CulturePolitics and Current Events

Who’s Afraid of Liberal Democracy?

Liberal democracy has fallen on hard times: across the Western world, nationalism is on the rise. (By “liberal democracy” I refer not to the left-right political spectrum, but to a political structure built on participatory democracy, coupled with entrenched individual rights protections and a generally free-market economic system.) From America and England to Hungary and Russia, the liberal-democratic vision of an “interconnected global community” appears to be wavering in the face of widespread cultural blowback.

To some extent, ever-encroaching supranational authorities have brought this dilemma on themselves. It’s not irrational to argue there are certain domains of human existence where governmental power ought not be deployed, and that there are other domains where such power should be exercised on a smaller, rather than larger, scale. And, as I’ve written before, it’s certainly not necessary to feel squeamish about appreciating one’s homeland.

But earned critiques of globalism may have mutated into something more worrying: an increasingly widespread affinity for illiberal democracy driven by a hard-edged sense of national identity and culture. Illiberal democracy has little use for declarations of abstract national values (like the Constitution) or for theories that celebrate the liberty and equality of all persons. What matters most is national identity, embodied in a powerful leader-figurehead.

Perhaps the best-known philosophical critique of post-Enlightenment modernity (and by extension, liberal democracy) comes from Alasdair MacIntyre, who suggested that fragmentation of social consensus about morality would lead to systemic political breakdown. Building from a concept first teased by MacIntyre, “Benedict Option” proponent Rod Dreher (whose thesis I’ve explored before) has suggested that institutional disengagement may be an appropriate Christian response to secular cultural pressures: the modern world cannot be saved, so the time has come for a retrenchment of the faithful. Worryingly, Dreher has expressed openness to the idea of Christians retreating into illiberal democracies that blur the line between church and state.

I am much more sanguine about liberal democracy’s potential to allow human flourishing, even if (in my view) widespread efforts to purge religious discourse from public life have eroded the moral core of liberal-democratic thought.

This article certainly isn’t a comprehensive statement of political theory, but permit me a brief philosophical digression. Liberal democracy requires a nonsectarian ideal of individual rights and dignity—an ideal that does not arise from a sovereign’s preference, but from an abstracted-yet-normative moral reality (a form of this position has been articulated by Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty). Applied, this means that although reasonable minds may disagree on what morality requires, all moral judgments are not equal: views about good and evil, and right and wrong, are actually meaningful. The position taken by many contemporary critical theorists—that undesired moral judgments by a disfavored oppressor group are intrinsically bankrupt—is highly corrosive of this principle (and, ironically, reliant on a moral vocabulary of its own).

But why does this all matter?

A recent Christianity Today article highlights, with painful clarity, the stakes in this debate. Fueled by the view that India’s national identity is fundamentally Hindu, hardline politicians have barred humanitarian charity Compassion International from accepting American financial sponsorships of Indian children: what matters isn’t Compassion International’s aid-giving, but the fact that the organization operates from a distinctly Christian perspective. The weight of this decision will fall exclusively on the poorest and neediest of India’s children, who will find themselves cut off from aid on the grounds that Compassion International’s presence is  not conducive to national interest.

Giving up on the core values of liberal democracy—including religious liberty—means abandoning the moral vocabulary necessary to adequately critique India’s decision. The illiberal democrat of the right says, “That’s India’s business, not ours. Who are we to interfere?” (One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ s obstinate dwarves in The Last Battle, obsessed with their own group’s interests above all else.) The critical theorist of the left says “it’s oppressive to even consider spreading Christianity abroad, which displaces India’s traditional religions.”

For all its foibles and failures, liberal democracy has generally provided a context within which Christianity and other faiths can be freely taught and practiced, and within which moral judgments about the rightness or wrongness of international actions can be meaningfully expressed. And by definition, Christianity itself transcends national boundaries—and has done so ever since the first century A.D.

Rehabilitating liberal democracy may require serious work to identify sites of discourse where a common moral heritage persists. But abandoning this project in favor of comfortable retreat is not the answer: too many values—and lives—may hang in the balance.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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