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Joined: 2010/10/26
Posts: 236

 The problem with liberal democracy

A little dated but worth sharing here if it hasn't been shared before.

Peter Sellick's 'The problem with liberal democracy'

To suggest that there is a fundamental problem with liberal democracy is to court being labelled the worst kind of traitor, or to join the sorry breast-beating mob that insists all the evils of the world are due to the West. Its supporters insist that while it is not a perfect system, it is the best system of ordering society and government that has ever come to be. Frances Fukuyama has even gone so far as to suggest liberal democracy represents the end of history and that it is the end of our efforts to produce the best government for the most people. No further progress in political and social organisation is possible, political history has reached its high point and end.

Since liberal democracies witnessed the end of the Cold War, without a shot fired, there has arisen a smug assurance that this is the natural form of government for all the people of the world and it should be established by force if necessary. Certainly we must admit it is a fine system that produces boundless freedom and seemingly endless economic growth. Indeed it seems churlish to criticise such a system that has so many runs on the board.

However, I have recently come across a trenchant criticism of liberal democracy, not from an economist, or a political scientist, or a sociologist, but unexpectedly from a theologian. This criticism does not rely on the disappointment Lefties have felt that their ideology has gone out the window, but in an examination of the kind of body that liberal democracy produces. In his slim book Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh, who teaches theology at the University of St Thomas, St Paul Minnesota, contrasts the structure of the social body produced by liberal democracy with that outlined for the church by the apostle Paul.

State soteriology has tried to unify humankind by incorporation into a body of a grotesque sort. Beginning with an anthropology of formally equal individuals guided by no common ends, the best the state can hope to do is to keep these individuals from interfering in each other’s rights. While this can serve to mitigate the conflictual effects of individualism, it cannot hope to enact a truly social process. The body that is enacted is a monstrosity of many separate limbs proceeding directly out of a gigantic head.

This is the body left to us by liberal democracy: because we understand ourselves as self-created individuals who have inherent rights, we do not see that we are only what we are because of the person next to us. Rather than relate to each other, each of whom have competing rights, we must relate directly to government. Hence Cavanaugh’s image of the many separate limbs: the isolated individual, relating only to the gigantic head of government which controls all things, exercises coercion, dispenses resources, heals the sick and looks after the poor.

The social pathology we experience grows directly out of the inadequacy of this body to form us into a full humanity which is only to be found in our relatedness to each other. Politics is centrifugal, it relates only along the line of the individual to central government. Politics becomes an activity dominated by the lobby groups of sectional interest, each fighting for the resources it thinks it needs. Since the state is seen as the sole saviour, it is to the state that we appeal for help for the poor and the sick and the helpless.

By contrast, the body that Paul describes is composed of many parts all of whom have their parts to play: all different, all essential. The sanctity of the individual is not based on the equality of rights but on the knowledge that each is created in the image of God. Furthermore these parts of the body are interconnected, if one part suffers the whole of the body suffers. Jesus may be the head of this body but its members related to him via the other members as is described in Matthew 25:31ff. This is a body proper, consisting of interrelated members bound together by the love of the head and of each other. They do not need the notion of human rights that only succeeds in setting one against another. They do not see each member set over against the other in competition. Rather, they share everything in common. They share a common vision in the kingdom of God and therefore can act in a decisive fashion.

The liberal view is that there is “no such thing as community, only the individual” (Thatcher) or similarly, that there is no such thing as an Anglican or Catholic view, only views of individuals (Howard). Liberalism is antagonistic to any social grouping that interferes with the isolated individual and that individual’s choices (a liberal buzz word). This is so because the idea that the basis of society resides in the relationships between its members threatens the liberal construction of society.

The origin of these ideas may be found in Hobbes and Lock and the social contract. The result is that liberal democracy seeks to silence all other voices that oppose, it especially when these voices belong to groups of people who share a common goal such as the church or unions. So, while masquerading as being for free speech it quickly censors the voice of community bodies. Religion is not allowed to be a voice of a community, it must be relegated to the private where is it is easily relativised.

The dominant position of the nation state is defended by a few misreadings of history that can only be described as propaganda as Rodney Stark has discovered. For example, it is commonly thought that the nation state arose as a solution to sectarian violence. The wars that followed the Reformation in Europe were designated wars of religion and the myth was propagated that it was the nation state that brought them under control. In fact, the wars were fought on behalf of nation states using religion as a motivating force. A brief survey of the history of war reveals that we have far more to fear from aggression between nation states than between religions.

It is far too easy to label the conflict in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and now Iraq as wars of religion and ignore their political origins. It is also ridiculous to label Jesus as a warrior leading his disciples into battle. And yet most pledge allegiance to the nation state, surely the cause of most of our trouble, rather than the church.

The other bugbear that is dragged out to support the nation state against the church is of course the excesses of theocracy in the form of inquisitions, the burning of witches and heretics and Puritanism. Again it is difficult to sheet this home to the gentle Galilean. A distinction must be made between the true nature of the church and its misuse by fearful and superstitious men.

This propaganda has been used to alienate the church from the public square. In Australia and Europe the separation between church and state has been used as an excuse to silence the church and take over its responsibilities, while in America the religious talk of politicians is often thinly disguised patriotism. It has become too easy to take the position that to allow any religious statement is to favour one group over another and hence to allow no statement at all.

Because secular society has no common goals it goes along with whatever force is at hand. That is why the culture of this society will be governed by the market. Economics becomes the sole activity of government. This is all we can expect after the church has been driven from the public square and reduced to the private. Individual politicians may have religious convictions but those convictions are disallowed in the public domain.

What is permissible as public discourse increasingly obeys the logic of accumulation and self interest and economic performance. We have a universal health system not to relieve the suffering of the people but to ensure that they make an economic contribution to society and so enhance the country’s position in the global economy. Foreign affairs are conducted under one principle: “is it in the interests of the state?” From our waking hours we are assailed by the advertising industry telling us that we could have more.

The myth of government in liberal democracy is that it is value neutral and functions only to create a space of freedom in which citizens may pursue their own goals whatever they may be, as long as they do not encroach on other people pursuit of theirs. In reality, liberal democracy is not neutral but imposes a view of the world dominated by the market and by the idea of accumulation. The state has much to gain by asserting the market is natural and that the one motivating force in society is self interest. It is up to the church to protest that, although the market is important, it may not be turned into the one determining force, it may not become idolatrous.

This has all come about because the debate about religion has ignored its primary aspect: the church as the body of Christ as hope for the world. This is where the rubber hits the road, not in endless and futile discussion about the existence of God or the origin of the world. The church carries the Christian story that frames humanity and its pain, joys and purposes in opposition to the story carried by the secular state. A debate that contrasts these two stories will reveal the truth and richness of the former and the shallowness and falsity of the latter. This is how the church must bring the battle to the door of secular society. We can no longer accept that the secular story is based on concrete realities while that of the church is mythological. What person who has experienced the love of another would assert that self interest is the highest motivating factor? Why would this person believe that the state is his saviour? Again, why would this person be persuaded that the other, who is beyond certain borders, is his enemy?

It is time for us to wake up and realise that we have been sold a lie and that liberal democracy, which we seek to export all over the world as the only form of government, represents an untrue conception of the human. While we may enjoy its fruits and its freedoms, it can only lead us into a wasteland of the spirit. As William Cavanaugh says:

A public Christian presence cannot be the pursuit of influence over the powers, but rather a question of what kind of community disciplines we need to produce people of peace capable of speaking truth to power.

The church has long since been relegated to sniping from the sidelines when it comes to questions of morality. We cannot expect the secular state to take it seriously. Why should the victor take notice of the vanquished? Rather, the church must look to its own and go about making disciples who will be members of the body of Christ. It must become its own society. This does not mean that the church has to be separate, but it does mean that it knows the source of its own life and thus ignores the temptation to participate in society on the terms allowed by the state. The church must get used to the fact that it exists as an alien body in a strange land.

 2010/11/3 0:00Profile

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