also steal like nobody's business. Incredible how much stuff I've lost. Stealing is regarding as part of their wonderful freedom -- accompanied, of course, by being stolen from. Nobody just BUYS a new cell phone. They wait till the one they have is stolen. It's that common. But it's all about FREEDOM to them. No restraints! Hurray! Yet they're all actually in a giant cage. I've told several point-blank, "You could not survive outside of this area. People elsewhere in Colombia and the world would shun you for your behavior." Some KNOW it. They know that like those born in Shangri La, they can NEVER leave. Others just kind of have a nagging feeling they would be regarded as brutes anyway else in the world. But that's okay, they're FREE. From EVERYTHING. Including true happiness.

  • --Oof.

    As you might expect, All the down-in-the-mouthness associated with the church and their glum dissillusionment with the government, freedom and democracy is extremely frustrating to me. I just finished reading an article a friend posted on facebook about a group of Christians gathering to "mourn" the fourth of July and point out America's flaws and weaknesses.

    So much for rendering to Caesar, and being subject to the authorities and governing bodies God raises in power over you, eh?

    That being said, I think this post is pretty fair and even-handed, Matt. I think you are entirely right: government, in and of itself is an amoral institution. I think we err sometimes when we try to uphold it as a bastion of all that is right and good in the world, and we start to try and mold it into something it is not. If we expect government to save us, we will always be dissapointed, because that is what Christ is for, not government.

    I think America is remarkable, precisely because we advocate freedom and civil liberty and extoll them as virtues for all, accessable (at least in theory) to all. A government that protects your individual rights to life, liberty and property, and does not arbitrarily place leadership over you in a way that implies ownership was a remarkable thing at the time of its founding, and remains a remarkable thing in many regions of the world today. Clearly we've hit bumps along the way, clearly equality for all is an ideal and not neccessarily one that has been achieved due to the fallen nature of humanity, but I think, in general, we try hard. ;) and a government that tries hard is light years better than one which simply tries to control, withhold and opress.

    So, personally, I'm very greatful and thankful to live in these United States, and every time I see someone bellyaching about the "corruption" of our government and how "terrible" we are as a nation -- from either the right or the left, I sometimes wonder if they have ever picked up a history book in their entire lives.

  • MFumento, that is an amazing story. Amazing in its horribleness. I will be praying for Medellin, Colombia. I'm sure there are other cities like it in the world. We are blessed in other countries to have cultures that grew up with Christian ideas. May God have mercy on that city as He did to Nineveh.

    MrsAshleyTOF,  yes the American system of government is a remarkable thing. i heard that after the Revolutionary War, many people wanted George Washington to be king--you are such a good, kind, leader, we want you in office for life, they said--but Washington indignantly declined.  That he stepped down and the next president was elected without any strife whatsoever was a test of our infant democracy that not many countries even now can pass with flying colors.

    However, if you think about the passages about rendering unto Caesar and submitting to authorities (which are under God's dominion), then was the American Revolution even biblical? Shouldn't the early radicals have just cooled down and meekly submitted to King George? I sometimes wonder about that. In hindsight we thank God for the Revolution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, but were they really submitting to God's Word with their actions and ideas?

  • Ria,

    Interesting that you bring up about submitting to the governing authorities.  It makes me wonder if maybe that is NOT  an absolute command.  You cannot deny that God most definitely blessed this nation, and that God was very much involved in the birthing of this nation.  What the revolutionaries did go against scripture by not submitting to the governing authorities (the king).    Many of the revolutionaries, iam sure were christians.Yet it seems God blessed it, so I wonder if that was not just paul's opinion? Just something to think about?

  • --Ria, an interesting and excellent point, and one worthy of a lot of thought.

    I think that there are times when the moral imperative of submitting to governing authorities is superceded by the moral imperative of standing up for your individual identiy, rights and freedoms. I think the difference between what our founding fathers did (and arguably what just happened in Egypt) and a group of Christians gathering to cry about how depraved our country is, is that the former is actually taking a stand, making a difference and instituting change to better support the will of their people -- while the latter is merely bellyaching. In the same way, I don't think the folks in the early church paul was writing to were actually interested in *really* effecting change -- they simply wanted to make whining against the unfairness (which was extreme!) of their treatment by the Romans a more important focus than those things they should have been focusing on.

    I think it's the difference between well-thought out and rational contesting (leading to the eventual overthrow) of a despot, and a general attitude of "help, help I'm being opressed!" or acting out of that attitude in a small, isolated, unsupported and amoral way without exhausting diplomatic actions.

    Of course, that is merely my opinion, and my opinion is not worth very much, but grumbly people who do nothing are a pet peeve of mine.

  • --"I think it's the difference between well-thought out and rational contesting (leading to the eventual overthrow) of a despot, and a general attitude of "help, help I'm being opressed!" or acting out of that attitude in a small, isolated, unsupported and amoral way without exhausting diplomatic actions."

    Yes, I agree.

    I don't think the Revolution can be biblically justified, because my understanding is that the Bible says it is only okay to go against authority if their orders contradict God's. For instance, the apostles disobeyed the religious leaders' command to stop preaching because that went against God's command. But on the other hand, the Bible says God raises leaders up and tears them down, so that seems to imply we would have lost if it wasn't God's will. But either way, the question doesn't bother me because I am just glad America came into existence.    

  • --I was saddened a few years ago when I visited a friend's church on the 4th of July weekend.  There was absolutely no mention of the United States, no patriotic songs, no nothing.  The pianist had (in the words of my friend's husband) "the nerve" to add "America the Beautiful" into the pre-service music.  In my opinion, the church was so obviously ignoring the 4th that they seemed hostile to it.  When I asked why the holiday was completely ignored, they responded that "Church is a place to worship God, not government."  

    OK.  I can agree with that, but isn't there also a time and place to thank God for the country that allows us to openly worship Him?  And isn't there a time and place to pray for His mercies on this nation, and to pray that the people of this country will turn back to Him?  And what better time or place than in church near a date set apart for remembering the freedoms that we have?  

    This issue came up again this year, when several friends on Facebook posted comments or articles saying that any mention of Independence Day has no place in church.  

    Do any of you have the same opinion as my friends?  If so, can you please explain this more clearly to me?  Or if you don't share that opinion, have you encountered it, and if so, how did you respond?  

  • --Miss-C1

    You were asking what people think about your experience at Church that did not acknowledge the 4th of July.  I have to say that to some extent I understand the Church's position, Church is a place of worship of God.  I think that we have come to make patriotism an idol to some extent.  God is the God of the whole world not just the USA.  God is to be exalted not a nation.  Nations come, but  God is forever.

    So I don't object to celebrating the 4th or if a church wants to acknowledge it, but i don't think their is an obligation for the church or anybody to do so.  I think sometimes we wrap our faith around the flag to much (we probably don't even realize we are doing it).  Nation and God are 2 separate things, for me they are separate and God deserves my allegiance over nation.

  • --MissC: I think you already know I tend to fall more on your side of things. ;)

    Gladys: I think the critical disconnect is that Churches more and more want to play up the role of the victim here in the US, without realizing how incredibly blessed and sheltered from harm they truly are being Christian in America versus being a Christian in, say, Iran. To me, acknowledging God on the fourth of July is a great way to thank him for his blessing and favor, and praying that people in leadership decisions make wise and Godly choices is always a good thing. Also, I think it's a great opportunity to pray for our military and thank them for their selfless service in upholding the freedoms that allow us to worship without fear.

  • --@MrsAshleyTOF, I think you hit the nail on the head.

    I personally haven't seen anyone react negatively to the Fourth of July, but it did happen one time on Veteran's Day. Near the end of every church service, there is a time for congregational news, prayer requests etc. So that day, the pastor asked all the veterans and people currently serving in the military to please stand up, thanked them for their service, and then the audience applauded. As the pastor started talking, a guy sitting on my row stood up and walked out quickly. He came back in before the closing prayer. Afterwards, I said something about how what the church did was a nice gesture. The guy replied that he can't stand it when the church worships the military. He was visibly restraining his anger. I said they weren't worshiping the military, but simply honoring those who fought to protect our nation. Then he said the worship goes against the Biblical teachings of pacifism, and then I changed the subject because I am really tired of hearing /both/ sides of that debate. It was a popular topic at my Christian university because some of the professors were pacifists, while a substantial number  of the students were in the reserves.

    I thought it was an overreaction because the whole thing took less than seven minutes and happened at the end. It's not like the whole service was dedicated to it, and it wasn't anything remotely resembling worship. But I know where he grew up, so even though his reaction surprised me because of that background knowledge, I then realized he was reacting more to what he's seen other churches say and do in the past, than to the present situation. It was a reminder not to stereotype people based on what state they are from.              

  • --Thanks to those of your who have responded!  

    Gladys, I totally understand the dangers of making patriotism an idol, but I've never seen that happen in the churches I've attended.  Perhaps if I had, I would feel different about it.  And I agree that churches are not obligated to "celebrate" holidays like the 4th; I think what bothered me more than anything was the hostile attitude that I sense from the church as a whole and from my friends (who were in active leadership positions in the church.)  I think if I'd wished anyone a "Happy 4th!" or told anyone to "have fun at the fireworks" on my way out of church, I probably would have been asked to refrain from mentioning it again.  

    MrsAshley and Alyson, you two have given me a few new thoughts and ways to respond in the future.  Alyson, your story reminded me of something another friend told me about how his church has gone from allowing time to honor veterans to completely ignoring them over a period of just a couple years.  His theory was that as long as the church agreed with the government leaders on issues, they were OK with honoring the vets...but when the church did not agree with the government, those vets became an extension of that government in the church's eyes, and therefore were part of the problem and unworthy of respect.  

  • --Miss C-1

    That is interesting, I have never come across a church being hostile to the 4th, as a matter a fact i come across the opposite most of the time, where faith gets wrapped around the flag.  I don't like our faith and country being put together, so I have the opposite reaction of you.   I think that our country is in serious decline and maybe that is being translated into hostility by some churches.  Lets face it the USA is not what is used to be economically, politically, socially, it is in decline.  It is possible the church you went to were just hostile for some other reasons.  I think the USA is a blessed nation, but I think that God is removing its hand slowly and is no longer being blessed like it used to be.  I have tempered my patriotism also mostly because this place is not my home, it is with the Lord in heaven for all eternity.  

  • --Gladys, you said, "I think that our country is in serious decline and maybe that is being translated into hostility by some churches.  Lets face it the USA is not what is used to be economically, politically, socially, it is in decline.  ...  I think the USA is a blessed nation, but I think that God is removing its hand slowly and is no longer being blessed like it used to be."  

    THAT I can definitely agree with.  I was grateful that my church chose to remember the 4th of July this year by praying for our nation and its leaders, because there are some serious problems in every area and on every level.    

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