My friend countered democratic ideals predate Christianity and cannot be married to religion. I asked for examples, but we arrived at his stop, he disembarked, and I was left alone on the train yelling inside my head, “And I’m not talking about the Greeks!”
Of course telepathy is not a viable option for continuing a conversation, so I sank into a seat, stared out a window, and got so lost in my own thoughts that I promptly missed my transfer station and added a half hour to my journey home.
But why do I think the way I do? Is there any basis for my firm belief that Christian tenants of faith were so important to the development of the American republic that they were actually the germinating seeds, which blossomed into our current system? Or is this thinking so influenced by my own ideology that I’m blinded to the real history?
It is inarguable that democracy was born thousands of years before any upstart Colonials wrote the Declaration of Independence and hundreds of years before a man called Jesus was even born. However, we remember that version of democracy did not really promote equality amongst peoples. Of course, our nascent republic did not practice equality amongst peoples, but the ideal of equality was there from the very beginning, and that ideal was self-evident because people are creations of God. In other words, in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian beliefs undergirded the philosophies that were necessary intellectual elements for American self-government to eventually extend opportunity to all.
So what was the foundation for Greek democracy? The Greeks also had a religious framework upon which they hung their politics, but that framework was one with arbitrary gods who did not value individuals. As we recall, Socrates was put to death for not ascribing to the government’s endorsed views on religion. He was sacrificed for the needs of the state. There was no reason to develop any notions about human equality that would extend to all people. For this we would need a different kind of theology: a God who valued slaves and women as much as He valued each and every man.
The Roman Republic is a similar story. While having many characteristics worthy of admiration, the idea of “equal” in Rome did not include the barbarians at the gate, and the “worth” of Romans themselves was determined by military conquest rather than something that was intrinsically good. By the time Constantine changed this vast empire into a Christian one, the Republic had long fallen, and the problems of the state were so entrenched that the empire itself was destined for decline.
But that’s antiquity, so let’s fast-forward a decade beyond 1776 to the French Revolution, which also threw off the shackles of monarchy and was built solely on the secular philosophies of the day, no God to temper the passions of man. Here the Cult of Reason eschewed religion entirely for “liberty” in France, and the aristocrats who painted Paris with their blood were butchered in such a way as to horrify most Americans. Nobles, supposedly, were not “equals” in the new brotherhood, as neither God nor reason ruled. Nor, might I note, did that republic last.
So whilst one cannot deny that American ideology has sometimes been at war with itself, it is hard for me to not return to my original premise. The American republic as it stands today would not have evolved into what it is without the influence of Judeo-Christian thinking in the beginning. Of course, there are other factors, but the cultural supremacy of the individual especially can be tied to this religious foundation… the radical teachings of Christ.
It goes without saying that these are giant ideas, difficult to put into smaller sections in three stops on the MARTA or a short blog post. However, I would like to thank my classmate for challenging my thoughts on the matter.
I’m still thinking…