Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

The Medieval Christian Contribution to Western Democracy: Part One

July 19, 2008

The Middle Ages aren’t a period people would normally associate with democracy. This was, after all, the period when kings and princes ruled through hereditary right and military prowess and the mass of the population were landless serfs working on their estates. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out in the two articles on Judaism, Christianity and the origins of western democracy, the Bible expressed and commanded the fundamental values at the heart of democracy – the moral commitment to denounce tyranny and to work for the common welfare of humanity, and the idea that everyone is equal before God. These ideas continued into Christianity, which took over Roman constitutional theories of popular sovereignty.

In this essay I hope to continue my examination of the way Christianity contributed to the emergence of democracy through the establishment of limits on the power of monarchs. This was achieved through the notion that sovereignty belonged to the people, and was only delegated to princes. The idea of delegated authority, elaborated by Canon lawyers, strengthened the position of the consultative assemblies that had been called by monarchs as an instrument of government since the early Middle Ages, and allowed them to develop into parliaments. Canon lawyers also stressed that monarchs were bound by the law, and that the people were also the source of law in the case of the popular customs that comprised much of medieval law. Philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Aquinas considered monarchs and authorities should interfere as little as possible in popular customary law as too much legistlation and interference in custom weakened the law generally. The result was that by the end of the Middle Ages many states in Europe had developed parliaments and governmental assemblies to advise and check the power of the monarch, as well as other constitutional limits to their power.

In this first part of the essay I shall examine the strong sense of popular rights, which existed in the Middle Ages, the existence of medieval republics and monarchical states governed through parliamentary assemblies, such as the republic of Novgorod in Russia and the Italian city states. I will also discuss the existence of the feudal assemblies kings and princes had called to advise them and assist them in government since the France of Charlemagne, and how these developed into parliaments in England and Spain, noting that the papacy approved of these governmental assemblies and called and used similar assemblies in the government of its own territories, the papal states. Although Thomas Aquinas considered that monarchy was the best form of government, nevertheless he also argued that the best form of the state was a well-mixed constitution, which included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. His view that the sovereignty on which the monarch based his power belonged to his people was developed by later philosophers and theologians to justify the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler.

Medieval View of Popular Rights and Sovereignty

The Middle Ages also possessed a strong sense of popular rights, which the king was bound to uphold, and whose violation by the king was just cause for resistance to the sovereign. The Sachsenspiegel, a medieval 14th century law code, stated clearly that if the king acted contrary to the ‘good customs’ of the people, their resistance to him to recover their rights was not a rejection of their allegiance. 1 As kings owed their sovereignty to the people, the people therefore possessed the power to depose a corrupt or tyrannical king. Manegold of Lutterbach, defending Pope Gregory VII during the Investitures Contest with the German emperor, stated that ‘since no-one can create himself Emperor or King, the people elevates a single one person over itself to the end that he may rule and govern it according to the principle of righteous government; but if in any wise he transgresses the contract of which he is chose he absolves the people from the obligation of submission, because he has first broken faith with it.’ 2 The result of this conception of popular sovereignty was that by the end of the Middle Ages, some statesmen, philosopher, theologians and lawyers had developed constitutional theories of the people as the foundation of the state that come very close to the modern conception of popular democracy. The Seneschal of Burgundy, Philippe Pot, at a meeting of the French estates-general – a meeting of the representatives of the nobility, clergy and ‘third estate’ to discuss the state of France after the death of Louis XI, declared that in the case of a king who was unable to govern, the right to rule lay in all the people, not just a few.

‘I wish to tell you, as far as my intelligence will allow me, what I have learned from great and wise men on the authority and the liberty of States. It is certain that the royal power is a dignity and not the property (haereditas) of the prince. History relates that at the first the sovereign people created Kings by its vote. It is in its own interest that each nation gave itself a master. The whole world repeats that the state is the creation of the people. If it is so, how could the people abandon its charge? How can flatterers attribute supreme power to the prince who exists only in virtue of the people? That being so, what is the power in France which has the right of governing when the king is incapable of doing so? Clearly this task reverts neither to a sole prince, nor a handful of men, but to all, that is the people, the giver of power. This task it must take up as it were its own, all the more so because it is always the victim, the sole victim of a bad government.’ 3

Republic of Novgorod Ruled by Governmental Assembly

The vast majority of European states remained feudal monarchies, ruled by kings and princes, though with governmental institutions that limited their power and represented the interests of the wider people. A very few states, however, did develop a very democratic character very much like the later constitution monarchies in which kingship was limited by representative, elected governmental institutions. 12th century Novgorod has been described as a republic. Historians have considered that its constitution ‘may be characterized as a democracy limited to a certain extent by the interests of the upper classes – de facto, if not de jure.’ 4

In Novgorod, sovereignty rested in the city, described as ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’, rather than the prince. This sovereignty was exercised through the veche, the city assembly, which met either in the square before the Prince’s Palace or in front of the cathedral of St. Sophia. These meetings were called by the tolling of the cathedral bell. 5 The male head of every free family in Novgorod had the right to vote, with the exception of slaves and the smerdy, free peasants who were under the authority of the local prince, or in the case of Novgorod, the city itself. 6 Laws could only be passed with the unanimous consent of the assembled citizens. To prevent the appearance of violent conflict between competing factions in the absence of a clear majority, the veche possessed a ruling committee of 300 members, chaired by the archbishop, called ‘the Lords’, composed of the prince’s lieutenant, senior municipal officials and the local boyar aristocracy, with the duty of preparing bills for debate in the veche. 7

The two most important officials were the mayor, termed the posadnik, and the chiliarch or tysiatsky. The posadnik was responsible for the city’s government, though he was also chief justice for legal disputes over land. The tysiatsky, however, commanded the city militia and was the chief justice for commercial law. Both posadnik and tysiatsky were elected for brief, but unspecified periods of time, though they could be re-elected, and continued to hold considerable authority even after leaving office. 8 The city was further divided into five autonomous boroughs or communes, each of whom elected their own mayor, called a starosta or elder. 9

Constitutional Limits Power of the Prince in Novogord

Although the city was ruled by a Grand Duke, the prince’s right to rule was strictly limited by city’s constitution. From 1136 onwards princes and their non-Novgorodian retainers could not own estates within the state of Novgorod. In 1196 a congress of Russian princes recognised that the people of Novgorod had the right to elect their own prince, provided that the elected prince should always be a member of the House of Riurik. Each prince on his accession to power, was required to sign a contract with the people of Novgorod in which he formally recognised the prohibition against him and his retainers owning land in Novgorod. He also recognised that the people of Novgorod had the right to elect city officials without interference from the prince, that these official could not be dismissed by him without a trial by either a court or the veche, and that the veche, not the prince, was the supreme judicial authority. 10

Condemnation of Slavery, Existence of Serfdom by Church and Recognition of Women’s Rights in Novgorod

While the Church strengthened the authority of princes through the example of the strict subordination of its members in its organisational hierarchy, it also acted to preserve some freedom by condemning complete slavery and supporting the social class of izgoi. 11 These were mostly freedmen, though they also included priest’s sons who remained illiterate, bankrupt merchants and orphaned princes, who had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living. The Church protected them from re-enslavement and gave them a livelihood by granting them church land, for which they paid rent and services and to which they were tied. They were thus serfs under the jurisdiction of the church. 12

Kievan Russia also recognised women as possessing rights. The ‘Church Statute’ of Yaroslav the Wise, compiled in the 13th century, punished with a fine the man who stole his wife’s hemp, flax, linen or other fabrics. Husbands were fined if they committed adultery, and parents were held responsible for the death of a daughter if she committed suicide after being forced to marry against her consent. 13 Women also were able to hold property and inherit property in their own right. 14

Limits on the Power of the Monarchy in Kievan Russian Polictical Philosophy

There was no comprehensive treatise on government in Kievan Russia, though some of the political ideas of that period in Russian history can be found in the sermons and correspondence of Russian clergy. All of them accepted the institution of monarchy, but every discussion of the powers of the monarch stated that the ruler was bound by the law. The monk Iakov, in his epistle to Prince Dmitry of c. 1072, stated that the ruler should retain his guiding principles, even when threatened with force, and should not permit any arbitrariness in his government.

Contemporary discussions of the nature of government and royal power did not recommend any particular legislation limiting royal power. They did not mention the democratic institutions of the republic of Novgorod, and so political theory was in many ways behind the reality. 15 However, Russian chronicles such as the Book of Annals considered that in order to rule well, a wise prince should surround himself with good councillors and pay attention to the Duma, the council of the boyar aristocracy. Similarly, the institution of the veche as the popular legal assembly was recognised. The Laurentian edition of the Book of Annals, compiled in the 14th century, states that ‘From aboriginal times, the Novgorodians, as well as the Smolensk, and the Kiev, and the Polotsk men, and the people of other lands, used to assemble for the veche for the deliberation of their affairs.’ 16 It was considered that there was a moral pact between the prince and his people. If the people were corrupt, then the prince had a duty to correct and punish them. If the prince was evil, he should be overthrown and replaced with a better ruler. 17

Republican Institutions and Government through Councils of Citizens in Italian City States

Novgorod was remarkable in the extent to which it had limited the power of the monarch and developed democratic, republican institutions, but not unique. The mid- and late thirteenth century saw Italian mercantile cities such as Florence and Perugia similar throw off the power of local feudal lords to become republics. The Italian republics had originally been communes, towns, which had acquired a degree of autonomy, governing themselves through a municipal guild. Such towns had been established across Western Europe in countries such as France, Flanders, Germany, England and Scotland during the urban revival of towns in the 11th and 12th centuries. Originally the Italian communes had been governed by a parliament of all the citizens, the arenga, and a class of administrative officials, the consuls. By the early thirteenth century, however, the consuls had been replaced by a single official, the podesta, who functioned as a kind of ‘town manager’. 18 The supreme authority in the commune, however, was the guild or popolo. This was governed at first by a captain, and then, by the late 13th century, a number of guild officials called priors. 19 These city states then passed a series of legislation excluding the feudal aristocracy from power. In Florence in 1293 the citizens established the post of Standard-bearer of Justice, or Gonfaloniere de Giustizia with the responsibility of punishing crimes by the local aristocracy. A magnate who killed a member of the guild automatically received the death penalty. His house would be destroyed and his property confiscated. If he vanished and could not be found, his next of kin was liable to be punished in his place. As aristocrats could not be members of the guilds, they were unable to hold office as priors. 20

Independent Towns Ruled by Councils in Medieval France and Flanders

Similar communes with a high degree of independence existed in north-western France and Flanders, where the ruling officials were termed echevins. These had originally been appointed by the towns’ feudal lords to dispense justice. After these towns gained their independence from their feudal overlords, the echevins formed the cities’ governing councils. Originally appointed by the lords for life, their term in office was now limited to one year, though in practice towns such as Ghent rotated the office among a strictly limited number of individuals, so that while it was in theory governed by a council of thirteen, it was in fact ruled by an oligarchy of 39 leading citizens. 21

Development of Feudal Councils as Part of Royal Government into Parliamentary Assemblies in Middle Ages

Medieval political theorists, however, generally considered monarchy to be the best form of government. As God was monarch of the universe, so secular monarchs were considered to be limited representations of God’s lordship of the cosmos. Medieval political theory stressed the goal of social unity, and considered this could only be achieved through the government of a single individual. 22 In practice, however, the power of the king was limited through consultative assemblies of his lords and vassals, such as the witangemot, or council of wise men in Anglo-Saxon England, and the feudal grand council of nobles elsewhere in Europe. Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, in his treatise on royal government, The Government of the Palace, written in 818 for Charlemagne’s grandson, Carloman, gave a detailed description of the operation of the royal feudal assembly in France. 23 This met twice a year. In winter, a small number of experienced councillors met to consider the issues that would need to be discussed at the main meeting in the summer. It was during the plenary meeting of the main summer council, usually held in the afternoon and attended both by the great magnates and the lesser lords, that the issues and legislation proposed by the Frankish emperor were heard and occasionally discussed. It was after the assembled lords had confirmed them that the king’s proposals formally became law. 24 Individual lords attending the assembly were questioned by the king whether there were any complaints or dissatisfaction in his part of the kingdom, which the assembly needed to deal with. Thus, Frankish kings used the assembly to deal with popular unrest before it could escalate into rebellion. 25

The thirteenth century saw the appearance of such grand councils as an established governmental institution in England, Aragon and Castile. These assemblies – parliament in England, and the cortes in Spain – originally could only advise the king and had no power to block royal legislation. Nevertheless, they were de facto limitations of the royal power, and indicated the possibility of further constitutional developments. 26 In Aragon, each of the three constituent provinces had its own cortes, representing the clergy, nobility and the towns. These met every three years, regardless of the wishes of the monarch. During the 14th century, Catalonia, then Aragon and Valencia, established a standing committee, the generalitat. This was originally responsible for supervising that the grants of money made by the assembly were properly spent, but soon acquired judicial and military functions. Royal power was further limited in Aragon by the justicia, which was elected by the minor aristocracy to protect their interests from attack by royal officers. 27 The great law code compiled by Alfonso X of Castile, the Siete Partidas, stated that while only kings, emperor or the deputies could make laws, this could only be done in counsel with the good, most honoured and learned men in the kingdom. 28

Similar assemblies were called by the emperor Frederick II in Foggia for the southern kingdom of Italy in 1232, including representatives from the towns; by William of Holland in the Rhineland from 1247-56, and by Pope Innocent III in the Papal States in 1207. Indeed, similar meetings were held regular in some provinces of the papal states in the second half of the thirteenth century. 29 These early parliamentary assemblies chiefly represented only the aristocracy, knights and the new urban industrial and mercantile classes. The peasants, who constituted the vast majority of the medieval population, were generally excluded from them. Remarkably, some provincial assemblies, such as the provincial diets of Tyrol and Wurttemberg in Germany, did include the peasants. 30 This was extremely unusual, considering the strongly hierarchical nature of medieval European feudal society. Nevertheless, it illustrates how these early governmental assemblies had the potential to develop something like the character of a democratic parliament.

Concern by Papacy for Royal Justice

While the struggles between popes and emperors for political ascendancy are one of the most important and recurring features of medieval history, the papacy was nevertheless genuinely concerned to ensure that secular monarchy was the source of justice. When Charles of Anjou ascended to the throne of Sicily and Naples, he received a letter from Pope Clement IV advising him on how to rule justly. The pope advised that royal judges should be incorruptible, with a salary and sitting daily. Complaints against royal officials should be investigated rapidly, by an official, either a monk or a good-natured knight, who was specifically responsible for handling them. The king should take innocent people hostage, or make them pay for those who were genuinely guilty. During inquiries about royal rights, the burden of proof should only be placed on the subjects in reasonable circumstances. Furthermore, the king should not abuse his feudal rights to interfere in the marriage of his tenants’ daughters. He was also advised to find a solution to the problem of that year’s taxes through agreement with his barons, clergy and townspeople. 31 Thus in practical politics the papacy here was concerned to ensure that Charles of Anjou governed well as a feudal monarch through just, efficient administration and a process of consultation and agreement with his vassals.

View of Aquinas that Best Constitution included Element of Democracy

Thomas Aquinas also made a contribution to political theory, particularly in his treatises On Kingship and the Treatise on Law. Although he strongly supported monarchy as the best form of government, nevertheless in the answer to the question ‘Whether the Old Law Enjoined Fitting Precepts Concerning Rulers?’ Aquinas considered that the Mosaic Law provided for the inclusion of a democratic element in government. 32 In his discussion of the nature of the state and the best type of government, Aquinas combined Aristotelian political theory with the contemporary, medieval view of government, supporting his conclusions with reference to scripture. Historians have therefore considered that ‘in his writings is to be found the same characteristically medieval blend of classical influences with those of contemporary society: his views on politics comprise in essence an attempt to apply a Christianized version of Aristotle’s thought to the feudal monarchies of his own day.’ 33

Monarchy the Best Form of Government in Aquinas

Aquinas considered that the best institution or process was always one that most closely corresponded to a natural process. Monarchy was the best form of government, because in nature government was always by a single entity. Thus, according to Aquinas, the human body was moved only by one organ, the heart, the human soul possessed a single, ruling faculty in reason, bees had one ruler, and there was only one God in the universe. 34 Monarchy was further better than democracy or oligarchy, because government by a single person could promote unity in peace, while government by many produced dissension and conflict. He considered that experience demonstrated that the cities and provinces, which were not ruled by a single person, were therefore subject to division and political turmoil. Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s view that the majority of people were unable of attaining moral standards. Moreover, humans possessed a great variety of talents. Some were more talented than others. Aquinas considered that government should always be by the best individuals, a principle that could clearly justify monarchy, aristocracy or rule by a military elite. 35 Thus, Aquinas himself was not a supporter of democracy, and indeed considered the best form of government to be a monarchy.

Support for Democratic Ideas of Human Equality and the Direction of the law to the Common Good in Aquinas

Nevertheless, Aquinas also provided support for democracy through his philosophical views on human equality, the necessity of working towards the common good, and particularly his idea of the constitution of a well-mixed regime. Christianity, like Judaism, maintained the Biblical view of the fundamental equality of the human race before the Lord. Aquinas supported this view with the argument in his work, Being and Essence, based on Aristotelian philosophy, that there was one, universal human essence, which was abstracted from all the differences of individual humans. 36 Aquinas was also influenced by Aristotle’s Politics that the essential goal of political organisation, institutions and policies should be the common good. The common good was the standard governing everything from the imposition of taxation to the constitution of states. 37 Thus, in his Treatise on Law, in his answer to the question, ‘Whether the reason of any man is competent to make laws’, Aquinas stated

‘A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the vice-gerent of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.’ 38

View of Aquinas that Rulers Govern on Behalf of their People Source of View that People Have Right to Depose Unjust Monarchs

Thomas Gilbey, in his 1966 translation of Aquinas’ writings on law and political theory, noted that the term ‘vice gerent’ was derived from the Latin phrase ‘gerere vicem’, to act on behalf of someone. The vice-gerent was thus, for Aquinas, ‘the public personage, the figure who personifies the community, and is its guardian and, in the fullest sense, its caretaker.’ 39 If the government was not directed towards the common good of the majority of citizens, but only towards the private good of the ruler, it was unjust and the ruler was clearly a tyrant. 40 Aquinas further supported his argument on this point by quoting Ezekiel 34:2 ‘Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks’ 41 It has been noted that Aquinas in this passage does not recommend that the ruler should consult with the people before passing a law, only that he does so as the representative of the whole community. 42 Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theologians and political theorists such as Cardinal Cajetan, Cardinal Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez based their views on the limitation of the power of the monarchy on this passage. Cajetan considered that while the Pope could not be deposed, he therefore had the power to depose secular rulers. Bellarmine considered that no single individual possessed power, but it belonged to the people as a whole. Suarez went further and argued that the most natural form of government was democracy, because it required no institution, while all other forms of government were the result of a conventional institution. 43

Thus the medieval view that kings were bound by the law and that sovereignty ultimately lay in the people, rather than the monarch, resulted in the idea that unjust kings could be legitimately deposed. As a result, republics emerged during the Middle Ages, like the Italy city states and the republic of Novgorod, which were ruled by governmental assemblies. Monarchies, such as those of England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy also included parliamentary assemblies in their governmental systems. Although monarchy was considered the best system of government, nevertheless Thomas Aquinas strongly argued for human equality and provided the philosophical and theological arguments that formed the basis for the views of later philosophers and theologians that the monarch could be legitimately deposed by the sovereign people or the papacy as a check on immoral or corrupt government.

In the second part of the essay I will examine the way Aquinas, although he considered monarchy to be the best form of government, nevertheless also argued that the best form of constitution included features of aristocracy and democracy, as well as monarchy. I will also discuss the way the view of Aquinas and the Canon lawyers that the people were also the source of law in the case of the customary law which operated in medieval Europe, and that as law was innately rational, unreasonable laws had no force. I will also discuss the emergence of the Conciliarist movement, which attempted to govern the church through a system of ecumenical councils that were superior to the papacy, and the philosophical and theological link this had with the development of secular political assemblies. Medieval Canon law provided the basis for the authority of such advisory councils and governmental assemblies on behalf of the wider community through its notion of mandated authority, developed to allow ecclesiastical authorities to make decisions on behalf of the wider church. I will also discuss the theological views articulated by the English peasants in the Peasant’s Revolt that serfdom should be abolished as all humans had been created equal. Although the medieval governmental assemblies were strongly oligarchic, with membership reserved for nobles, knights and members of the urban elite, nevertheless these provided the foundation for later parliamentary democracy while the Conciliarist movement may have inspired and provided the basis for the arguments of the parliamentarians during the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. Thus the constitutional theories developed by philosophers, theologians and lawyers during the Middle Ages formed the basis for modern, parliamentary democracy.

Notes

  1. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’ in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 526.
  2. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 529.
  3. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 531.
  4. George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (New Haven, Yale University Press 1948), p. 199.
  5. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 198.
  6. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 144, 198, 199.
  7. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 198-9.
  8. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 199.
  9. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 199-200.
  10. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 197-8.
  11. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 205.
  12. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 153-4.
  13. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 156.
  14. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, pp. 155-6.
  15. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 288.
  16. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 289.
  17. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia, p. 289-90.
  18. Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther, Second Edition (London, Longman 1985), p. 21
  19. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 22.
  20. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 21.
  21. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 23.
  22. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 518.
  23. Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London, Longman 1992), p. 43.
  24. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 46.
  25. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 48.
  26. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 10.
  27. ‘The Rise of Spain and Portugal’ in Esmond Wright, History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, Newnes Books 1985), p. 498.
  28. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 7.
  29. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 10.
  30. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.
  31. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 6.
  32. John P. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books 2002), p. 50.
  33. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
  34. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 9.
  35. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 50.
  36. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 44.
  37. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
  38. St. Thomas Aquinas, cited in Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 42.
  39. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Law and Political Theory, Thomas Gilbey, ed. and trans., in Blackfriars vol. 28 (New York, McGraw-Hill 1966), cited in Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 47.
  40. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 8.
  41. Ezekiel 34:2, in the Bible, KJV (London, Collins), p. 799.
  42. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 47.
  43. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, pp. 40-1.

The Bible, Judaism and Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 2

July 6, 2008

In the first part of this blog post I attempted to describe how, while ancient Israel certainly did not possess the institutions of the modern democratic state, nevertheless the revelation of the Bible established the moral values essential to democracy in the notions of human equality before the Lord, concern for human welfare and opposition to tyranny based on God’s justice. These values were maintained, practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity. In this section I’m going to discuss how the early Church further developed these values to form the basis of the modern idea of the democratic state.

Adoption of Roman View of Popular Sovereignty By Early Christianity, but Only Secure Basis for Society God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity

The early Christians also adopted the view of contemporary Roman jurists and political philosophers that laws derived their authority through popular sovereignty. This view was developed particularly by Cicero, Seneca, the Cynics and the Stoics. This viewed the state, and the ability of each individual to participate in politics, as based on the common rationality in humanity and the universe. For the Roman lawyers, society was based on private, autonomous individuals, whose rights had to be respected and to whom justice was due because of their common humanity and rationality, regardless of how they were regarded or held by their fellow citizens, or their own ability to use force to enforce their will on others. 45 The early Church adopted the idea of human society as composed of rational creatures, and that the people were the true source of law. St. Augustine thus wrote in the City of God that ‘a populus is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love; in order to discover the character of any society, we have only to observe what they love.’ 46 For Augustine, however, the most secure basis for society and law was the love of God and the divine command to love one’s neighbour amongst the people, rather than just human rationality itself. Thus St. Augustine declared in the Epistle to Volusianus

‘Here (in Jesus Christ’s summary of the Law and the prophets in the double command to love God and one’s neighbour) is the basis for an admirable commonwealth; for a society can neither be ideally founded nor maintained unless upon the basis and by the bond of faith and strong concord, when the object of love is the universal good which in its highest and truest character is God Himself, and when men love one another with complete sincerity in Him, and the ground of their love for one another is the love of Him from whose eyes they cannot conceal the spirit of their love.’ 47

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman Law and its precepts were replaced by customary law, until it was rediscovered by the Church’s canon lawyers in the 12th century. Nevertheless, the Church insisted that kings and princes had a duty to society as a whole through the maintenance of peace and justice, protecting the weak and encouraging and securing love and charity between people. This prepared European society for the revival of the doctrine of popular sovereignty when western European scholars returned to studying Roman Law. 48 The beginning of all Roman legal doctrine from the 12th century onwards was the statement by the Roman lawyer Ulpian, which reached western Europe through Justinian’s Digest, that ‘The prince’s decision has the force of law; inasmuch as by the royal law passed concerning his authority the people has invested him with the whole of its own authority and power.’ 49 Thus the Roman doctrine of popular sovereignty, which became the basis of modern western democracy through the political philosophy of John Locke, was adopted, preserved, and made the basis of western political theory again by Christianity.

Sole Purpose of Authority to Promote Peace and Harmony

Although the early Church recognised that human society required authority, philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine and Theodoret believed that the sole rightful purpose for such authority was to maintain order and promote harmony and tranquillity. As rulers derived their authority ultimately from God, individuals motivated solely by a desire to rule, rather than promote justice, had no rightful authority. 50 similarly, while the Church itself was hierarchical and stressed obedience to authority, nevertheless it considered that its clergy should rule from a sense of service to the community, rather than a desire for personal power. St. Augustine stated that

‘Those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power but from a sense of duty – not because they love authority, but because they love mercy.’ 61

Indeed, St. Augustine considered that any member of the clergy who ruled purely from a desire a power had automatically disqualified himself from holding office, as ‘he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop!’ 62

Origin of Separation of Church and State in St. Augustine

St. Augustine further prepared Western society for the separation of church and state that is a part of modern, secular democratic politics. Although the late Roman Empire saw itself very much as a Christian state, in which the church and religious belief and worship were essential institutions and included amongst the secular governmental institutions as a vital aspect of the state, a situation that continued in the new states of the Middle Ages that succeeded the Roman Empire, the early Church distinguished between itself and secular authority. St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century in his letters to the emperor Theodosius denied that secular officials had any authority over the Church, whose clergy and property were outside imperial authority.

St. Augustine developed this idea still further in the City of God. While he accepted that society and sovereignty derived from the people, he denied that justice was the ratio, the basis, of the state. 53 As justice derived from God and so lay beyond the state, so humanity’s duty to God superseded their duty to the state. The state may indeed possess and promote justice abundantly, but this was not the essential basis of the state. 54 Indeed, St. Augustine himself had a very negative view of the state. It was only justice that distinguished kingdoms from robbery on a massive scale, and asked ‘for what are robberies but little kingdoms?’ Humans, because of their sinful nature, hated the idea of their equality before God, and so tried to usurp God’s authority by imposing their will on their fellow humans. ‘Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God.’ It was because of his sinful nature that man, ‘as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men.’ The state existed to protect human society from such tyrants, but was not in itself fundamentally and absolutely just. 55 Furthermore, as states themselves were transient, rising and falling naturally during the course of history, they therefore required the instruction and education of the Church, which was separate from the state and eternal. Thus in the view of the historian Richard Fletcher, by drawing this distinction between church and state, and secular and religious authority St. Augustine ‘detached the state – any state, but in particular, of course, the Roman State – from the Christian community. Under his hands the Roman Empire became theological neutral.’ 56

Church’s Duty to Condemn Oppression, including that of Roman Emperors

Even before St. Augustine, the Church had considered its duty to criticise and punish tyranny and the abuse of power, even when such acts were ordered by the very highest authority, such as the emperor himself. In 390 the emperor Theodosius ordered a massacre of 7,000 citizens assembled at a circus in Thessalonica in reprisal for the murder of a member of the military garrison there. St. Ambrose of Milan strongly condemned the massacre, and in a letter to Theodosius warned him to repent or he would withhold Holy Communion from him. He stated ‘I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.’ 57 Theodosius gave in to St. Ambrose’s moral authority, and duly did public penance for the atrocity in Milan cathedral, thus conceding the moral superiority of the Church over the state.

Early Church Doctrine therefore Opposed to Modern Ideas of Totalitarian State

While this prefigured the struggles between Church and state, and popes and emperors to assert their authority and superiority over the other during the Middle Ages, it also directly undermines the concept of the totalitarian state that was fundamental to the Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. These were based on the Hegelian idea that the state represented the highest expression of the forces of history and the divine mind, and so the citizen owed the state his absolute allegiance. The early Church, by making a distinction between Church and state, and declaring that the state was not fundamentally just and that it was subordinate to God and the Church, directly contradicted and attacked the idea of such absolute states.

Membership of Early Church Open to Everyone, Regardless of Gender, Wealth or Nationality

The early Church also differed from contemporary Roman society in that it was open to all members of society, regardless of social rank and gender. In secular Roman society, philosophy and the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christianity, were largely confined to leisured aristocrats, while the Mystery religions similarly confined their membership to the initiated. Catholic Christianity, however, was open to anyone who wished to join it and share in the knowledge and worship of Christ. Arnobius Afer stated Christianity’s universal mission to all humanity in the words:

‘Does not He (Jesus Christ) free all alike who invites all alike: or does He thrust back or repel any one from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him-to men of high rank, to the meanest slaves, to women, to boys? To all, he says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking.’ 58 While pagan opponents of Christianity such as Celsus viewed it with contempt because the Church’s members came from the lower sections of Roman society without a formal education, Christian apologists such as Athenagoras considered it to be a positive aspect of Christianity, that it included people from such sections of society, who lived exemplary lives despite their lack of a formal education. Athenagoras stated

‘Among us (the Christians) you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from the persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed they do not go to the law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.’ 59

The early Church’s concern and mission to all sections of Roman society also led it to criticise the restriction of philosophy and intellectual activity to the aristocratic elites. For theologians and apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, everyone had the right to study the Gospel and philosophy, regardless of their social rank, gender or race:

‘Both slave and free must equally philosophise, whether male or female in sex … whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman … And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue.’60

Advocacy of Freedom of Conscience in Early Church

As well as declaring that every person was capable of receiving the Gospel and so should have the freedom to join the Church, early Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Lactantius and Hilary of Poitiers also argued for freedom of conscience in their criticisms of their persecution by the Roman state. The Church itself became increasingly repressive of rival faiths and controlled intellectual activity after its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, these arguments were revived during the Reformation by religious writers, theologians and politicians such as William Penn to create the religious tolerance that eventually resulted in the freedom of conscience that is a fundamental part of modern democratic liberty. 61

Furthermore, although the Church later did much to suppress individual freedom, it also did much to introduce the individual, subject view of the individual into political debate and discussion. In the ancient world, the wellbeing of the individual was frequently identified with that of society as a whole, with the effect that there was little discussion of the freedom of the individual as an ideal, rather than a political reality. However, Christianity introduced the idea of the importance of the individual through the doctrine of the fundamental sanctity of every human life. This was further developed in Western philosophy by the introduction by St. Augustine of the ‘first-person standpoint’ as a fundamental feature of the search for truth according to the historian Charles Taylor. 62 This concern for the subjective, first-person view is demonstrated most clearly by Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions.

Election of Bishops in Early Christianity

The early Church was also democratic in that originally the bishops were elected by the whole of the Christian community of each diocese, both clergy and laypeople. 63 Cyprian states that this was the practice in almost all the provinces of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. 64 The idea and practice of popular suffrage, through which the people of a diocese could directly choose their bishop, was taken from general Roman electoral practice, such as in the election of secular magistrates. Jews similarly had adopted such electoral practices in the election of synagogue officials. Nevertheless, the Church differed from pagan society in that women and slaves also had a right to vote. 65 Eventually, however, the direct election of bishops declined along with secular democracy. There was opposition to it within the Church by leading members of the clergy, such as Origen. Origen criticised it for the bribery, corruption and factionalism in contemporary popular Episcopal elections that resulted in the appointment of unsuitable candidates who were more interested in power and the financial advantages rather than scholarship and truly ministering to the spiritual needs of their congregation. As a result of such electoral corruption, bishops were succeeded by their brothers or sons. 66 The gradual abolition of the direct election of bishops by the people helped to prevent the post becoming hereditary, and so allowed individuals from other sections of society, such as peasants, to be appointed to the post. 67

The election of the clergy by the congregation returned in Western Christianity with the establishment of the orders of pastors, doctors, elders and deacons by Jean Calvin in the Reformed Church, modelled on what he considered to be the governmental structure of the early Church as found in Scripture. This was remarkably democratic in that these clergy were elected, rather than appointed to office. 68 Although the practise of electing officials was confined to the Church, rather than recommended for society as a whole, nevertheless it was a major contribution to the emergence of democracy in Europe through the notion that ordinary Christians could elect their clergy, who then had the power to criticise the moral failings of their social superiors.

Early Church not Democratic, also Responsible for Intolerance and Oppression, but also Shares Common Democratic Values

The early Church’s conception of society as a family meant that it did not develop an idea of the complete freedom of the individual similar to that in modern political theory. Instead, the early Church viewed individual freedom as limited by the demands and requirements of the wider society of the Church, and the claims of others upon the individual’s love and service. As human liberty was also limited by the divine origin of authority, the Church and European society generally could become extremely repressive with the individual possessing very little freedom. 69 Indeed, the early Church was certainly not a democracy. It accepted the inequalities in wider Roman society, even slavery. 70 Historians have particularly criticised the early Church for its intolerance, and suppression and persecution of different faiths and minorities, such as heretics and Jews. 71 Nevertheless, despite the fact that the early Church was not democratic, historians have argued that it was concerned with all the same fundamental values of democracy, and creating a vital, existential frame of reference within which it was possible to achieve human happiness. 72

Christianity and democracy, it has been argued, are both based on the idea of objectively true, moral values. They both demand that freedom should be limited in the interests of equality and the general welfare of the community, and that equality should similarly be limited in the interests of social harmony and efficiency. They are also opposed to the fragmentation of human society produced by, for example, imperialism, racism, statism, provincialism and class warfare. Both Christianity and democracy also demand that humans be treated as ends in themselves, and not simply as means. In their view that the proper end of human conduct and effort should be the welfare of humanity, both Christianity and democracy are concerned with ordinary people and ‘the disinherited, and submerged groups in every society’. 73

Christianity and Democracy Both Opposed to Totalitarianism and Oppression

The early Church scholar, Albert C. Outler of Duke University, speaking at a conference of American academics, scholars and politicians from science, philosophy, the humanities, arts and Jewish and Christian religions in 1940 concerned with defending democracy from attack from Nazism, Fascism and Communism, declared that Christianity and democracy would remain separate. However, both Christianity and democracy had a strong interest in the international situation, and so in his view had much to offer each other. Indeed he concluded that democracy needed the support of religion, just as religion needed the support of democracy.

‘I do not see how a democratic order can be achieved or remain uncorrupted without a religious undergirding; I do not doubt that democratic order is the best political means to the end of a religious community. The cross-fertilization which a vital Christianity and a genuine democracy could achieve would greatly aid the cause of humanity and serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.’ 74

Fundamental Democratic Values derived from Bible and Hebrew-Christian Tradition, which Opposes Oppression and Tyranny

This concern with the fundamental values that are the basis of democracy is also shared with Judaism. It is derived from the witness of the Bible to God’s love and concern for humanity and the equal value of everyone, regardless of their race, sex or economic status, before the Lord. The Biblical scholar Millar Burrows, speaking at the 1940 conference attempting to combat the totalitarian attack on democracy, stated that the Bible’s respect for people’s rights and personalities, their common, human nature regardless of differences in gender, race and social rank, and the social responsibilities people have towards their fellows and to society as a whole, rather than in the development of specific societal, industrial or political institutions, were ‘the indispensable basis spiritual basis for a true and enduring democracy.’ 75 For Millar the Hebrew-Christian tradition’s great contribution to democracy lay in ‘its fundamental conception of the nature of man and of his relation to his Maker and to his fellow-man.’ 76 This concern is encapsulated in the Lord’s summary of the Mosaic Law linking one’s duty to love the Lord with one’s whole person and one’s neighbour as oneself. For Millar, the Hebrew-Christian conception of humanity and its relationship to God and its fellow people had made it the absolute opponent of tyrants throughout history, and made its continued presence in human history and society a threat to tyrannical regimes that they sought to eradicate.

‘It is this that has made the Old and New Testaments the deathless foes of all dictators in all subsequent ages. The righteous God of the Bible towers so far above all earthly powers that none of them counts for anything in His presence. The humblest man is equal to the mightiest prince before God. Moses can defy Pharaoh, Nathan can rebuke David, Elijah can challenge Ahab, Jeremiah can oppose Jehoiakim, the humble Maccabees can brave the terrible anger of the Macedonian despot. In the presence of the living God of Israel right always outweighs might. Tyranny can never tolerate the cultivation of the Hebrew-Christian tradition.’ 77

Conclusion: Democracy Recent, Created Partly through Biblical and Christian View of Society Based on God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity, which Still Provides Powerful Support for Democratic Politics

While democratic political and social institutions have taken millennia to emerge, they were created in part through the attempts of philosophers, theologians and ordinary men and women to establish a society based on the Biblical concern for a truly just society, based on God’s concern for humanity, their value as individuals, and their responsibilities to each other. This conception of a society based on God’s justice and humans’ responsibilities to the Lord and each other inspired prophets and saints to criticise, condemn and oppose tyrants, and from the Middle Ages onwards led people to attempt to create political institutions to restrain tyranny and promote freedom, a goal that eventually resulted in the emergence of political democracy in the West. Democracy is separate from Christianity, but linked to it through the fundamental concern of justice and humanity that are common to both, so that Christianity, although it has also supported tyrants, is also, and continues to be a vital source of support for democracy itself.

Notes

  1. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 453.
  2. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX:24, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  3. St. Augustine, Epistle to Volusianus 137:17, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  4. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 384.
  5. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 385.
  6. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 460.
  7. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  8. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  9. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  10. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  11. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 13.
  12. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, H. Holt & Co, 1998), p. 29, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 13.
  13. St. Ambrose of Milan, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 10.
  14. Arnobius Afer, Against the Heathen, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 462.
  15. Athenagoras, ‘A Plea for the Christians’ xi, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 461.
  16. Clement of Alexandria in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p.2.
  17. Tertullian, cited in William Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and other Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner (London, J.M Dent 1993), p. 179; Lactantius and Hilary, against Auxentius, cited in Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in Penn, Peace of Europe, ed. Bronner, p. 182.
  18. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Makings of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press 1989), pp. 131-33, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 14.
  19. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 299.
  20. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century Ad to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 506).
  21. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 508.
  22. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 511.
  23. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  24. G.R. Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (London, Fontana 1963), pp. 226, 227.
  25. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 459.
  26. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 458.
  27. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 465-7.
  28. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 469-70.
  29. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  30. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  31. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  32. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  33. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.

Judaism, Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 1

July 6, 2008

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement of modern western political theory was the emergence of democracy in late 18th and 19th century America and Europe. In many respects the idea is certainly not new. States governed by a council of elders, rather than a single individual invested with absolute monarchical authority had existed as far back as prehistoric Mesopotamia. 1 Constitutional and political historians have traditionally regarded ancient Greece and Rome as the foundations of democracy through the development of the idea of the social contract by the Greek Sophist philosopher Lycophron in the 5th century BC, and in particularly the establishment of democracy in Athens through the constitutional reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles and Ephialtes from the early sixth to mid-fifth centuries BC. 2 Ancient Rome had begun its career as an independent, expansionist state after the expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins and the foundation of the Roman Republic in 510 BC. A series of political and military conflicts between the Roman aristocracy, the patricians, and the non-noble plebeians from the first decade of the fifth century to 300 BC created the classic Roman republican constitution that granted political power to Rome’s non-aristocratic population. 3 Even after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire, some Roman officials continued to be elected. Outside Rome, other nations also had a republican government. The Saxons in Germany in the 8th century AD were governed not by a king, but through a popular assembly that met annually, composed of an equal number of nobles, freemen and bondsmen. 4

Modern Democracy Different from Historic Conception of the State

These states were not, however, democracies in the modern sense. In all of them political power was confined only to men who possessed a sufficient amount of property. Women and slaves were excluded from voting in the popular assemblies. In ancient Athens, only those whose parents were both Athenians were considered full citizens and so eligible to vote and hold public office. Even in revolutionary France, which established democracy in Europe as a radical, revolutionary force, there was a distinction between active and passive citizens. Only men who possessed a certain amount of wealth were considered to be capable of political responsibility. They were viewed as active citizens, who could vote and be a candidate in the elections. The rest of the population, women, and men, who did not possess sufficient property to qualify for active political involvement, were viewed as passive citizens who, while possessing certain rights could not participate directly in politics. Democracy in the modern, contemporary sense of every adult man and woman having the vote and being able to elect their governmental representatives and stand for public office is very, very recent indeed. British women, for example, were only finally able to vote in elections in the 1920s. Nevertheless, it is democracy in this sense that has become the definitive view of political freedom in Europe, compared to that of earlier centuries that considered freedom to be the amount of personal freedom individuals and groups had to manage their affairs within the limits of a strongly hierarchical society under the authority of a strong, but wise monarch.

Modern Democracy Founded on Ancient Constitutional Theory Adopted by Christian Scholars

Contemporary democratic political theory has been strongly influenced and moulded by Jean-Jacques Rouseau, whose theories of the Social Contract informed the French Revolutionaries, J.S. Mill and Alexis de Toqueville and his observations on democracy in America. Despite this, the foundations of modern democracy and notions of popular sovereignty were established by Christian and Jewish scholars in ancient Rome and medieval and 16th and 17th century Europe. Christian philosophers and theologians like St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and countless others adopted ancient Roman constitutional theory to produce ideas of popular sovereignty and the rights of the individual within a constitutional state. John Locke in particular created modern, liberal political theory, which established the right of the individual to participate in politics and choose his representatives in an elected assembly.

Ancient Israel Theocracy with Concern to Limit Power of Monarch and Preserve God’s Justice and Human Freedom

Religious scholars have noted that democracy in the modern sense is certainly not found in the Bible. As Yale University professor Millar Burrows noted, ‘if by democracy we mean “government of the people by the people and for the people,” in the form of majority rule by the ballot, then the Bible knows nothing of it.’ 5 The ancient Hebrew ideal government was theocracy, not democracy. 6 The Mosaic Law was promulgated by the Lord Himself, and was not the product of human deliberation, so that the great assemblies of the nation of Israel that were called at various points in Israel’s history to ratify the Covenant were there to indicate that Israel had accepted it through acclamation, not to produce it directly themselves. 7 However, the monarchy was never completely accepted as the natural and inevitable form of God’s government of Israel. 8 Before the establishment of the monarchy, such as during the period of the Judges, Israelite society was based on the tribes and clans. When the Israelites needed a leader to protect and organise them an external enemy or settle disputes between tribes, they frequently chose humble individuals like Ehud, Barak, or Gideon, or an outsider, such as Jephthah. Their first king, Saul, was a member of one of the smallest clans of Benjamin, the smallest tribe. 9 The Judges ruled only for as long as the crisis that caused their election lasted and they were able to retain their followers.

10 Indeed, there was considerable opposition to the establishment of a monarchy. In Judges 8:23 Gideon refused to be elected a king in place of the direct rule of Israel by the Lord. 11 Deuteronomy 17:15 –20 contains a series of provisions limiting the power of future Israelite monarchs and providing for their observance of the Law. Only an Israelite could be king. He could not breed horses, nor acquire them from Egypt. He was not to have a number of wives, nor amass too much wealth. He was also required to write out for himself a copy of the Law so that he would be guided by it. When the Israelites appealed to the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, he initially refused, describing the oppression they would suffer under such a monarchy in 1 Samuel 8: 11-18. 12 Similarly, prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah denounced injustices committed by kings and princes, as well as the rest of Israelite society. 1 Kings 25 records how Elijah vehemently denounced king Ahab for his unjust acquisition of Naboth’s vineyard after Naboth’s death, another incident which showed how ordinary people were protected by the prophets against an unjust and oppressive king. 13 The establishment of the priestly state under the Persian Empire has been viewed as a far more democratic form of government than the Israelite monarchy, as the lack of any army and reliance on public taxation required that the authorities co-operate with the people, with the ‘Great Synagogue’ playing an important role in this process of government, rather than enforce their power militarily. When the independent Maccabean state was established, secular rulers were also included in the governing councils of the priests under the authority of the hereditary Maccabean prince, who possessed the title ‘high priest and head of the commonwealth of the Jews’. 14

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but Recognised Value of the Individual, including Ordinary People and those from the Lower Sections of Society

However, political decline and conflict during the last period of the Hasmonean kingdom, and Israel’s conquest and annexation by Rome prevented the emergence or development of any kind of democratic institutions. Thus, while ancient Israelite society was far more democratic than the other contemporary nations of Egypt, Assyria, and even the Greeks with the exception of the Athenian republic, political democracy as a particular form of government or collection of institutions does not occur in the Bible. 15 The Bible does, however, possess a strong conviction of the value and rights of all individuals, from the king to the poorest peasant, which forms the basis for the idea of each individual possessing equal rights and opportunities that is one of the major foundations of the democratic ideal in society that supports political democracy. 16 Ancient Israelite society certainly was not democratic. The Mosaic Law permitted slavery and provided for the different treatment of slaves according to whether they were Hebrew or foreign. Nevertheless, the period of servitude for Hebrew slaves was limited to six years, after which they were to be freed. The Law stipulated that slaves had to be treated kindly and strictly limited their punishment. 17

Despite these inequalities in wealth and status, the ancient Biblical ideal was for everyone to live secure and free from oppression enjoying their own property. Micah 4:4 predicts that, during the reign of peace and justice established throughout the world by the Lord, every man will sit under his vine fig tree and no-one will make them afraid. 18 Ordinary people, artisans and labourers, enjoyed a respect in ancient Israel that did not occur elsewhere in the ancient world. In the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34 describes the work of ploughmen, carpenters, seal-engravers, smiths, and potters, noting that although they don’t have the leisure to acquire the necessary learning in the Law to act as judges and official councillors, nevertheless they were skilled and intelligent in their work. It is through the labour and handiwork of such workers and artisans that cities were made habitable and the whole world supported and maintained. Thus ancient Israel recognised the dignity of manual work, as well as the proper respect due to those who properly studied and applied the Law, and the necessity of such workers to the prosperity, and indeed very existence, of civilised society.

Condemnation of Economic Exploitation as well as Political Oppression in the Bible

The prophets were therefore concerned to preserve justice not just by denouncing political corruption and oppression, but also the exploitation and oppression of the poor by the wealthy. The prophet Amos in the 8th century BC is particularly important for his denunciation of the injustice and exploitation of contemporary Israelite society. He stated very clearly that the worship of God was completely opposed to the exploitation of other people. 19 Amos 2:6 records God’s statement that He will not turn aside from punishing Israel for selling the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes. 20 Isaiah pronounced woe upon those who joined house to house and laid field to field, so that they were alone in the middle of the Earth, thus depriving the poor of their ancestral lands in order to build up vast estates. 21 Nehemiah 5 records how the population of Israel after the Persian invasion had been forced by previous corrupt and oppressive governors to sell their lands, vineyards and house, and their own children into slavery, to buy food during a famine pay their tribute. Nehemiah was so furious that he summoned his nobles and rulers to a public assembly and forced them to restore the property they had unjustly acquired to its proper owners. 22

The Bible also strongly condemns the exploitation of wage labourers. Leviticus 19:13 states that a hired labourer should have his wages paid promptly and not to be delayed overnight. Job 31: 13-15 records Job’s protest that he did not treat his servants and their concerns with contempt, and his recognition that the same God who formed him also created them. Similarly, in Malachi 3:5 God promises to punish those that deprived hired workers of their due wages, and oppressed widow, orphans and sojourners, as well as adulterers, sorcerers and perjurers. 23 The Bible also insists on just treatment and care for resident foreigners, for example as in Deuteronomy 10:19. This provision in the Law commanded the Jews to love the foreigner, because they were foreigners in Egypt. God declares in Isaiah 56:6-7 that the sons of foreigner who have joined Israel and keep the Lord’s Sabbath and Covenant will be considered true servants of the Lord. God will give them joy when they worship in the Temple, which will be a house of prayer for all people. God send Jonah to urge the people of Nineveh to repent and so avoid destruction, despite the fact that they weren’t Jews, while Ruth, one of the ancestors of King David, came from Moab to join Israel. Biblical scholars have thus considered ancient Israel to be remarkable not for the feeling of national superiority and separation from other nations, but for its view of the unity of humanity and concern for the other nations of the world. 24

Recognition of the Role of Women and their Rights in Ancient Israel

Women in ancient Israel were also recognised as possessing rights and a role in society, even though their social position was subordinate to men. Genesis 1: 27 declares that God created humanity, both male and female, in His own image, thus providing a spiritual basis for equality between men and women. 25 Despite their inferior position, women nevertheless were recognised as playing an important economic and charitable role. Proverbs 31:10-31, which, with the rest of the chapter, was a prophecy given to King Lemuel by his mother, praises the model, virtuous woman who buys and plants vineyards, manufactures clothes, provides food for her household and dispense charity to the poor and needy. Women also played a part in religious worship. Exodus 38:8 describes them as assembling outside the Tabernacle, and 1 Samuel 2:22 similarly mentions them assembling outside the shrine at Shechem. Ezra 2:65 notes the presence of 200 male and singers amongst the staff of the priests. Women could also, at times, hold religious and political power. Moses’ elder sister, Miriam, was a prophetess who led the Israelite women in celebratory music and dancing after their successful crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Pharoah in Exodus 15:20-1. Judges 4-5 describes how the prophetess Deborah, the wife of Lapidoth, with Barak as her lieutenant, dispensed justice in Israel and saved them from Sisera, the captain of Jabin, one of the Canaanite kings.

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but with Strong Sense of Human Value and Equality, and Concern for Democratic Electoral Processes in the Talmud

Thus, although the Old Testament does not command or describe democracy in the modern sense, it does, through its concern for the whole of humanity, such as the poor, women and resident aliens, as well as the rich and powerful, provide a powerful basis for democracy. The Old Testament’s support for democracy is particularly demonstrated in the constitutional limits placed on the power of the monarchy in the Mosaic Law and its denunciation of exploitation, oppression and injustice. This concern for justice and the equality of all humans before the Lord continued into Christianity, while Talmudic Judaism also further commented on and developed these aspects of the Law to provide Judaism with a popular, democratic character as well as an origin in divine revelation.

This concern for justice and equality extended into all areas of Jewish life so that rich and poor alike were to receive equal treatment before the law, and humane legislation and institutions established to protect the welfare of women and slaves, and maintain justice in the conduct of court cases. Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:4 in the Talmud declared that God created all life from a single ancestor to prevent the various families of humanity claiming superiority over each other through descent from a superior ancestor. Everyone, including saints and sinners, were equal members of the human family through their descent from Adam. 26 Berakot 17a states powerfully that everyone is equally a creature of God, regardless of whether they work in the city or the field. Both types of people rise early to do their work, and no-one can excel in somebody’s else’s job. It did not matter how much or how little a person did, as long as they were fulfilling God’s purpose. 27 The Jewish people during the period of the compilation of the Talmud were governed by a system of town councils. Each town council comprised seven members, who were elected into their office by their community. Everyone, who had been resident in the town for a year or more, had the right to vote in these elections. In the case of particularly important issues, a meeting of the whole town would be called so that the issue would be solved by popular decision rather than be decided solely by the councillors. Some important officials, however, were directly appointed by the head of the Jewish people, such as the Patriarch in Palestine or the Exilarch in Babylon. 28 Nevertheless, the Talmud considered that legislation could only be valid if it was accepted by the majority of the community. 29

Concern for Human Equality in Christ, the Poor and those outside Respectable Society in Christianity

This democratic concern for all members of society, regardless of their social status, continued into Christianity. Christ Himself famously condemned the wealthy and powerful for not paying attention to the suffering of the poor, and directed his missions towards those who were outside the boundaries of respectable Jewish society, such as publicans and tax collectors. The universalist aspect of Judaism, in which other nations would join the Jews in worshipping God, was extended so that national distinctions between the Jews and other peoples were abolished. Similarly men and women were both considered equal before God. St. Paul declared in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, nor male or female, as everyone was one in Christ. Thus Biblical scholars have stated that ‘Nowhere in the Bible is there any basis for social or political discrimination between men on the basis of colour or land of origin.’ 30 St. Paul’s statement that both men and women were equal in Christ is strongly similar to the statement in Genesis that men and women were both made in God’s image. St. Paul also noted and was very appreciative of the women, as well as men, working in the early Christian community, and their considerable efforts to support the community and the message of the Gospel. In Romans 16:1-4 St. Paul specifically recommends Phebe, Priscilla and Aquila to the church in Rome because of the great support Phebe had given him and other early Christians, while Priscilla and Aquila had risked their necks for him. Although slavery was retained, and slaves urged to work hard and honour their masters, their masters were also required to treat their slaves with justice and equality, as they also had a master in heaven, as St. Paul commanded in Colossians 3:22 and Colossians 4:1.

Early Christianity’s View of Itself as International Community

The Early Christian Church also developed a number of constitutional theories analysing and explaining the nature of the state based on the Bible’s view of the nature and proper attitude Christians should have towards both secular and religious authority, Graeco-Roman political philosophy and the Church’s awareness of itself as an international community, which took its morals from the Lord rather than human philosophical speculation and whose ultimate loyalty was not to any earthly kingdom, but to God. The early Christian apologetic work, the Epistle to Diognetus, dated to c. 120-200 AD, states that Christians are an international community who follow the different manners and customs of the various nations whose citizens they are, and whose members have accepted Christianity, while also considering themselves foreigners and outside of such earthly kingdoms in the passage:

‘The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practise any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some adherents of this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township – Greek or foreign – each man’s life has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organisation of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour is more like transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything an everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.’ 31

View of Early Christian Church that It Was Separate from State, but Accepted Secular Authority

Other early Christian writers and apologists, such as Minucius Felix, Origen and St. Augustine, also shared this view that Christianity formed a separate community, independent of transitory secular states such as the Roman Empire. Minucius Felix in his Octavius of c. 200 AD stressed that Christians were indifferent to the history and state of the Roman Empire as they were the true leaven of human society. 32 Origen himself described Christianity as a type of fatherland independent of the Roman state. 33 They also considered, however, that the secular authorities were also divinely appointed and were loyal citizens of the Roman Empire. 34 St. Paul in Romans 13:1 expressly stated that Christians should obey the secular authorities, as they received their power from the Almighty in the words ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’ Justin Martyr, following Christ’s command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, stated that Christians were loyal to the Roman emperors in his apologetic work, The Defence and Explanation of Christian Faith and Practice in the words ‘The Lord said, ‘Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.’ Therefore we render worship to God alone, but in all other things we gladly obey you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of earth, and praying that in you the royal power may be found combined with wisdom and prudence.’ 35

View of Early Church that Christian Morality Based on God and so Better and More Complete than Secular Roman Morality

The early Christian Church therefore considered that its morals and rules came directly from God’s will and His rule in the world. 36 Early Christian writers and theologians, such as Tertullian, considered secular Roman ideas of morality to be incomplete through its source in human speculation and unable to inspire the necessary respect that produces real morality. Tertullian in his Apology therefore criticised Roman secular philosophical morality with the statement that

‘Uprightness (innocentiam) we have been taught; we know it perfectly because it has been revealed by a perfect teacher (magistro); faithfully we do the will (mandata) of one who reads the heart and cannot be despised. It was but man’s opinion (aestimatio) that gave you your idea of uprightness and human authority which backs it up. Hence your rule of life is neither complete nor does it inspire the reverence which leads o a life of real virtue.’ 37

Christianity Separate from State, but Christians Serve All Humanity through Church

Pagan opponents of Christianity, such as Celsus, accused Christians of not having any sense of social responsibility, and that they were therefore anarchists. Origen countered this accusation with the statement that Christians are primarily loyal and responsible to another society beyond the Roman Empire, and that it was through the church that they channelled their unreserved and unceasing service to the whole of humanity. 38

Christian Conception of Society Based on the Model of the Family

Thus the early Church viewed itself as based on the transcendental morality revealed by the Lord and so required to implement these values in practice, rather than produce a philosophical experiment in the ‘abundant life’. The early church developed a view of itself as a community based very much on the family. The Lord was humanity’s father, and its members were brothers and sisters. Thus, the church was truly God’s family, composed of people from different nations, but together forming a new people, the true Israel. For Christian philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine, the good family was the pattern for the construction of a stable society. 39 Indeed, the whole human race was a family due to its descent from Adam and Eve, and the whole of humanity was considered equal in nature. No part of the human race was considered super- or subhuman. 40 Moreover, although humans were God’s creation, they were also intended by the Almighty for communion with Him in His image. 41 Thus, all humans possessed dignity and value as members of the single human race, made in the image of God.

All Humans Equal in Church Despite Differences in Economic Status and Social Rank

The early Church also possessed a notion of human equality based on the corruption of humanity as a whole by sin. St. Paul had stated that ‘all men have sinned, and all have fallen short of God’s glory’. As every member of the human race was sinner, no-one therefore was sufficiently morally good to rule others simply by virtue of their moral character. There were indeed differences between people, with some individuals possessing superior status, spiritual gifts or wealth within the church. Like St. Paul, Clement of Rome similarly likened the body of the church to an army and the human body. Nevertheless the presence of each individual, whatever their position, was equally important to the continued functioning of the Church and its performance of the will of God, and every individual thus deserved to have their welfare and interests protected and supported by the others because of interdependence of all the individual members of the Church as part of it as a whole. Clement of Rome, considering the example of the ranks of the Roman army, declared that ‘Not all of them are marshals, generals, colonels, captains, or the like; nevertheless, each at his own level executes the orders of the emperor and the military chiefs. For the great cannot exist without the small, nor the small without the great.’ 42 In the Church, each member was expected to respect the greater spiritual gifts of others, while supporting the poorer members of the Church. In turn the poorer members of the Church were expected to respect the wealthy people who supported them. Clement stated this moral interdependence of rich and poor with the worlds

‘In Christ Jesus, then, let this corporate body of ours be likewise maintained intact, with each of us giving way to his neighbour in proportion to our spiritual gifts. The strong are not to ignore the weak, and the weak are to respect the strong. Rich men should provide for the poor and the poor should thank God for giving them somebody to supply their wants.’ 43 Irenaeus similarly argued that human equality did not mean that humans were did not differ from each other at all, but that the differences between them were only relative, and so were no basis for tyranny by the few over the many. 44

Thus, although Ancient Israel was not a democratic society, the Bible demands the moral values – rejection of tyranny, and concern for the whole of humanity, who are all regarded as equal before the Lord – that are fundamental to democracy. These democratic values were practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity, which created the basis of the modern conception of the democratic state. In the second part of this post, I’ll describe how early Christianity adopted and modified Roman ideas of popular sovereignty, condemned oppression and the abuse of power, and advocated freedom of conscience, and how these ideas, based in Christianity, Judaism and the Bible, continue to support democracy against totalitarianism and oppression.

Notes

  1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 29.
  2. Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, trans. Ernest A. Menze, The Penguin Atlas of World History: Vol 1: From the Beginning to the French Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), pp. 55-9.
  3. Kinder and Hilgemann, trans. Menze, Atlas of World History, pp. 73-77.
  4. Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (London, Routledge 1992), p. 105.
  5. Millar Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments in Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium (New York, Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, 1942), p. 399.
  6. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 400.
  7. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 399.
  8. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 401.
  9. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  10. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  11. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  12. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 403.
  13. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  14. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  15. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Chrisian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 402, 406.
  16. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 406.
  17. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 409-10.
  18. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  19. ‘Amos’ in ‘Biblical Glossary’, Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 1986-7: 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. S5.
  20. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 408.
  21. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 408-9.
  22. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  23. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 410.
  24. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’; eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 410-1.
  25. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 411-2.
  26. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  27. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  28. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 388.
  29. 29. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 387.
  30. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  31. ‘The Epistle to Diognetus’ in Maxwell Staniforth, ed. Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), pp. 144-5.
  32. Albert C. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 449.
  33. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  34. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  35. Justinus (Justin Martyr), Apologia I, xvii, in Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers rom St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (Oxford, OUP 1956), pp. 59-60.
  36. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  37. Tertullian, Apology, chapter xlv, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Chistian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  38. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  39. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 452.
  40. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  41. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  42. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 37, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  43. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 38, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  44. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 457.

Steyn, Levant, Channel 4 and the Western Suppression of Free Speech

June 9, 2008

Last week, the American Conservative journalist, Mark Steyn, went on trial before a Canadian Human Rights Commission court, accused of spreading hate against Islam. Steyn is extremely critical of radical Islam, and the author of a book, America Alone, which considers that America will quickly end up as the last refuge of Western values and politics as Europe is taken over by Islam. It’s a controversial book, and Steyn’s critics have pointed out a number of factual flaws in his arguments. It is not, however, the reason Steyn is on trial. Steyn, with the Canadian magazine, McClean’s, is on trial for an article he wrote for them critically describing the threat posed by militant Islamicists in the West, quoting violently bigoted comments by various western imams and religious leaders themselves. His opponents in this case are Mohammed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress and three young Muslims, who demanded that, through right of reply, McClean’s should run an article by them criticising Steyn’s comments. McClean’s refused to be dictated to in this fashion, so Elmasry and his three colleagues took Steyn and McClean’s to a Human Rights court.

The Canadian Human Rights Commissions were set up originally with the best of intentions to protect people from ethnic minorities from genuine discrimination, such as being summarily evicted by their landlords and left homeless. Since then, according to their critics such as Steyn and the Canadian Conservative journalist Ezra Levant, the courts have become increasingly dictatorial and anti-democratic. Normal legal rules of procedure and evidence don’t seem to apply to them. Neither does factual accuracy. Under Section 13 of the code establishing the Human Rights Commissions and their courts, factual accuracy is no defence if the accused is nevertheless considered by the court to be spreading hatred or prejudice.

Ezra Levant is similarly being prosecuted by the Human Rights Courts for his critical comments about militant Islam and specifically for publishing the notorious Danish cartoons. He is extremely critical of the Human Rights Commission and their apparent contempt for free speech and the normal rules that govern the police and judiciary in democracies in order to protect democratic freedom. His blog, like Steyn’s site, includes details of his individual case. Levant also covers what he considers to be the abuse of power by the Human Rights Commissions generally, and campaigns for their abolition.

While critical of militant Islam, Steyn and Levant also have the support of Muslim journalists and writers in Canada who are strongly opposed to the militant intolerance preached by the militants in the name of Islam. Levant has said something in his blog to the effect that the Canadian Islamic Congress is unrepresentative of Canadian Islam as a whole, and that their attempts to suppress criticism of militant Islam has probably done much more to spread suspicion of Islam generally than either Steyn or himself.

Now this would normally be a matter of concern only to Canadians. However, Steyn, Levant and their supporters, such as the Canadian writer and ID supporter Denyse O’Leary, have stated that foreign individuals outside Canada should closely examine the conduct of Human Rights Commissions in their attack on free speech in order to prevent similar abuses occurring in their countries. This also goes well beyond the lines of party politics. Steyn and Levant are Conservatives, but their prosecution is of real concern to people concerned with maintaining traditional democratic liberties such as free speech and conscience regardless of party allegiance. Some of the appointees to the Human Rights Commission courts were given their posts by Conservative administrations. As for Steyn and Levant, it shouldn’t matter here whether the accused are Conservatives, Liberals or members of the Socialist New Democrat Party. Their prosecution before a court system where factual accuracy is apparently no defence is a threat to democracy itself.

As for their comment that the situation in Canada should also concern non-Canadians, it’s a very, very good point. Unfortunately the prosecution of Steyn and Levant for their coverage and criticism of militant Islam is very relevant to British politics and the attempt by some parts of the British legal system to prevent the media from covering militantly bigoted attacks on British society by British Muslims. In the middle of last month, the Crown Prosecution Service and West Midlands police force gave a statement recognising that they had been incorrect to accuse Channel 4 of misleading editing in its programme, Undercover Mosque, and agreed to pay damages of £100,000 to charity. The programme Undercover Mosque was broadcast in January 2007 in the Channel 4 Despatches documentary series. It showed supposedly moderate Islamic clergy vehemently denouncing non-Muslims as ‘filthy’, ‘accursed’ and ‘criminals’. The West Midlands police then investigated the clergy involved, before claiming, seven months later, that the programme had misrepresented the clergy through selective editing. Ofcom, the government’s broadcasting watchdog, then investigated the programme, and came to the conclusion that the editing had not misrepresented the militant preachers. This verdict was accepted by the West Midlands police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

What is disturbing about this case is that rather than accept that militantly bigoted comments and sermons were being preached by the clergy concerned, the police force and CPS instead attempted to suppress its reporting. This seems partly to have been due to prevent racial tension and violence. Anil Patani, the West Midland Police Force’s assistant chief constable (security and cohesion), stated that the programme threatened ‘community cohesion’ by unfairly representing the Muslim preachers. My own view here is that this is rubbish. Community cohesion was threatened long before Channel 4 made the documentary the moment when the imams concerned were allowed, or invited to speak. In fact violent denunciations of non-Muslim Britons by radical Muslim clergy have been a problem for a long time. In the 1990s the BBC filmed one cleric telling his congregation that British society was a monstrous ‘killing machine’ and that ‘killing Muslims comes very easily to them.’ This particular cleric was intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and there were demonstrations against him and his bigotry by British Muslims.

However, there also seems to be a real reluctance to act against militant Islamic bigotry on the part of the British authorities, even when they have been alerted to a very real threat posed by some mosques and their clergy by concerned Muslims. The people who first attempted to alert the authorities to the militant activities at Finchley Park mosque, which was closed down a few years ago after it was found to be supporting Islamicist terrorism, were Muslims, and for a long time their warnings were ignored.

My feeling is that there’s a political aspect to this reluctance by the authorities to act against the Islamicist militants. Some of it is probably an attempt to avoid making this situation worse by appearing to provoke, or increase suspicion and hatred of Muslims in wider British society. However, there’s also a diplomatic element involved. Many British mosques are funded by the governments of Muslim countries, partly as a way of extending their influence into British Muslim society. Where that particular Islamic nation has a particularly intolerant attitude, there’s a danger that this influence will be passed on to British Muslims through the funding nation presenting it as a genuine part of Islam. Moreover, the programme Undercover Mosque was particular embarrassing for the British government as it showed supposedly moderate Muslims as preaching vehement hatred instead of peace and harmony.

My point here is not to attack or criticise Islam or muslims generally. The militant preachers of hate are intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and I can remember reading comments by muslim writers demanding that the media also pay attention to demonstrations by Muslims against them and more generally as normal members of British society. Across the world, ordinary muslims have acted to save non-muslims from terrorist atrocities committed by the Islamicists. When a party of German tourists was massacred by Islamicist militants in Egypt in the 1990s, a number of them were saved by the local people running out to hide them in their own houses. The Shari’a, the Islamic legal code, explicitly forbids killing women, children and non-combatants, and members of the Egyptian public condemned the Islamicists’ atrocity as ‘completely against Islam’ when interviewed on a BBC Radio travel programme. What concerns me is that rather than tackle the fact that there are bigoted clerics preaching a vicious hatred of non-muslims, the authorities have instead attempted to prevent it being reported. The suppression of the reporting of militant hatred for apparently political reasons is the real issue here, and it is a genuine, threat to democracy whatever the group or organisation preaching hatred and bigotry is. Christians and members of other faiths and ideologies have and are being persecuted for their conscience in numerous states around the world, so I’m acutely aware of the danger of creating a similar climate of religious intolerance in Britain towards Islam. However, genuine democratic politics depends on the free discussion of issues, and this becomes particularly important when there is a very real danger from terrorism and susceptible, confused or alienated people being turned against their fellow countrymen by bigots. In this situation, it is entirely appropriate that the problem should be reported and discussed. Attempting to ignore the problem, or deny that it exists by prosecuting those who do report it won’t change the situation and will set a dangerous precedent for the official suppression of news the authorities consider embarrassing or potentially threatening generally. The Human Rights Commissions in Canada and the attempt by the West Midlands police force and the Crown Prosecution Service in Britain to prosecute the producers of Undercover Mosque aren’t just a problem for the reporting of militant Islam, but a threat generally to free speech and democratic politics.