Christianity and the political order

The world before Christ – and indeed for centuries after his advent – was a very savage place indeed. The ancient world, embodied in cultures which we identify as civilisations, and in doing so tend to soften the reality which they present to us, was a very cruel and unforgiving one. In this world, despite the benign and wise voices of people like Akenaten, Zoroaster, Socrates, Cicero and others, places like Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome, placed very little value on individual human lives or on many of the values by which we live and govern ourselves today. 

Tom Holland’s Dominion and Professor Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R. – to name but two relatively recent representations of that world – illustrate very well the great divide between the values of pre-Christian civilisation and that set in train by the advent of Christianity. 

But if Rome was not built in a day, neither was Christendom. Professor Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire, or the story of St. Columbanus and his missionaries in the turbulent Europe of the 6th and  7th centuries, show us how long it took to root the values we take for granted today in the soil of that still residually pagan world. Even into the 12th and 13th centuries, the flowering which we see in the lives of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, took place side by side with a brutality underwritten by an utterly confused and confusing political morality, exemplified by The Hundred Years War, blundering Crusaders and the disedifying struggles between the Empire and the Papacy. 

The path to the civilisation we consider ourselves privileged to live in today, great as its deficiencies may still be, was a long and arduous one. It was not only long but it was also faltering, faltering so badly at times that it seemed, as it did so at least twice in the last century, to be even threatened with extinction. What was the common denominator of most if not all the regressions experienced by what we used to call Christian civilisation but now coyly call Western civilisation? It was the abandonment of the principles of life and living which the followers of Christ have derived from the teaching of a Man who claimed to be, and proved to their satisfaction that he is, the Son of God.

Mark Hamilton’s new book looks at our world today and at the dominant political mechanism by which we seek to organise and govern it. He finds it in grave danger of catastrophic collapse. Of his book he writes:

The book stems from an awareness that the secular state cannot adequately  protect its citizens and that as time progresses such failure may prove  catastrophic for democracy itself. Democracy without Christianity is fundamentally incomplete — it is like a tree which has lost the roots which anchor and feed it. 

Hamilton argues that the decline in democracy can only be reversed if the secular state rediscovers its Christian roots. For this to happen, he says, Christians need to understand the challenges, immerse themselves in political life, and take the opportunities presented to restore the democratic process to a condition where it ceases to be hypocritical.

The book is a calm piece of didacticism rather than a polemic raging against the failures of secularism, the flawed pedigree of relativism or the apathy of supposedly committed Christians. It logically explores the political landscape and encouragingly points to a way forward to restore the damaged fabric of democracy on the basis of the Christian values on which, he argues, it is based.

His arguments will make great sense to some. They will not be easily accepted by others, but one suspects that their counter-arguments will seldom rise above the level of superficial knee-jerk reactions – like the lazy confusing of misguided christian zeal with what is of the essence of Christianity. If superficiality could be avoided one might see the book provoking a valuable and intelligent exploration of a very real problem – the growing sense of deficit which is building up around our democratic institutions.

Dr. George Huxley, classicist, mathematician and archaeologist – to mention but three of the disciplines in which he is distinguished – is emeritus Professor of Classics at Queen’s University Belfast. In a lecture given in University College Dublin some years ago he defended Aristotle’s right still to be considered a wise man. Huxley said:

We speak much of democracy because we have elections and a wide franchise for women and men. But an ancient Greek democrat would with reason question our assumption that we are democrats. We emphasize elections, but we take too little thought for the quality of our elected rulers. Unlike the Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, we do not subject office holders to adequate scrutiny. 

While, he admits, some effective scrutiny is to be seen in the activities of Congressional Enquiries in the United States he describes House of Commons committees as toothless instruments by comparison and finds little evidence of scrutiny of European Commissioners. In judicial enquiries were necessary because elected representatives failed to police themselves, and for the most part were tardy, cumbersome, expensive, and inconclusive. 

Huxley suggests that we are deceiving ourselves. Perhaps it is this self-deception that is getting to us and disillusioning us about our ‘democracy’? Modern governments, he thinks, are not democratic but oligarchic. The oligarchic establishment of the self—describing ‘great and good’ knows how to use the law to defend itself. An Athenian, therefore, would question our democratic credentials and Aristotle, who yet had grave doubts about radical democracy, would have agreed with him: the millions. of dollars required to secure election to the Presidency of the United States, or the close connexion between British politicians of all parties and business interests, or the ability of powerful persons here in the Ansbacher polity to circumvent the law, are all oligarchic features. 

For an ancient Greek, he said, there were two important questions:  are the laws good and are they obeyed? If they are not good, they can be changed, but they must not be circumvented. How then would an ancient Greek, having read Aristotle’s Politics, classify most Western polities? He or she would not call them democracies. They are, rather, oligarchies interrupted by elections with low turnouts.

So, is it the case that in our readiness to live a lie about our political institutions we do not even reach the standard of the pre-Christian Greeks? Honesty, integrity and a sense of justice are human virtues attainable by all humans. But the element of Grace which is the gift devoutly to be wished for by all Christians is the most powerful of all the agents which reinforce these and the other virtues which keep us civilised. It is in recognising this that Hamilton is correct in seeing Christianity as the true guardian of the common good in the world. What makes a christian Christian is Grace and not self-description. A Christian’s  understanding of his or her identity is that to be truly human they are so because of their Grace-enabled identification with the perfect Man, Jesus Christ – who is also God. 

Democracy is a ground-upward system of defining and governing society. The character and identity of what that ground is composed of is the crucial issue. This brings us to the one haunting question posed implicitly by Hamilton’s book but not really addressed – perhaps because he feels it is not the context in which to address it. That is, where are the Christians who will transform this self-deceiving world? Democracy is not an ideology. It is a process through which a community gives expression to a vision. If that community is as dazed and confused as ours now is then democracy will do no more than create the chaos begotten by that confusion. By all means Christians should engage in the democratic process but perhaps their first responsibility and their first desire should be to speak their faith loudly and clearly, live by and help many others to live by the truths and values which their faith embodies. Then, perhaps slowly, as they did at the dawn of Christianity, but certainly surely, they will transform the society in which they live and move and have their being.