What’s behind the stunning defeat of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in a popular referendum this week? Undoubtedly, he overestimated the appeal of his “21st century socialism” among Latin Americans. A new poll also shows that the most trusted institution in Latin America is not the government — but the Catholic Church.
For many Protestant Churches across the world, Sunday was a tribute to Martin Luther and the Reformation. October 31st marks the anniversary date when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. K. Konnie Kang of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece titled, “Protestants celebrate their heritage, the Reformation”. Kang also featured a quote that simply explains Protestant theology from the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, who is a professor of medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Feldmeth declared:
“The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship. At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith — meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds.”
Most people, at least those who are minimally knowledgeable of theology, understand basic Reformation theology. Some however, may not be aware of how the Protestant Reformation heavily influenced civil and religious liberty. I know it’s not taught in the public schools anymore, because I was never aware of this until I learned it on my own.
The pastor at the church I attended Sunday in Grand Rapids briefly talked about how the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone) is directly related to the ideas and concept of the American Constitution. While Protestants interpret scripture through Christian tradition, for the reformers scripture trumps the decrees and councils of men. Likewise, for the American Founders at least, the U.S. Constitution is above any human official, elected or not.
Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” also heavily influenced the emergence of representative democracy. In addition, the Presbyterian style of church government further set the stage for individual rights and liberties. Responsibility for the governance of the church is not just for the clergy , but laity as well. This model of church government, where elders serve as leaders can be contrasted with the episcopal style of church government, which better reflects a monarchy. King James I of Great Britain rightly predicted, “If bishops go, so will the king.” At its very heart, it expresses a belief that humans in their depravity cannot set themselves above the law of God, no matter their office.
When Martin Luther declared his “conscience was captive to the word of God” it had political repercussions. Luther’s protest showcased a primary debate about ultimate authority, and where this authority stems from. The legacy and impact of the Reformation directly affect our society today, especially in relation to government, human rights, and religious and political freedoms.
Maybe we should start thinking of the first declaration of “mission accomplished” (May 1, 2003, pictured above) as a sort of D-Day, and the imminent(?) “mission accomplished” as a sort of V-E Day (that’s also a common analogy used to describe the “already/not yet” dynamic of the times between Christ’s first and second coming.)
See also, “Democracy in Iraq.”
I did a brief interview yesterday with Greg Allen of The Right Balance and have a couple more scheduled for next week. It’s kept me thinking about some of the issues surrounding the debate about Christianity, democracy, and Iraq.
In the piece I wrote I pointed to some of the rather guarded opinions of representatives from the Christian tradition, namely John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the possibility of finding the “best” form of government.
But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the biblical data, and it occurs to me that it was during Solomon’s reign that Israel enjoyed its greatest prosperity. We read, for instance, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.”
This led me to wonder a bit about how we should characterize the rule of the kings in Old Testament Israel. Clearly it’s a monarchy, but what sort?
We see the protection of private property, and a king who is subject to the rule of law and is specifically held accountable to Torah, when necessary by its public expositors the prophets. Calvin noted the intimate relationship between the prophets and Torah. Speaking about understanding the prophetic books, he writes, “the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain; for they placed it before them as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law.”
While the prophets lacked the direct relationship with the executive power such that they could enforce Torah adherence, they certainly represented the divine perspective on Torah violation and its consequences (no doubt they were strict constructionists). In that sense they functioned as a sort of judicial check on the monarch’s power, similar to the way our Supreme Court is supposed to function.
If we view Torah as a sort of constitution, then in OT Israel we have an ancient kind of constitutional, and therefore limited, monarchy.
Related to last week’s commentary and blog post, check out this WSJ piece, “Gates Crafts Long-Term Iraq Plan, With Limited Role for U.S. Forces,” in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates says, “My view is that whatever works economically ought to be tried.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine the (non)necessity of promoting a democratic government in post-invasion Iraq. I haven’t written much on Iraq in this or any other venue, for a number of reasons. But this piece is one that I’ve been waiting to write for a long time, and was really only waiting for the proper occasion. That prompting came a few weeks ago when U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra from Holland, MI said, “The mission for us is not to establish a democracy in Iraq, but to make the region secure and stable.”
This piece appeared earlier in the Orange County Register, “Iraq: Democracy not required,” which garnered this response, “Democracy without liberty? I think not” (see also the 2003 Acton Commentary, “Success in Iraq: Guaranteed Property Rights as a Precondition for Democracy”).
Here are some links that have been floating around my inbox that are related to some of the points brought up in this week’s commentary. First and most directly relevant, from Christianity Today, “Bush’s ‘Theological Perspective.'”
Next, here is a link to an H-Net review of a recent book on civil society in post-war Germany, particularly the “Heidelberg Action Group,” whose founding manifesto “challenged socialist ideologies that stressed the role of a strong state and the primacy of national interest. They envisioned a form of socialism focused upon the realization of individual freedom and the creation of autonomous and self-reliant persons.”
And finally I’d like to point you to a review in the Claremont Review of Books by Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett on a book that argues for a greater “democratization” of the American constitution. It may come as a surprise to some, but our Constitution was initially and still remains to a large extent “counter-majoritarian.”
And related to foreign policy in particular, Barnett notes the curiousity that “It has become de rigueur among American constitutional law scholars to refrain from recommending our particular form of government to others when advocating democracy around the world. While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret.”
Update: See “The Ottoman Swede,” by Roger Cohen, which says in part, “distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy,” and “The Road to Partition,” by David Brooks. See also these two Marketplace pieces (here and here) with the normally rather disagreeable Robert Reich, discussing in part his new book Supercapitalism.
Darkness and light have been used to symbolize powerful metaphors in literature, art, film, and all sorts of creative venues. In Scripture, darkness and light are often used to evoke good and evil. In the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a man born blind, who furthermore is brought into the fullness of light through faith in Christ. Jesus, however, implicates the Pharisees, by saying, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Joseph Puder tags a most appropriate title for his column in FrontPage Magazine, calling it Europe’s Heart of Darkness. Puder invokes enlightening contrasts as well, comparing historical and contemporary Europe, with that of the United States. Puder notes:
The origin of these attitudes can be traced to the social, economic and political developments on the Continent on one hand, and the legacy of the pilgrims, who came to America in search of freedom, individualism, and God, on the other hand. Europe began to lose its faith in Christianity and God following the French Revolution.
Europe it seems, has bought into Voltaire’s reasoning, and although the Europeans have accepted democracy, they have replaced the notion of the Voltaire’s “absolutist ruler” with the rule of the (welfare) State, and substituted “fundamentalist secularism” for Christianity and God.
Early American pilgrims from Europe, by way of contrast, sought to escape the stifling chains of European absolutism. They wanted to live according to their own conscience and beliefs and not by the dictate of an absolutist Monarch or church. The pilgrims understood the message of Saint Thomas Aquinas who believed that human beings have a natural capacity to know many things without divine intervention as opposed to the absolutist monarchs and the church that thought of themselves as being the repository of knowledge and truth. The pilgrims were also individualists who understood that in order to be virtuous and free of sin, they had to be free to choose, and choices included of course the sphere of economics, as well as religion.
The French Revolution ushered in the age of totalitarianism in Europe. Not content with controlling the political and economic lives of their subjects, the absolutist rulers sought to control their minds as well. The twentieth century saw the rise of Communism and Fascism (and Nazism) that culminated with the horrors of the Holocaust being committed on European soil by European absolutist totalitarians. F.A. Hayek, in his book “The Road to Serfdom,” pointed to the close ideological connection between Socialists and Fascists. He noted, they have more in common with each other than either have with classical liberalism, including the tendency to reduce the individual to an organic part of the state.
Joseph Conrad, in his novel “Heart of Darkness,” portrays the darkness of hypocrisy and moral decay of the colonial adventurers in the Belgian Congo. Conrad specifically mentions the “whited sepulchre” of the various corporate enterprises headquarted in Brussels, Belgium. It is an analogy taken right from Matthew’s Gospel, where Christ himself says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” Conrad’s novel serves as a reminder of the corruption of absolute power, and the depravity of mankind.
Whether it is the belief in the supremacy of the state, or other types of utopian ideals and philosophies, they are fundamentally in error, because they cannot check or contain the weight of human sinfulness. In contrast, Christianity at its foundation believes all humans are created in the image of God. In truth, a strong religious understanding and spirit recognizes the need to reflect God, it is there where more human progress is found than all the programs, nation-states, and freedom imitators combined.
Bilal Sambur, Ph.D., is assistant professor on the faculty of divinity at Suleyman Demirel University in Isparta, Turkey. He is a guest scholar this summer at the Acton Institute.
Islam, Democracy and Turkey
By Bilal Sambur
The inauguration of Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s new president has provoked a great deal of discussion — and anxiety — about the rise to power of a man who is an observant Muslim with a background in Islamic politics. Instead of anxiety, the world should be celebrating Gul’s election as the greatest breakthrough in the history of Turkish democracy and a sign of hope for Muslim nations all over the world.
In July elections, Gul’s Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkey) won 47 percent of the popular vote and came to power without having to form a coalition. But the main message to the military and secular elites who have run Turkey for so long was not about religion. It was about reforming Turkey’s government.
Today, the biggest problem in the Muslim world is the absence of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, with the exception of Turkey, there is no true democratic rule in the Muslim world at the present time. Most Muslim countries are ruled by militarist dictatorships, kings, monarchs and totalitarian regimes. Under these anti-democratic and illiberal regimes, Muslim people have no opportunity to participate in the political life of their countries.
After the collapse of Soviet Union, a number of former communist countries established democracy rapidly and successfully. Although some former communist regimes have been transformed into democracies, the Muslim world has not been influenced by this new wave of democracy. The anti-democratic regimes of the Muslim world have successfully isolated themselves from this third wave of democracy. And everything seems to be the same as it used to be in Muslim world.
Liberal democracy has taken root in many places outside its birthplace in Europe and the United States. India is the best example of that. Although India has Hindu culture, it is the most populous democratic country in the world now. Having a liberal democratic rule or a totalitarian/autocratic regime is a matter of choice. But Muslim societies have not, for the most part, been given an opportunity to choose between a liberal democratic rule and anti-democratic regime. Recent developments in Turkey show that Muslim people choose democracy when they have a chance to choose it. (more…)
In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:
It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.
Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”
Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:
For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.
Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.
Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.
Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.
Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.
The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.
The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.
Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.
“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.
I really liked the film (Anthony Bradley gives it a ‘B’). The visuals are quite striking and impressive. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission. Gerard Butler gives a powerful performance as King Leonidas, and his wife, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), does more than hold her own. When an emissary from Xerxes arrives in Sparta, he is taken aback that a woman dare speak in the counsel of men. Gorgo responds that only Spartan women are capable of birthing “proper men.”
In the strength of her performance, however, Headey stands above the rest of the cast, which are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer forcefulness of Butler’s portrayal. In particular the portrayal of Delios, the narrator and witness to the events of ‘300’, by David Wenham (who also played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suffers notably in comparison to Butler’s Leonidas.
There is a fair bit of titillation, from the sensuality of an “drunk adolescent” oracle to the lurid temptations faced by the Ephialtes, and once the violence starts it is quite graphic. This film certainly won’t get the Dove Foundation’s approval.
The grim gallows humor of the dialogue lends itself to numerous memorable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Leonidas. He tells the self-proclaimed god-man Xerxes, for instance, that he cannot kneel in submission because his legs are cramped from killing Persians all day. At other times the dialogue seems a bit uneven, perhaps because of the notable difference in verbal requirements between a graphic novel and a screenplay.
The film has received mixed reviews, in large part due to the facile comparisons that could be made between Leonidas and George W. Bush. A leitmotif of the film is the battle between the free citizen warriors of Sparta and the slaves under the tyrannical domination of Xerxes. Thus, says Leonidas, “A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”
Particularly suited to contemporary comparison is the scene in which the other Greeks abandon Leonidas and his Spartans to their death at the hands of Xerxes’ forces. It is almost impossible at that point not to think of the splintering of the coalition forces in Iraq. Of course there are many reasons that the movie shouldn’t be taken as an allegory for the modern situation, but the ease with which parts of the film can be interpreted in this way no doubt explains much of the media’s ambivalence toward the film.
It’s worth noting what Lord Acton observed about the character of freedom and democracy in particular after the united Greeks were victorious in the Persian wars. This ushered in a period where Athens dominated the confederation of city-states, and whose abuse of power (from the perspective of the Spartans) led to the Peloponnesian War.
Acton writes of Athens and their democracy, “But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”
We can see this danger in the film itself, as the commitment of the warrior-state of Sparta to the purity and strength of bloodline leads to the practice of eugenics and infanticide. This practice comes home to roost in an ironic fashion indeed, playing a direct role in the demise of Leonidas himself. And so perhaps there are some contemporary lessons to be learned from ‘300’ after all beyond the obvious ones about the value of bravery, fortitude, and commitment.
This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.