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Christian Faith and Modern Democracy

A committed Roman Catholic, Robert Kraynak has produced one of the most significant political books for American Catholics since John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths. A professor of political theory at Colgate University, Kraynak deserves mention along with Murray, Jacques Maritain, and Reinhold Niebuhr as a thoughtful commentator on the most profound of issues. His work will shake any reader, secular or faithful, to rethink the relationship between one's citizenship and one's faith.

“We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be” (italics in original). Kraynak's argument, presented initially as the Frank M. Covey Lectures at Loyola University, carefully combines sober analysis of church history and biblical scholarship with scathing assessments of the politicization of contemporary theology. “Christianity is the fullness of truth,” he writes. “The loss of this grand and exhilarating perspective is another casuality of modern Christianity and its principled embrace of human rights.” Democracy requires a strong, not enervated, Christianity, “because its moral claims cannot be vindicated by secular and rational means alone.” In making this dual argument, Kraynak brilliantly exposes the theological and political problems caused by the close relationship between what he variously labels as democracy, liberalism, liberty, and Kantianism, on the one hand, and Christianity, on the other. The modern world is in the grips of deteriorated family life, materialism, and a willfulness dominating all aspects of life. In place of this contemporary muddle of moral anarchy, Kraynak reminds Christians of Saint Augustine's teaching of the two cities—the City of Man and the City of God, whose “conception of human dignity [is] based on the Imago Dei.“ Christians should enter into a prudential relationship between their primary citizenship in the City of God and a political order that would not necessarily possess the attributes of modern liberal regimes. Christianity must exhibit a hierarchy and transcendence that egalitarian political orders must disdain. For the good of both realms, they must remain separate, until we enter ”a new historical stage.“

But Kraynak misunderstands modernity and America and how Christianity relates to them. The contemporary “liberal democratic conception of human dignity based on autonomous self-determination” is not the heart of liberal democracy, at least as understood by the American Founders. But for Kraynak, “Together, the subversive thrust of rights and the leveling effects of democracy undermine the hierarchical doctrine of the Two Cities.” In fact, America, in its soul, is far more friendly to Christianity than he thinks, for its soul is not liberal and Kantian in the sense that he criticizes.

Kraynak seeks instead a “stable constitutional order, rather than democracy or human rights per se, the litmus test of legitimate government for Christians.” This “constitutionalism without liberalism” permits a practical accommodation with the modern world without turning the Christian faith into a mirror image of political liberalism. Kraynak does not provide practical examples of what such a tranquillity of order would look like and how it would function. In this connection, he brings forth the redoubtable Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a model, who presents a sober argument for democracy that does not depend on a notion of rights. Indeed, in his hunt to find unsavory liberal elements in contemporary theology, Kraynak finds Kantianism in the “personalism” of Maritain, Murray, Michael Novak, and Pope John Paul II, though, in his Holiness's case, the “arguments in favor of freedom and democracy are always qualified” by Thomism. But arguments for freedom are always qualified, just as Kraynak qualifies his arguments for hierarchy. To quote elsewhere from the pope's message welcoming Ambassador Lindy Boggs, which Kraynak cites, “It would truly be a sad thing if the religious and moral convictions upon which the American experiment was founded could now somehow be considered a danger to free society.” Kraynak appears to make the equally sad error that even the most refined conception of freedom might endanger the City of God by allowing the modern degeneration he rightly fears.

The modern world's fixation on rights prevents it from being friendly to Christianity, Kraynak argues. “Rights themselves become tyrannical” because they can be used in bad ways. This proves that “rights themselves” are not the problem. “The notion that God created man to enjoy natural rights and establish government by consent—the founding principle of liberal democracy or republican self-government—is not in the Bible.” (As are many things, we would add.) Indeed, we need to “sever the Christian-democratic connection and start all over again.” Yet Kraynak rejects the rule of priests and the corrupting pride that he knows can arise in theocracies.

Thus, Kraynak's critique of American liberalism itself displays a concession to the liberalism he battles. Among other difficulties, he conflates contemporary liberalism with the liberalism of the American Founding. Deconstructionist and multiculturalist Richard Rorty somehow becomes the logical successor of James Madison. Kant's liberalism, with its emphasis on a willed equality of the kingdom of ends as the measure of morality, can thus be blithely exchanged with the liberalism founded by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. (I had thought that Baron von Steuben was the only prominent Prussian in the American Founding.) For Kraynak, “Rights cannot be stopped from endorsing the infinity of desire and the pride in human autonomy which leads modern people to deny their dependence on God's providence and God's grace as well as to deny their duties to neighbors and society. In this way, rights themselves become tyrannical.” Kraynak does not appreciate the overthrow of the Founding's liberal, limited government by Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society. It is odd that Kraynak could think that we have more freedom now than at the time of the Founding. For him, it is a seamless web of liberalism. Evidently it would not have made any significant difference who won the Civil War.

Kraynak acknowledges there are American resources friendly to Christians, but he derides them as mere “civil religion”: Washington's declarations of religious liberty, Thanksgiving (unappreciated as a religious holiday), and Lincoln's speeches. But after September 11, it is clearer than ever that the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is more reflective of the American soul than John Rawls's latest tome. America is a blend of ancient, modern, and Christian principles. Representation, for example, is, in fact, a more aristocratic (in Aristotle's sense) than he allows, for it is a means of promoting excellence. Rights are not properly understood as mere Hobbesian grasping for power; recall Lincoln's oft-stated view that there is no right to do wrong, and that right makes might.

Finally, Kraynak underestimates the power and purpose of civil religion. The liberal American regime is the best regime for Christians. They should use this uniquely suited civil religion to win souls for their faith. Civil religion is a potential for transcendent aims, as well as a good in itself. (Consider how the friendship of virtue refines and elevates the friendship of utility in Aristotle's Ethics.) In this way, civil religion is a source for the virtue that republican government requires most of any form. The City of God is a lot closer to the American regime than Kraynak allows. I would add that the American civil religion was one element (along with, among others, reading Saint Thomas and the prayers of friends) that was responsible for my own conversion to Catholicism almost seven years ago.