The Moral Case for Democracy

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By George Weigel

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As noted in the May/June 1987 issue of AMERICAN PURPOSE, a grant to the James Madison Foundation from the United States Institute of Peace is funding a year-long seminar of scholars and foreign policy practitioners on basic issues in the debate over ethics, war, and peace. The May seminar was built around a paper by Richard John Neuhaus, who sketched nine propositions aimed at starting a new argument in the American religious community over the moral claims of the world’s democrats and the relationship of those claims to the pursuit of peace. We hope our readers will be interested in taking up the cudgels on the Neuhaus propositions, which follow:

“1. The question is not how we … position ourselves with respect to current partisanships in conflict. The dispute over who is and who is not being ‘prophetic’ is fatuous and morally presumptuous. We begin from the premise that we are … moral actors engaged in free and reasonable discourse regarding our responsibility for the right ordering of human life. Without such preliminary stipulations, the bond of civility is severed and the entire non-argument becomes an exercise in bad faith.

“2. Over against all political orderings of this provisional moment of history we must be prepared to say something like a Barthian ‘Nein!’ That is to say, none is to be equated with the right ordering of the world which is the coming Kingdom of God. We are speaking about relative goods and lesser evils, and are operating by ‘middle axioms’-and, more often, axioms far short of middle way to the absolute truth. The argument is one informed by theological truth but, in the specific choices posed, employing reason, experience, and prudential judgment. This must be stated forcefully and repeatedly against the proposals of theocrats on the right and the left who champion varieties of ‘biblical polities’ which specify the right ordering of the world.

“3. . . . The democracies, led by the United States, are in our time the bearers of the democratic project in history. Liberal, constitutional democracy is one way of ordering political life, and it is a way of continuing and open-ended experiment. If … the democracies, particularly the United States, should abdicate or surrender the democratic project, it is very difficult to imagine the circumstance in which the project would be resumed.

“4. John Courtney Murray was right to recognize a ‘deep compatibility’ between Christianity and democracy. Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon and others similarly ‘read the signs of the times,’ always acknowledging their fallibility, as we must acknowledge ours. A convergence between divine purpose and democratic freedom is a possibility to be explored, not a dogma to be proclaimed. Today the dangers of succumbing to notions of ‘manifest destiny’ are less than the dangers of succumbing to an historical nihilism that rejects any understanding of providential intent. There are dangers in joining Lincoln in thinking of America as even the almost chosen people; there are greater dangers in dismissing the possibility as meaningless.

“5. We are morally responsible for making the choices that are ours in the kind of world of which we are part. [We] should resist the temptation to promote a ‘third way,’ as though a third way already existed . . . between democracy, on the one hand, and totalitarianism and authoritarianism, on the other. The insistence upon the best can undermine the better and play into the hands of the worst. If we have a vocation to political engagement (not all do) we should not withhold our commitment from available possibilities. The question is not whether our historical moment is worthy of us but whether we are worthy of the moment. [We] must always strive for a ‘better way,’ recognizing that politics is not just the art of the possible but the courage and intelligence to explore what may be possible. . . .

“6. The deep compatibility between Christianity and liberal democracy is grounded in democracy’s institutional protection of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, the single most important component of justice in the ordering of political life. In both principle and practice, in the modern world, religious freedom is reasonably secured only in those societies that are, or aspire to become, liberal democracies.

“7. The needed argument must address the overwhelming empirical evidence that democracy best advances . . . other elements of justice and social good. As to peace, democracies do not engage in the massive killing of their own citizens and do not go to war with one another. As to equality, democratic societies that give priority to liberty over equality do better by both liberty and equality than do societies that give priority to equality over liberty. As to virtue, societies that give priority to freedom over virtue do better by both freedom and virtue because, by definition, virtue must be free or it is not virtue. As to material prosperity, the case for democratic capitalism is beyond reasonable dispute. And so the list of components of the common good might be extended, each item subject to testing by the empirical evidence produced by societies that are liberal democracies and those that are not.

“8. There are clear and sometimes threatening alter- natives to liberal democracy. The only ideologically grounded, globally organized, and declaredly aggressive alternative to liberal democracy in today’s world is Marxist-Leninism. The Soviet Union and its subordinate forces are the primary bearer of that project. Whether its ideological self-understanding is firmly or widely believed today, it is the only ideology presently, and for the foreseeable future, available to those forces. The Soviet Union constitutes an evil empire. That it is an empire is evident by any normal use of the term. To say it is evil is to say, first of all, that it advances an evil proposal for the right ordering of the world, beginning with the denial of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. In stated purpose and in political fact, the Soviet Union is a totalitarian society in that the party-state claims, although it can never completely secure, total control over society and persons, which control it identifies with the meaning of history. The Soviet Union and its subordinate forces thus constitute the declared and primary enemy of liberal democracy in the contemporary world. That is the fact. Of course it is not a static fact and we can debate how much it is changing or can change, but in that debate we must never lose sight of the fact. Which policy specifics are appropriate to coping with this fact is the subject of continuing democratic deliberation.

“9. In addressing all the above questions . . . [we] should be clear about [our] motivations and expectations. We are not promoting the interests of our country or our side simply because they are ours; we are not ushering in the right ordering of the Kingdom of God; we are not reconstructing the world on the basis of biblical politics or biblical law. Rather, we are engaged in the responsible exercise of neighbor love. If the above considerations … are right, then democracy is very good for people. In addition, when people in the modern world have been given a chance to choose, they typically choose democracy. It may be regrettable that the political choices thrown up by this historical moment are liberal democracy and Leninist totalitarianism but, given that fact, we are morally bound to do what we prudently can to enhance [people's] chance to choose freedom.”

Readers interested in commenting on, criticizing, clarifying, or adding to the Neuhaus propositons are invited to write the editor. The most provocative responses will be printed in a future issue.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.