October 17, 2003


Republicanism and Religion (Ellis Sandoz, October 4, 2003, Philadelphia Society)

Despite the Enlightenment’s concerted project of doing away with the Bible as the basis of political and social order in favor of Reason,1 religion continues to condition politics as an undergirding belief foundation: Men always have God or idols, as Luther said. Our present war on terrorism with its religious dimensions apparent to even the most blinkered secularist is evidence on the point. This phenomenon can be seen in the context of a global revival of traditional religiosity, including Christianity, as a major event of the present sometimes called “the revenge of God” by such scholars as Gilles Kepel, Philip Jenkins, and Samuel Huntington. [...]

[T]he principal religious springs of republican politics are: a paradoxical sense of the dignity yet frailty of every human being as potentially imago Dei; individual and political liberty fostered through a rule of law grounded in “the nature and being of man” as “the gift of God and nature”; government and laws based on consent of the community; and above all resistance to tyranny whether ecclesiastical or political in the name of truth, justice, and righteousness. These key elements were directly and essentially fostered by the prevalent (“dissenting” Burke called it) Christianity of the late 18th century and by a citizenry schooled in them by devoted Bible reading and by the pulpit.

It is worth lingering a moment over the last point as George Trevelyan memorably makes it: “The effect of the continual domestic study of the book upon the national character, imagination and intelligence for nearly three centuries to come [after 1611] was greater than that of any literary movement in our annals, or any religious movement since the coming of St. Augustine....The Bible in English history may be regarded as a ‘Renaissance’ of Hebrew literature far more widespread and more potent than even the Classical Renaissance which...provided the mental background of the better educated.” The path to that stage of liberty was never smooth. Indeed, the rise of Whig liberty, the freedom we cherish, was in no small degree bound up with the efforts of early religious reformers, notably John Wyclif and William Tyndale, to make the text of the Bible available in English–an eminently democratizing effort expanding the much earlier principle announced in the York Tractates of the Anglo-Norman Anonymous c. l100 of the priesthood of all baptized believers with the individual person standing in immediacy to God (1 Peter 2:9). [...]

Nagging questions remain: Can a political order ultimately grounded in man’s transcendent relationship to divine Being, memorably proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and solidly undergirded by biblical revelation and philosophy, indefinitely endure–resilient though it may be–in the face of nihilistic assault of this vital spiritual tension by every means, including by the institutions of liberty themselves?

Not only do all Americans have extensive exposure to the Bible, but no one has more than those who reject it--they study it and Judeo-Christian history assiduously, in search of errors, contradictions, and political incorrectness. Enlightenment rationalism offers nothing comparable. Sure you learn stuff like Darwinism in school, but you just accept it on authority and assume it works like that notorious wall chart that starts with australopithecus, or whoever, taking a step and ends with a human taking one. If you ever explained to a roomful of people that today's evolutionists or sociobiologists or whatever they're billing themselves as are forced to deny human free will, they'd laugh you out of the room.

Thus is the rationalist worldview accepted, but not very influential on how we think about the Universe and our role in it, while the religious worldview, even when not accepted, deeply and irremediably influential. It is to the extent that the Bible has lost such a place in Europe that it has become truly divorced from us, even from those of us who are not expressly religious. That explains why even our atheists and libertarians tend to be warmongers, though they'd deny themselves to be crusaders.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2003 4:23 PM

How is it that a political order that is "solidly undergirded by biblical revelation and philosophy" is not actually realized for some 1700 years after said revelations have taken place? And it takes a "dissenting" sect of that religion to discover the obvious conclusion of that revelation?

Methinks the philosophy came before the revelation. Political philosophies evolve to solve real world political problems. "Revelations" are the product of finding religious justifications for one's philosophical innovations after the fact. For many centuries these same revelations had no problem undergirding tyrannical kings, popes and emperors.

Posted by: Robert D at October 17, 2003 6:35 PM

Ours isn't the only system that revelation can undergird, nor necessarily the best.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2003 7:18 PM

OJ, if that is the case, then it is no revelation at all. It is more like the Oracle at Delphi, or the Magic 8 Ball, or a statement by a politician, supporting multiple interpretations. Revelations reveal, they lay bare the truth.

Posted by: Robert D at October 17, 2003 8:46 PM

Yes, but there is no revealed truth about the specific form of State you need. The State is a rather subsidiary issue to the society itself.

Christianity doesn't need democracy. Democracy does though need Christianity.


Posted by: oj at October 17, 2003 8:53 PM

Christianity allowed us all to be ministers, not just a select tribe (Levites). While God may give different talents to various people, nobody is above anybody else, we all serve each other. That is the undergirding of democracy, as opposed to a theocracy where a small minority stays entrenched in power by virtue of birth.

Posted by: MarcV at October 17, 2003 11:12 PM


Surely you are describing heriditary aristocracy or nationalist totalitarianism, not theocracy, which is often very inclusive. Only royal blood can become kings, but millions of proud little Islamist fanatics go to bed each night knowing anyone can be an Imam or a suicide bomber bound for paradise.

Also, surely "Render unto Caesar..." makes it plain the Message didn't have too much to say about political systems. You need a lot more than faith to make democracy work.

Posted by: Peter B at October 18, 2003 6:10 AM

In fact, "Render unto Caesar" suggests that theocracy is inappropriate to Christianity.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2003 6:13 AM