Earlier in the week the question was posed as to how far the ethical structures we have inherited from Christianity can outlast its diminished influence? Our regular commentator thoughfullydetached offered one of his many perceptive comments on this, noting that Benedict XVI’s
conclusion was that the West is running on empty and that it is only, as it were, the fumes of Christianity that keep the ethical vehicle on the road. The further we travel without fuel the more attenuated the residual influence becomes.
That seems on the money.
The West, perhaps because it keeps spitting on its luck in inheriting the system of ethics and law it has, finds it very difficult to understand the rest of the world. Our politicians seem to proceed from the assumption that our way of doing things really is universal, and it is only the dimness or corruption of their counterparts elsewhere which prevents the rest of the world following suite. It is a version of Rousseau’s ludicrously optimistioc statem,ent that man was born free and is everywhere in chains, with the corollary that if only the chains could be struck off, his natural goodness would come to the fore. From the French Revolution, through its Russian namesake to every revolution since, what actually happens is a dreadful proof odf the teaching of the Church about mankind and original sin. But still, the Enlightenment dogma goes on its way – we have seen lately, from Iraq to Syria to Libya that ‘regime change’ does not produce democracy. And why should it?
Democracy as we know it is a conginent phenomenon, the result of centuries of struggle over the question of who rules whom and what the State exists to do? OUr ancient rulers did not just wake up one morning and think that their absolute monarchy was, when you came to think about it, a bad thing. They had to be brought, often at great cost to them and to others, to the view that the common man was not simply a human beast of burden, there to provide the prerequisites of a privileged lifestyle for the few. That remains, as any survey of political regimes will confirm, a view held by most elites, and the struggle for democracy even in the West has to be eternal. Whatever one things of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit debate, its result has been a sharp (and to elite, entirely unwelcome) reminder that democracy means the rule of the people. The American Constitution, like the European Union’s one, attempted to mitigate the effects of direct democracy, and all parliamentary systems try to ensure that the rule of the majority does not turn into a tyranny over the minority.
In the Anglosphere, the connection between the development of democracy and Christianity has been an interesting one. The Church has often found itself on the side of the elites whose favour it needed, but it has also provided the fundemental building block from which democratic ideas were formed – that every one of us ios a child of God and therefore of equal value, and not to be discarded or exploited. We shall see how that concept fares as the influence of the Faith wanes.
The ‘West’ finds it odd that China and other countries outside the western tradition seem not to understand that our way is the best way, and despite its best efforts to bomb parts of the Middle East into democracy, people there seem stubbornly resistant to its merits. But it really is not that surprising. Democracy on the model we have it is not a widespread phenomenon. The Americans inherited it from the British, as did the rest of the Anglosphere. Western Europe hammered it out with many mistakes, false starts and dead-ends. Despite the optimism of Woodrow Wilson in 1919 that the fall of the great empires would be followed by an efflorescence of democracy, no such thing happened. By the end of 1938 there was no democracy left east of the Rhine or south of the Pyrenees. World War II gave democracy a second chance in countries such as Italy and West Germany, but the situation remained – and I would suggest still remains, fragile. Democracy is not the natural end of political development – it may yet turn out to be a fragile growth which failed to thrive in hard times.