February 17, 2013


Ordered Liberty under God : a review of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World by Robert P. Kraynak (Douglas C. Minson, 1/21/13, Imaginative Conservative)

The stated purpose of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is twofold. Kraynak argues that liberalism requires Christianity to provide a sufficient foundation for human dignity--an account it is unable to generate on its own and upon which modern democracy depends. Having made his case for liberalism's theoretical dependence on Christianity, Kraynak then devotes the bulk of his book to developing an argument that Christianity in no way necessitates modern liberal democracy. In fact, he proposes that liberal democracy and Christianity are profoundly irreconcilable.

Kraynak's thesis is nothing if not bold. For most American Christians, who can perceive no tension between their religious and political devotion, it would appear that Kraynak's intellectual project is both perverse and impossible. Remarkably, however, one leaves the book impressed that Kraynak is equal to his task.

Much as Richard John Neuhaus has observed that modern atheism is a "Christian" atheism-- in the sense that the only God it bothers to deny is the monotheistic, eternal, and personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition--Kraynak contends that modern democratic liberalism is the only form of democracy that is a candidate for serious consideration. Modern democracy, unlike ancient Greek democracy, for example, is democracy as an end unto itself, a political expression of the rights that accompany a particular conception of human nature and human dignity. This particular notion of dignity is equated with "autonomy and mastery of one's fate." As such, liberal democracy is more than merely a system of social and political order: "it is a philosophy of freedom."

Christianity's account of human dignity, by contrast, is essentially hierarchical and unsuited to the purposes of modern democracy. Kraynak's treatment of the politics of human dignity is particularly insightful, both for its lucidity and its ecumenical scope. Kraynak examines the way that the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all reflect a hierarchy of being in their understanding of the imago dei, human reason, and human responsibility. His examination of Christianity's understanding of man as conceived within and measured by a cosmological order has important implications for law and justice and provides a stark contrast to the liberal democratic view of human dignity as absolute and undifferentiated. For Kraynak, the Christian understanding of human nature finds its political expression in Augustine's doctrine of Two Cities-- a doctrine that both accommodates a range of political systems and finds every particular regime (including our own) ultimately inadequate.

Over and against the prevailing conception of democracy, which only thinly disguises its claim to being the best regime, Kraynak offers a theory of Christian constitutionalism. Such constitutionalism is "more open to the diversity of political regimes than liberalism" and is less ambitious than its secular counterparts. Rooted in a substantial view of higher goods and higher spheres that cannot be absorbed by the state, the temporal ends of the state are more narrowly conceived than is the case with modern liberalism.

In effect, Christian constitutionalism in no way aspires to resolve or overcome what Peter Augustine Lawler has suggested is humanity's essentially "alien" nature. The citizens of the City of Man are ever and necessarily strangers in a strange land, pilgrims on a journey, temporal beings longing for eternity and transcendence. Thus is the City of Man "desacralized." Nonetheless, because it is divinely ordained, it can never be purely secularized. It is limited to temporal ends, but with an eye to eternal concerns.

Christian constitutionalism provides an alternative framework for limited government on a distinctly "illiberal" foundation. Indeed, Kraynak draws upon Reformed notions of "sphere sovereignty," Roman Catholic conceptions of subsidiarity, and Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism to provide a metaphysical foundation for a pluralistic social order. But offering an alternative to the prevailing democratic orthodoxy is not Kraynak's primary concern-- it is only an element of his contention that liberal democracy cannot be harmonized with the Christian faith.

While all states and peoples are inevitably tending towards modern liberal democracy (the only way we know of that our temporal ends can be reasonably well satisfied) this End of History is ultimately only desirable to the extent that they also strive towards satisfying those eternal concerns. In the absence of the latter, the former just represents the senescent condition in which they'll die off.

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Posted by at February 17, 2013 9:50 AM

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