Politics & Policy

The Ties That Bind

Democracy is moral or not at all.

On October 11, 2009, at the invitation of Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, Michael Novak delivered the following keynote address at Forum 2000, an annual conference held in Prague to map the globalization process and to note its positive results as well as the perils encountered by an increasingly interconnected world.

This year’s theme of Forum 2000 is “Democracy and Freedom in a Multipolar World” — in short, “Democracy after 1989.”

That theme is too rich for a brief introduction. Surely, though, one of the dramatic differences between 1989 and 2009 is the new salience of nearly all world religions in matters of democracy. As Jürgen Habermas wrote after September 11, 2001, the notion that the world is secular, and becoming more so, is no longer tenable. In fact, after September 11, secularism seemed to Habermas like a small island, surrounded by a sea of turbulent religion.

Accordingly, I will make four points this evening on the bonds between religion and democracy. First, the great French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville taught us that religion gives democracy two important tasks: to put in place foundational principles on which human rights are secure against every raging storm; and to teach “the habits of the heart” that allow democracy to work in practice — habits of honesty, self-examination, self-mastery, and free association with others, and a sense of universal fraternity with all other women and men on earth. If men do not learn the habits of self-government in their private lives, how will they practice self-government in their public lives? To live democratically is to live a high moral art.

By itself, secularism tends toward individual, not general, moral standards. It begins with “tolerance,” and steadily slides toward relativism. Cultural decadence — first among entertainment elites, and then among the multitudes of the uninformed young — grows like fungus on the face of democracy. The silent artillery of time wears down the habits of the past. For this reason, democracy needs regular awakenings of conscience, often religious awakenings, just to survive as a morally beautiful and worthy enterprise — a moral enterprise. Democracy is moral or not at all.

Religion teaches humble people that they are valuable and noble, beloved by their Creator, equal to every other man. It also teaches us that the personal lives of plumbers and carpenters — and professors and playwrights — and all women and men, are meaningful, morally dramatic, and made in the image of God — as co-creators.

These are the first bonds between religion and democracy.

* * *

The second bond is the anti-totalitarian principle. Humans must not give to Caesar the things that are God’s, nor to God the things that are Caesar’s. Caesar is not God. Every state is limited. Many parts of human life do not belong to the state — not conscience, not inquiry, not the creative arts, and not the sacred and inalienable duty of each individual to his Creator: to say yes or to say no.

In the same way, no religion dares to coerce from above all the decisions of Caesar. No religion can coerce the consciences of individuals to respond yes or no. Before God, all individuals are free to respond in conscience. In this, the state cannot interfere. Man’s inalienable responsibility before God is the foundation of his inalienable rights before the state.

* * *

Third, there is a worldwide misconception that there is only one kind of secular state — the kind found in the European continent. The kind rooted in the ruthless irreligion of the French Revolution of 1789. The European continental secular state is virtually closed to public religion. It tries to imprison religion in the recesses of private life, outside of public sight.

Yet there is, in fact, another type of secular state. The other type may be called the Anglo-American type. Here citizens are recognized as both religious beings and political beings. The one cannot be surgically separated from the other.

Similarly, the institutions of man’s religious nature, and the institutions of his political nature — the church and the state — must be distinguished as Caesar and God are distinguished. Nonetheless, religion necessarily flows into political consciences, and political consciences generally root themselves in pre-political beliefs about human nature and destiny. The two interpenetrate each other. Communism was overthrown not by secular morality alone, but also by religious conscience from above.

Therefore, the state must not coerce religious consciences from above, and institutional religion must not coerce the work of Caesar from above. Fruitful accommodations must be worked out by trial and error.

* * *

Finally, the Western world has yet to hear all the new reflections on liberty, human rights, democracy, and the best relations between Caesar and God from the other great religions of the world: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (to name those with more than 500 million adherents each).

The careening adventures of freedom and religion in their long journey through history are not at an end. Much is yet to be learned.

– Michael Novak’s latest book is No One Sees God. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.

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