Wednesday, February 02, 2011 :::
A Mind That Suits is now content. The debate--or rather, The Debate--is now clear, and going the way it should
It seems many people have been waiting for Reuel Marc Gerecht to offer his insights into the situation in Egypt. He hasn’t, exactly, but Duncan Currie of the National Review wrote a helpful commentary/interview occasioned by a recent article. Mr. Currie’s piece elicited many useful comments, especially, as expected, from Stanley Kurtz. (See Mr. Currie's round-up on the whole question here.)
Everyone, of course, has been focused on the question of whether Egypt can be safely guided to democracy. Thanks to the discussion, everyone is now focused on an arresting quote from Dr. Gerecht, exactly about Egypt, back in 2005. “(People who want to see the Mubarak regime transformed directly into a democracy) don’t want to reflect on the history of democratic Christendom --that you don't get to arrive at Thomas Jefferson unless you first pass through Martin Luther.”
We will return in a moment to whether Dr. Gerecht, who is presumably not a scholar of 16th Century theological debates, has the history of “democratic Christendom” down exactly. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.) But on the larger point he is exactly correct.
Dr. Gerecht’s comments are most useful because they have moved the discussion onto the plane where it belongs, one that makes a lot of people nervous: the religious plane.
A Mind That Suits is not referring to the question of how democracy might square with the teachings of Islam. Far better minds than he has have offered far better accounts of that issue than he can.
No, what A Mind That Suits means is that the belief in the triumph of democracy is, in character, a religious belief. Strictly speaking, it is an eschatological belief, or, in philosophical terms, a teleogical one. A Mind That Suits returns to the religious formulation below.
A Mind That Suits was somewhat surprised to find out that Dr. Gerecht is a firm believer in that religion.
Now, the quotes that people have pulled make that very clear, so it has to be said that most of Dr. Gerecht’s invaluable writings have in essence been directed against his fellow believers.
Let’s call them the Triumphalists within the House of Democracy.
Nearly every one of his voluminous reports and analyses in The Weekly Standard during much of the War in Iraq were explaining problems that were hindering, if not blocking, the development of democracy. Since A Mind That Suits is not a votary of that particular religion, he directs those who are votaries to the writings of the good Dr. Gerecht. He speaks your language. A Mind That Suits doesn’t.
Two related comments:
First, Dr. Gerecht holds his religious belief in democracy in exactly the right way, as the conviction that this good thing will happen eventually and cannot be hurried.
Among Christians of all stripes, it is an article of faith that the end of time will bring the Final Judgment and the Kingdom of God. This is known by the Greek word eschaton. (Hence, eschatology, thinking about how this will play out. Teleology is also from a Greek word, telos (end). It refers to the (pagan) philosophical belief that things contain within themselves an end or purpose to which their existence is directed.)
Jesus’s own teaching on that is, as always, quite clear, and quite maddening. He did not tell His followers when it would come—which is what they wanted---or what jobs they would get running the world--which they wanted to know about even more.
Instead, he told them, and us, what to do—which none of us ever like very much. He told them to watch (“the signs of the times”), and to pray, and to set about the tasks that He gave them to do, none of which involved hastening time.
Where Christians have always run into problems is exactly when they try to hurry the process along, to help God, as it were.
What this usually means is not that they are helping God, but trying to take His place.
The most horrifying case in Christian history is usually held to be the short lived Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster during the Reformation, but hurrying the end times can be seen in any utopian scheme, pagan ones such as communism or Nazism, and commercial ones such as was attempted in Florida at New Smyrna. (One of those forgotten chapters in American history.)
Based on a comment by the philosopher Eric Voeglin, the late, great William F. Buckley referred to this as “imminentizing the eschaton”—trying to make the End of Time come about right now.
That is the issue in a nutshell: If you want to believe that ordered liberty is best brought about through democratic processes carefully directed through strong laws and a law abiding culture, A Mind That Suits will stand right alongside you.
If you want to believe that it is best in all cases, A Mind That Suits will find another place to stand.
If you insist that everyone should drop what they are doing and bring about the Kingdom of Democracy here on earth right now, then A Mind That Suits will oppose you with every tool at his disposal.
Come to think of it, A Mind That Suits doesn’t really have any tools at his disposal, but you get the point.
And now to Dr. Gerecht’s history.
It is simply not true that the history of “democratic Christendom” teaches anything, because there is no such thing as democratic Christianity. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus, and He would be the Go To Guy on that question.
Prior to the appearance of representative democracy as we now understand it, in the 18th Century, it never really entered into popular thought that Christianity required that the head of state had to be elected by the popular will. Some national leaders were elected, but usually by an assembly of nobles from among their own number. The average citizen could vote in some small political units, but those were parts of larger entities. (A Mind That Suits checked the references to make sure he got that right, and the details gave him a headache. Suffice it to say that while the Holy Roman Emperor was technically elected, families that held it did all they could to make sure the job was heritable.)
What Christians have uniformly felt was that Christianity had implications for how a ruler should behave, whatever process landed him (and occasionally her) in the job. Even there, the implications were matters of dispute, and they are not laid out in Scripture.
There was a medieval literary genre known as a “mirror for princes,” which offered counsel to rulers on how they should behave. The ones that have come to the attention of A Mind That Suits were pretty thin reading, and not a single one proposed that the ruler was constrained to abdicate and run in a competitive election. If one had ventured to propose such an action, one presumes that the prince would have handled the writer the way the Uzbeks leaders handled the US when we suggested they give democracy a go.
The idea that the Reformation led to democracy is a back-formation, if you will. Both sides talked as if they were standing on religious authority, but what both sides did was scamper off to whatever political authority would help.
That, alas, has implications for what might happen in Islamic lands, where the distinction between mosque and state does not even exist theoretically.
Back to Chrisitianity: In the Reformation, as always in the history of the Church, combining church and state played out to the detriment of the Church.
Anyone who wants to summarize the history of the relations between the Catholic Church and the "secular arm" of the state in three sentences is a fool, so of course A Mind That Suits here tries: Suffice it to say that, at one point after the Reformation, the Pope had lost the authority to appoint bishops throughout almost the entire Catholic world. If you understand how the Catholic Church is "run," if that is the right word, then you realize that meant that the Pope had lost control of most of the Church. It took centuries to undo the damage.
On the Protestant side, the state basically chewed up Christianity and spat it out. Luther did not give the matter much thought, and relied on the local rulers who agreed with him, with bad results. John Calvin was similarly indifferent to how rulers got their jobs, but not about how they should do them. He wanted every citizen of Geneva to be forced to go to confession, face to face, once a quarter. Draw whatever analogies to any current government you would like to.
The worst instance is Sweden, where the state Protestant church switched sides when the atheist Socialists were elected. We’ll support your anti-clerical and anti-family agenda, they offered, if you let us keep our state subsidies. The socialist let them be, until they had succeeded in secularizing the whole country. As the year 2000 began, Rome was celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, with a Pope who drew crowds of millions. The Swedish government was cutting off the Swedish Church. One might has well rub out the names and just apply the same basic story to all of Protestant Northern Europe
The only instance where something like that did not happen was, well, in the Anglo-Saxon sphere, and here is where Dr. Gerecht kind of misses the boat entirely.
Take the question of slavery. There is a brief letter of Paul concerning a Christian slave named Onesimus who ran away from his master, Philemon, a prominent Christian. By Providence, Onesimus ran into Paul in Rome, and became a Christian. The Apostle told Onesimus that he had to return to his master. From the comment to Philemon that Onesimus had been “unprofitable,” it became a common belief that he had stolen from his master, but we don’t know that. The Apostle may have meant that Onesimus was not fulfilling his obligations as a slave.
Sure enough, slaveholders have taken this epistle as a sign that there is no conflict between Christianity and slaveholding, but that is not what the Apostle says. (A Mind That Suits feels rather strongly that, as long as one corrects the very few anti-Catholic mistranslations, those who think beauty and truth go together are duty bound to quote the King James translation, and so he does here. Note that “convenient” in 1611 bore the connotation of its Latin cognate, and meant something like “fitting and proper.”)
Wrote the Apostle, “Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee.”
In other words, you know you should set him free, but I am not going to tell you to do that. Indeed, Paul masterfully uses the reminders of his own status as a prisoner of the Emperor to add to his authority as Apostle, highlighting every single facet of the situation with a few strokes of the pen.
(As an aside, if you wondered why John Paul the Great rarely said, “Do this,” he was following a rather strong precedent.)
While Christian societies tended not to practice slavery, emancipation only became a morally based political imperative where Christianity met up with Anglo-Saxon culture.
There is, thus, no line between Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson. The English Church split from Rome over political questions, not theology, and an entirely different form of Protestantism grew out of the “Elizabethan Settlement.” Lots of Anglicans like to say they are not Protestant. Thomas Jefferson was an Anglican, not a Lutheran.
Besides, though Jefferson grew to hate slavery, he didn’t do anything practical about it, and was the most horrifying racist. (Free the slaves, he believed, and ship them back to Africa. He did neither.) It was the unromantic Washington who freed his, and the “nonconformist” Congregationalists and Presbyterians of the North who fought slavery tooth and nail.
The Catholic hierarchy in America, alas, dithered. As indifferent a Catholic as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out what Catholicism should mean in a democratic environment, but the hierarchy dithered.
To be historically accurate, the trail of liberty in Christian Anglo-Saxon lands runs from Runnymeade through William Wilberforce and from Plymouth Rock through George Washington to…Lyndon Johnson.
Back on the Continent, democracy followed a different path entirely. As a direct result of the Reformation, first France, and then Central Europe, were plunged into bloody wars that discredited Church involvement in politics. Unfortunately, the continent did not exactly choose a straight path to democracy, a point on which A Mind That Suits dilated a few days ago.
He would like, however, to here quote one of his favorite verses from political satirist Tom Lehrer:
Once all the Germans were warlike, and mean,
But that couldn't happen again.
We taught them a lesson in 1918,
and they've hardly bothered us since then.
from The MLF Lullaby, by Tom Lehrer. All rights reserved.
The details are fascinating, but the point remains, the one on which Dr. Gerecht is so painfully correct: whether from Rome to Westphalia, or from Mt. Vernon to the Perdernales River, the trail to modernity is soaked in blood.
It became frightening enough after gun powder got invented.
What should give everyone pause is what might happen with the kinds of weapons we have now.
Modern weapons were nearly all invented by the Sons of Liberty. Contemplating every facet of that will give you more than a headache.
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 3:38 PM