October 21, 2008


Moving from Christian to Muslim democracy (JAN-WERNER MUELLER, 10/20/08, Japan Times)

While Christian democracy got nowhere politically between the world wars, momentous changes were initiated in Catholic thought. In particular, the French Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain developed arguments as to why Christians should embrace democracy and human rights.

During the 1920s, Maritain was close to the far-right Action Francaise, but the pope condemned the movement in 1926 for essentially being a group of faithless Catholics more interested in authoritarian nationalism than Christianity. Maritain accepted the pope's verdict and began a remarkable ideological journey toward democracy.

He criticized France's attempts to appear as a modern crusader, incurring the wrath of Catholics in the United States in particular. More importantly, he began to recast some of Aristotle's teachings and medieval natural law doctrines to arrive at a conception of human rights. He also drew on the philosophy of "personalism" — which was highly fashionable in the 1930s as it sought a middle way between individualist liberalism and communitarian socialism — and insisted that people had a spiritual dimension that materialistic liberalism supposedly failed to acknowledge.

After the fall of France, Maritain decided to remain in the U.S., where he happened to find himself after a lecture tour (the Gestapo searched his house outside Paris in vain). He authored pamphlets on the reconciliation of Christianity and democracy, which Allied bombers dropped over Europe, and he never tired of stressing that the Christian origins of America's flourishing democracy had influenced him.

Maritain also insisted that Christians, while they should take into account religious precepts, had to act as citizens first. Acceptance of pluralism and tolerance were central to his vision and he forbade one-to-one translation of religion into political life. He was rather skeptical of exclusively Christian parties.

Maritain participated in the drafting of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the Second Vatican Council eventually approved many of the ideas that he had been propounding since the 1930s. He also influenced the Christian Democratic parties that governed after 1945 in Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and, to a lesser extent, France, and which consolidated not only democracy but also built strong welfare states in line with Catholic social doctrine. By the 1970s, the parties even began to stress that one didn't have to be a believer to join.

Maritain's example disproves the claim that the analogy between Christian and Muslim democracy fails.

It seems likely that just as the leading theorists of the Catholic Reformation had ties to America--Maritain, Orestes Brownson, Alexis de Tocqueville--so too is the Islamic Reformation likely to be an American production.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2008 8:40 AM
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