Why Democracy Needs Christianity

I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).

In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.

Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.

All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.

Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.

It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.

Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.

It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.

But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.

It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.

The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.

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About Matthew Tuininga

Matthew Tuininga is a student of political theology and a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics and Society at Emory University. He is a licensed preacher in the United Reformed Churches of North America, and he currently teaches on an adjunct basis at Oglethorpe University and the University of the South - School of Theology.

Posted on August 30, 2013, in Christian liberty, democracy, Equality, Liberalism, Liberty, Religious Liberty, Rights, The Secular and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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