2020 has been quite a year. If COVID-19 and the George Floyd riots weren’t enough to get your attention, there are now statues being torn down by rioting mobs across the Western world.
The first memorials to be targeted were those depicting advocates of slavery and Confederate soldiers. But this quickly spread to British Prime Ministers, the West’s earliest explorers and American Founding Fathers.
It is open season on any figure of the past who contributed to Western civilisation, and whose moral failings — now long gone — still upset the mobs enough. There are analogies for this kind of radical revolution, but most of them involve tyrants like Napoleon and Pol Pot, or the frightening fiction of George Orwell.
President Trump is one of the few public figures to call this movement out on its ugly totalitarianism. You can read about his recent speech here: Trump Defends Judeo-Christian Civilisation in Mount Rushmore Speech.
While those responsible for the chaos are in the minority, what animates them is not some fringe ideology. Rather, it is the Marxism they absorbed at their mainstream universities, the books currently on national bestseller lists, and the sanction of major political parties.
If their will to rewrite Western history goes mainstream — along with their obvious rejection of the rule of law, due process and representative decision-making — we may need to consider the fate of our democracies.
The founders of America were adamant that free societies were dependent on people valuing them and living virtuously to uphold them. Consider John Adams, the second President of the United States, who said,
“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.
It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The truth is the democracies we enjoy today were not built on the philosophy of ancient Greece, but on the theology of the Bible.
The Greeks invented democracy, yes. But their democracy was not export-quality like their language, art and literature — and this is why their democracies faded into obscurity. The philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi observes,
“Greek democracies never worked for more than a few decades. They always degenerated into mob rule.”1
The liberal democracies of the modern West emerged only after the Reformation. This was a time when, with Bible in hand, Christians rediscovered the story of ancient Israel — a nation liberated from bondage in Egypt and given a law to govern them and guard their freedom.
The ‘rule of law’ — this strange idea that a nation is governed by its constitution rather than kings or senators — had precedents in Persia and Rome. But through revolts and intrigue, these also degenerated into various forms of tyranny.
Missing was the concept of a transcendent God whose immovable law was the basis for all other human laws. Reformation theology not only inspired this; it also called for obedience to God so that when the voice of the people was represented in government, it could be heard as the ‘voice of God’; a powerful mandate to enact new and necessary laws.
From the very dawn of democracy in the West, the role of Christians and Christian theology loomed large.
An early chapter in the story of modern democracy is that of the Magna Carta (1215). This English charter of rights was drafted by an archbishop to limit the powers of the king. It declared taxes could not be imposed without consent; church rights could not be infringed; and free men could not be punished without due process and the judgment of their peers.
Enacting the Magna Carta was messy, and it took swords to make the king swear to uphold it. Nevertheless, this historic event triggered the systemising of English common law and the formation of the House of Commons, made up of representatives from across the English countryside.
It was also the forerunner of the English Bill of Rights (1689), on which other Western constitutions would be based. Eventually, the first fully-formed democracy would spring up in Protestant Scotland, modelled on the system already established within the Scottish church.
As the idea of democracy developed in Europe, Biblical precedents were far more influential than the history of Greece or Rome. Indeed, the democracies of Western Europe were a rejection of the Roman hierarchy that had persisted for centuries in the Roman Church.
Three books known as the ‘Trilogy of Freedom’ emerged during this time that helped catalyse the shift from medieval to modern government.2
The first of these, inspired by the seventy elders Moses appointed over Israel, gave rise to the concept of representative parliament. The second — highlighting the partnership between kings and prophets in leading Israel — birthed the idea of an independent judiciary. The third used Josiah’s reign in Israel to establish a nation’s leader is the first among equals.
The Scottish pastor and theologian Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) summarised this trilogy in his book Lex Rex (1644), which would have a profound impact on the political philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). In turn, Locke so influenced the American Founding Fathers and the political thought of Western Europe he would become known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’.
The French took an alternate path that led to the tyrannical reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), a grotesque throwback to the ruthless Roman emperors. But from the many wars and ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries, liberal democracy would emerge as the favoured form of government around the Western world.
Our Western political systems today are far from perfect. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” But our democracies work. And they work because they hold two powerful ideas in tension — ideas that have sadly now begun to fade.
First is the belief we are made in God’s image, so ‘we the people’ should have a voice in shaping the law that governs us. Second is the conviction that, since we are fallen and sinful, we need checks and balances to restrain our own corruption. Within this tension we have built the freest, safest, wealthiest and most generous societies on earth.
Notice our freedom, safety, wealth and generosity didn’t come from nowhere. It flourished because of Christian ideas and was established largely by Christian people.
The foundations of our democracy have been in disrepair for decades now. And this year, they are under direct attack as people decry law and order and bypass parliamentary representation in an attempt to inflict their will on the rest of us.
We need a contingency plan. We need to be pointing people back to Christianity. Without such popular virtue, our democracies may yet fail like so many others.
This article was first published on the Canberra Declaration blog as “Without Jesus, our democracies may yet fail”.
1. Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 336.
2. Franco-Gallia (1573) by Francois Hotman, The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza, and Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) by Philippe du Plessis-Mornay
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Kurt Mahlburg has studied architecture and theology among other interests of philosophy, history, surf, the outdoors and travel. He spent several years in Indonesia and has worked as a young adults pastor. He is now a teacher, a freelance writer, the Features Editor of the Canberra Declaration and contributes regularly at Caldron Pool & other online publications. He hosts his own blog 'Cross + Culture' at KurtMahlburg.blog.
Check out Kurt Mahlburg’s new book Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?