Recently I had a discussion with a fellow Catholic regarding the founding of the United States. Her feeling was that the Founding Fathers introduced political ideas that were new and had never been thought of or implemented before, for example that all men are created equal and that our rights come from our Creator, and these ideas make our system the best that ever was. I questioned whether these were really new ideas. I’m suspicious of the idea of rights being given by God, yet remaining undiscovered by Christ’s Church for over 1,700 years, and then finally figured out by Protestants.
Depending on what you mean by “equal”, I think it can be argued that all men being created equal is an old idea. Obviously we’re not all equal in terms of height, weight, strength and various talents. We’re not equal in terms of our individual traits. What we’re equal in is our nature: we’re all human beings. As such, we’re equally obliged to obey God’s commandments. We’re obliged not to steal from each other, lie to each other, kill each other, be unfaithful to each other, etc. The flip side of these obligations is that we have a right not to be stolen from, lied to, killed, etc., on the basis of our human nature. Thus, we have always had rights that were given by God.
Of course, she was referring to political rights. And it may be true that political equality was a new idea at the time of the Founding. But are there sufficient grounds for saying that political equality is a God-given right?
In any event, I argued that the Founders made a critical error in asserting that the authority to govern comes from the people and not from God. If authority comes from the people, and I’m one of the people, then there is no authority above me, and I can think and do as I please. Obviously the laws (in theory) are imposed by the majority, and in that sense I am restricted by the majority view. But the point is that I have the right to try to persuade others to my view rather than the existing majority view, in the hope of creating a new majority view – and nothing and no one has the legal right or power to stop me. This right is vested not only in individuals but also in rich, powerful organizations such as corporations, foundations and universities, entities which have no obligation to base their views on divinely revealed truth, and are often active in opposing it.
Making the Constitution religiously neutral may have seemed like a good idea at the time, when the Founders could count on the country being predominantly Christian; or at least, possessing the Christian underpinnings of public morality. Maybe they thought the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and the rights guaranteed thereby, were sufficient: No one is powerless, but neither is anyone so powerful as to be a tyrant. But is that enough? Giving people the power to act as they see fit is good as far as it goes, and preventing domination by any one person or group as well. But none of this says anything about what people should or shouldn’t do with their rights or their power. The answers to those questions, at the time of the founding, were provided by centuries of Christianity being embedded in the culture. But how about now, when that is becoming less and less the case? I think this is a situation they utterly failed to foresee.
My interlocutor doesn’t see this as a problem. Apparently in her view, it’s best that the government have no say in what people should believe about the purpose of our lives and the best way to live them. I think she would say that if we want a Christian society in a democracy, then we need to work for the evangelization of individuals until we have a majority of converted Christians in society. A democracy will be good when the people in it are good, and it will be friendly to Christianity when most of the people are Christians. But I don’t believe that a converted Christian majority can happen. I don’t mean that God couldn’t convert a majority of any given country if he chose to, but that the scriptures clearly teach that the majority of the world will always be “of the world”, in other words opposed or indifferent to the Gospel.
Historically, the influence of Christian ideas on a society was not a bottom-up process wherein the society was changed because a majority of individuals had experienced a personal metanoia. The majority in these societies, at the time of their conversion to Christian countries, were illiterate. The Christian influence was imposed from above, starting with the conversion of Constantine, but in a process that was repeated over and over, when the ruler of a place was converted to the Christian religion, and as a result Christian ideas were taught to the literate, mainly the wealthy and the clergy, and then passed on to the masses via churches and schools.
The idea of the United States being converted by a bottom-up process involving mass conversions, does not seem realistic to me. I’m not saying I have a better idea for remedying our situation; I don’t. I just think the Founding Fathers blew it. They set up a very good system for their time but one which, in our time, has become hostile to Christian faith and morality, and in all likelihood will only become more so. The fear is not only that public morality suffers in our time, but I believe the Christian understanding of God, creation and human nature is what led to the establishment and success of stable democracies. The undermining and loss of that understanding, I fear will ultimately undermine the feasibility and success of democracy itself.
Maybe not. This situation is unprecedented. It’s never happened before that a society was Christianized, then became post-Christian. We don’t really know what comes next. Maybe the Christian principles that undergird our democracy will remain, even if no longer recognized as Christian. But I think Pope St. John Paul II might say otherwise. He seems to teach that there need to be overt governing moral principles that transcend mere human opinions, in order for a democracy to survive and thrive:
96. The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical–unyielding and uncompromising–defense of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom.
This service is directed to every man, considered in the uniqueness and singularity of his being and existence: only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason, this service is also directed to all mankind: it is not only for individuals but also for the community, for society as such. These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal [God-given equality].
97. In this way, moral norms, and primarily the negative ones, those prohibiting evil, manifest their meaning and force, both personal and social. By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development. The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular–those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19)–constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.
… Even though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels.
* * *
99. Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behavior and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others… Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate, no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it”.
Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom–which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will–is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and socio-political sphere. This is clearly seen in the Church’s social teaching–which “belongs to the field… of theology and particularly of moral theology”–and from her presentation of commandments governing social, economic and political life, not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of behavior and concrete acts.
* * *
101. In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversaries, safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost–all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of States.
When these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay (cf. Ps 14:3-4; Rev 18:2-3, 9-24). Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world–Marxism being the foremost of these–there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism“.
Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993).