The Biblical and Christian Roots of Western Democracy
I did not know Sir Roger Scruton well and I cannot claim to be an expert in his thought, which ranged over so many fields. But we were colleagues when the Ethics and Public Policy Center became his American professional “home”, and I always enjoyed and learned from our conversations. So I am pleased to honor his memory with this modest paper.
There is a lot of historical myopia in the West today: a lot of historical forgetting and even more historical ignorance.
One example of this myopia or short-sightedness is the notion that what we know today as “the West” – democratic political communities and market economies in societies characterized by considerable personal freedom and social mobility – is a product of the various European Enlightenments: that “the West” we know today begins with Descartes, Adam Smith, the French Revolution, and the dominance of the scientific method as the paradigm of knowledge.
That is simply wrong. “The West” is far more than a set of institutionalized political and economic arrangements. “The West” is a civilizational project, and its roots reach back thousands of years, not mere centuries.
In this paper, I propose to sketch briefly the roots of “the West” in biblical religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, and then deepen the analysis by looking more closely at the biblical and Christian roots of the Western civilizational project. For without those roots, modern science, modern democracy, and modern market economics are historically inconceivable.
“The West” as a civilization is a project resting on three legs, which can be designated as “Jerusalem”, “Athens” and “Rome”.
Jerusalem: Biblical religion made many crucial contributions to “the West” but perhaps the most important of those contributions was the idea that history is linear and teleological. History is not cyclical or random; history is purposeful; history is going somewhere. That is why the fundamental image or icon of freedom in the civilization of the West is Exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land. Thus it was not an accident that Benjamin Franklin, one of the most Deistic of the American Founders, proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict that journey, including the “pillar of cloud by day” and the “pillar of fire by night” described in the biblical Book of Exodus (14.)
Athens: The second pillar sustaining “the West” as a civilization – and the democratic project that first emerged in the West – is the conviction that there are truths built into the world and into us, including moral truths; that we can know those truths with a measure of certainty; and that, knowing those truths, we can know our duties and obligations. That pillar was first erected by the classic philosophers of ancient Greece, beginning with the pre-Socratics and culminating in Aristotle.
Rome: And the third civilizational pillar sustaining the West and its democratic project was built in the Roman Republic: the conviction that the rule of law is superior to brute force or coercion in ordering human affairs. Needless to say, the Roman Republic lived that conviction imperfectly, as do all societies. But the idea was there; it was perhaps most forcefully defended by Cicero, a greater public philosopher than politician; and it is impossible to imagine what we know as “the West” and “democracy” today without it.
So: “The West” and the western democratic project cannot be understood simply as a set of institutional arrangements whose origins reach back no farther than the Continental, English, and Scottish Enlightenments. The roots of the West run far deeper – centuries, even millennia, deeper. And what we know as “the West” today – including its premier political form, democracy – is inconceivable without Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: without biblical religion’s concept of purposeful, linear history; without classic Greek philosophy’s confidence in the human capacity to get at the truth of things; without Roman convictions about the superiority of the rule of law. These are western civilizational bedrock. These are the deepest taproots of the democratic project.
Let me examine in more detail some of what biblical religion, and particularly Christianity, implanted in the culture we know as “the West” with effects being felt even to today.
The story of Jesus had an immense impact on forming the modern West. Before Jesus, the family, the primary unit of social and personal identity, was the locus of immortality: one “lived on” in one’s family. In Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, the individual becomes the locus of immortality – which gave a new meaning to “the individual”, who was now invested with a previously unimaginable dignity.
St. Paul drew out some of the implications of this in his teaching that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Before Jesus and Paul, the basic assumption governing society was the assumption of fixed, unchangeable, or “natural” human inequality. By stressing the equality of all in Christ, Christianity underwrote the fundamental norm of the equality of all in the modern West. This, in turn, led to a new sense of justice: justice must reflect moral equality rather than natural inequality.
Christianity desacralized the state, a process that began with Christ’s own injunction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (cf. Matthew 22:15-21). If there are things of God’s that are not Caesar’s, Caesar is not God, and Caesar is not omnipotent. If Caesar is not omnipotent, Caesar’s power is limited. If Caesar’s power is limited, Caesar’s remit does not run into the sanctuary of human conscience. There is no “West”, there is no democratic project, if the state remains sacred and if the state thinks of itself as omnicompetent. Christianity de-sacralized the state and Christian conviction limited the state; thus Christian conviction opened the social space for what we now call “civil society”.
Christianity redefined “heroism” and the human capacity for heroic virtue. Before the Christian martyrs, heroism was understood as an aristocratic virtue – think of Odysseus – and the typical classical hero was an aristocrat from a leading family: a strong and wily man, who was successful in human and material terms. The Christian martyrs changed all this. Martyr-heroes came from every social class, including the slave class. Martyr-heroes were women as well as men (as the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I) reminds us to this day. Martyr-heroes democratized heroism – their form of heroism was available to everyone, and their sacrifice spoke of a new form of self-respect that was not a function of class or sex.
The ancient world was smitten with physical perfection and found a model of that perfection in its athletes, who sought glory and acclaim from vast crowds in stadiums. The Christian monks of the East offered a different kind of grace and glory: the conquest of the will, in an “arena” in which the individual heard the voice of God, not the cheers of crowds. And thus another layer of human dignity and capacity was uncovered – the human capacity for interiority, for the contemplative, for an encounter with ultimate truths and ultimate reality inside the human person.
The Christian monks of Europe, for their part, gave the West new forms of human association – what we now call “voluntary associations” – and the first experiments in large-scale democratic self-governance. The Benedictine formula, ora et labora, also gave a new dignity to work, which had previously been understood as something servile – the province of slaves. Work, the monks insisted, had dignity; working for one’s living was also a mark of self-respect. Further, the process of electing abbots by universal suffrage within Benedictine monasteries offered the world a new model of authority, its source and its exercise. Thus western monasticism changed ideas of law and obedience to law, which were not matters of unexamined custom or brute force – law and obedience became associated with the role of conscience, with individual consent, and with a freely-associated community’s discernment of its own needs in terms of leadership.
Many of these developments received a first comprehensive articulation in the work of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions were the first autobiography in the modern sense of the term, and its telling of a story of personal wrestling with the truth of things opened up new depths of self-consciousness and self-examination, would prove crucial in forming western civilization and its unique capacity to be self-critical: a capacity essential to democracy. Then there is Augustine’s analysis of the human condition in The City of God, which helped strengthen the western understanding that it was possible to be oriented to a transcendent world, and responsible to transcendent truths, while being engaged in this world.
Christianity also reshaped the meaning of law and bent it in the direction we recognize today in the democratic West. By insisting on verdicts based on evidence rather than on physical tests or the testimony of relatives, first millennium Church councils such as several of the Councils of Toledo redefined criminal law in ways that point toward the norms of justice and the concepts of jurisprudence we expect in 21st-century democratic societies.
First millennium Church councils also condemned the notion that the natural world was the dwelling of spirits or demigods. This theological judgment had important implications for the development of science. For if the natural world is not mysteriously ordered (and disordered) by various supernatural powers, but rather behaves according to its own natural laws, then the natural world is open to rigorous empirical examination – the kind of examination that made possible what would later be known as the scientific method. (Some may find it curious that two of the most consequential scientific ideas of recent centuries – modern genetic theory, and the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe – began with the work of Catholic priests: the Czech Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel and the Belgian Georges Lemaître. Yet there is nothing odd about that at all. Far from being the enemy of science – a canard promoted by many black legends – Christianity helped make what we what we know as “science” possible by desacralizing the natural world).
The resolution of the 11th- and 12th-century Investiture Controversy – beginning with Pope St. Gregory VII’s confrontation with the King Henry IV – confirmed the Church’s right to govern itself and to make public pronouncements on moral issues. This lengthy controversy injected an anti-totalitarian antibody into the western civilizational bloodstream, thus further paving the historical path toward limited government, and ultimately toward republican forms of self-government.
And then there was one of Christianity’s great contribution to the world of learning: the university. The university as we know it is the child of the Church. In the medieval universities established in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Cracow, and Prague, the practice of disciplined, public debate on matters of great consequence took root in the civilizational soil of the West, with profound implications for democratic public life.
The list could be extended farther and deeper, but perhaps the point has been sufficiently made: the Christian roots of the western democratic project are deep, and deeply influential.
Is it possible to imagine the emergence of democracy as the predominant form of government in the West without the Christian conviction that all human beings are responsible moral agents, capable of virtue?
Could the democratic West as we know it have emerged without the Christian desacralization of the state and the Christian insistence on the independence of the Church, or the Christian concept of the universal applicability of rational norms of justice, or the Christian affirmation of voluntary, self-governing, free associations, or the Christian habit of rigorous self-examination?
In broader civilizational terms:
Is it possible to imagine modern economies without the Christian affirmation of the dignity of work and workers?
Is it possible to imagine modern science without the Christian desacralization of nature?
It is true that these biblical and Christian ideas took centuries to work their way into the texture of western society, including politics.
It is also true that these ideas were controversial, just as it is true that at particular historical moments the Church pushed back against the public implications of some of its own most powerful convictions.
But is it possible to imagine what we know as “the West” and as “democracy” today without these biblically-rooted ideas, as they were developed in Christianity? It seems very unlikely. The democratic project as we know it did not develop in Hindu, Mogul, or Confucian cultures, nor had it developed develop in the cultures that Europeans found in the western hemisphere in the sixteenth century.
The democratic project developed in cultural soil enriched by the biblical and Christian ideas, convictions, modes of life, and practices briefly outlined here.
And that, as Marxists used to say, “is not an accident”.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that one of the gravest threats to the 21st-century democratic project – the ideology of expressive individualism, according to which we are all mere bundles of morally equal desires, the satisfaction of which is the primary function of the state – has its roots in ideas promoted by Christian thinkers: specifically, William of Ockham’s nominalism and its emphasis on that the moral life is essentially a matter of will rather than reason.
The post-modern high culture of the West – and a lot of western popular culture, too – reflects a cult of individuality: a cult summed up in the Frank Sinatra song, “I did it my way”. The biblical and Christian roots of the western civilizational project point us toward something else, something nobler: they point us toward personalism, toward the idea of the human being as a rational, spiritual creature capable of moral agency (and thus of self-government) because the human person is capable of grasping the truth of things. A cult of individuality will eventually lead to decadence and to the erosion of the cultural foundations of democracy. A true understanding of the human person, however, points toward and sustains the democratic project.
Thus the reconstruction of a 21st-century public moral culture capable of sustaining the ongoing experiment in self-governance that is western democracy requires recovering the deepest and noblest roots of the western civilizational project, as the antidote to the decadence that threatens democracy today.
That recovery was one of Sir Roger Scruton’s concerns, as both a thinker and a public man. We honor his memory by taking up that task of recovery and renewal ourselves.
This article was originally published in the book entitled Tradition and Change. Scruton’s Philosophy and its Meaning for Contemporary Europe, European Conservatives and Reformists, Warszawa 2022.
Augustine, Saint. Confessiones. The Works of Saint Augustine. A Translation for the 21st Century, by John E. Rotelle et al., New City Press, 1991–2019, vol, 1.
Augustine, Saint. The City of Lord, The Works of Saint Augustine. A Translation for the 21st Century, by John E. Rotelle et al., New City Press, 1991–2019, vol. 6/7.
Bible, New Testament.
The Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I,