Thoughts on Democracy, Part 1

Thoughts on Democracy
By: John Snyder
Host of In the Public Square
Part One:

Have you ever wondered why political and religious liberty seems to have first emerged in Christian civilization? Perhaps it never dawned on you until this moment. But now that you think it, have you ever pondered why the development of liberal democracy should have grown out of 16 th and 17 th century Christian Protestantism?

Let me give you a simplified lesson in history. It is not a politically correct history or one embraced by the multiculturalist academe or the political left, but it is, nonetheless absolutely true. [1]

The first successful democracy is the history of the world was England . [2] I know that you’ve heard it said that it was Athens . But that political experiment vanished in the dust of history two thousand years before the Puritan Revolution established the first lasting liberal democratic state. Before British parliamentarianism came to fruition under the Puritans, no one really toyed with the idea of democracy. It was John Locke, Sam Rutherford, and John Calvin who were the true progenitors of liberal democracy, not Pericles or Themistocles.

It is true that Athenian democracy was first it time, but it did not last. [3] In fact, it was a decided flop. Whereas the success of modern countries like the United States and England are uniformly held to be the result of their political institutions, it may be strongly argued that Athens was culturally successful despite its democracy. In fact, the architects of our own constitution used the Athenian experience as an example of what not to do! While it is true that the plays and philosophy of the Golden Age survive, the political experiment did not survive and only continued for a very short time.

Fact is that until the Puritan Revolution in England , democracy was roundly rejected as a political monstrosity by all learned men. Plato, who is one the undisputed fathers of western philosophy, wrote his greatest work, The Republic, as a discourse against democracy. In fact, his entire project was to affect a state constructed on a hierarchy of virtue such that the contemptible whimsy and folly of the “people” would not bring ruin to the good life and liberties of his beloved Athens . Notwithstanding the claims of blathering nabobs in universities, prior to the coming of the Puritans, democracy was a very bad word. And rightfully so; it could boast of very little virtue in came to any exercise of wisdom. Socrates, you may remember, who was probably the greatest secular teacher between the time of Moses and Jesus was condemned to drink hemlock on a majority vote called at the Athenian Areopagus.

For that matter, Jesus Christ himself was condemned by simple voice vote four-hundred years later in downtown Jerusalem . Not a very pretty record.

I draw your attention to these facts in order to clarify some things that have been deliberately “unclarified” by our modern secular universities. Democracy, prior to the Calvinist habit of mind, was a flat failure. Despite all pretense and assertions to the contrary that claim democracy as a product of the Enlightenment or the Renaissance – liberal democracy is entirely the product of the Protestant Reformation.

Today there are about one hundred democracies of various conditions of health in the world. And every single one of them has derived the principles of democracy either directly or indirectly from countries which underwent a protestant reformation, and most particularly, from the strain of reformed Protestantism called Puritanism.i.e. Calvinism.

For starters, the United States , Australia , Canada , New Zealand , are all the direct progeny of this great tradition begun in England . The Puritan model had a few Protestant cousins, the Christian Reformers of the Netherlands and the Calvinists of Switzerland. For a brief shining moment the Huguenots thrived in France and Belgium until they were exterminated by the Catholic Monarchy. But prior to 1800 there were only five or so democracies on the entire planet and all of them were indisputably protestant and had their roots in reformed Christianity.

Continental Europe was not Democratic. Please get this straight. In fact, the continent was decidedly set against any notion of democracy. Nowhere else on earth did liberal democracy take root. Not in Asia . Not in the Middle East . Not Africa . Nor Latin America . Liberal Democracy was planted in the world by the children of Calvin.

And of course democracy has had its enemies.

Its first great opponents were the Spanish and French and Austrian monarchies who set themselves against the early English reformers and Dutch Republic . Then came Louis XIV and the arrogance of absolute monarchy. Then came the guillotine and the sea of bloodletting in the Reign of Terror. Then Napoleon and the radical secularism of the French Revolution that spread by military conquest over the continent in twenty-five years of continuous colossal war. Then came the nationalists and the Imperialists, the socialists, Mussolini and the Fascists, Franco’s Spain, Hitler and the scourge of Nazism, then the Soviet Empire and fifty years of cold war and the radical materialism called communism, the arms race, the Berlin Wall, Pol Pot and the great procession of elitist tyrants shaping the world into perfection.

And now come the bipolar twin enemies of Nihilism and Islamic fundamentalists along with the intellectual quislings and deconstructionists who eat out the substance of our great universities and who ally themselves in their folly with the enemies of democracy. These men and their ideas are just the most recent manifestation of this age-old war. They mark out the chapters in the long chronicle of human tragedies that have befallen a world that has rejected or remained untouched by the Protestant Reformation.

All these anti-democratic concepts are just repackaged derivatives of the age-old total state principle- ideas as old as the Pharaohs of Egypt, Ahasuerus of Persia, the Caliphates of Islam, or the Emperors of China, even the American Confederacy. All these historical examples viewed across the gulf of history, are but the recurring incarnations of the idea that all state authority derives from a special class of more virtuous men. And consequently the great problem of human government is control .

At first that doesn’t sound so bad. Why shouldn’t we hand over the problems of government to men of special intelligence and character? Maybe it still sounds like a good idea to some of you. But that is why liberal democracy has remained the decided minority opinion in the great court of political history.

But about 350 years ago, against these pagan models, Calvinist Protestantism began to produce something called liberal democracy-which stands as the only really viable and successful alternative to the idea of the total state. Despite alternative and clever teachings to the contrary in our modern philosophy departments, despite the genius of modern political scientists, and the theories of modern sociologists, there really are no successful alternative models that can claim to have independently given rise to political and religious liberty.

But then there are those other European states, which had not achieved stable democracy until it was, well, forced on them by, yes, those same children of the Calvinist revolution: the United Kingdom, the United States, and our cousins, the Aussies and Canucks. You may remember that it was they who imposed democracy on continental Europe: Germany , Italy and Austria , not to mention Japan .

Today the success of the liberal democratic idea is seen in the political inheritance of India , South Africa , the Philippines and South Korea . All these are the second cousins of the British or American Empires.

Then, of course, there are those “other countries” who aspire to political liberalism, having some distant intimation of the power and genius of democracy while not quite understanding what it is. Their scholars visit our western universities and parliaments and listen to our speeches in the United Nations and attempt to mimic the language and values of liberal democracy without really understanding what it’s all about, or learning the source of it. For that matter, most Americans no longer understand what “it’s all about” either. But at the top of that list are the dysfunctional proto-democracies like: Russia , Mexico , Nigeria , Venezuela , and Indonesia .

And then there are the other hundred tawdry little despotisms that conspire in darkness to expand the reach of slavery. Top of the list: China , Cuba , North Korea , Iran , Syria , Libya , Sudan and the remaining litany of concentration camps we dignify with seats at the United Nations.

In short, if the Christianity has not touched it-democracy did not flourish there. Period. Why? Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Now let me tip my cards and tell you that the answer has to do with the Protestant-Calvinist conception of man. And more to the point: it has to do with the Christian idea of original sin.what is sometimes called “total depravity”.

That is the starting point in this politically incorrect civics lesson. And it is not a socio-economic lesson. It is a religious statement of fact. I understand that this is deeply disturbing to secularists who believe that man is inherently good. It is a squeamish point to Marxists who see all questions of human society through the prism of economics. It is a hateful notion to the sociologist who comments on behavior though the lens of gender, or race, or urban and rural dynamics or class structure. It is a frightful hobgoblin to the philosopher who sees conflict and misunderstanding as disjunctions of mind and ontological reality. But the only beginning point of any meaningful question about civil government is the first question of anthropology: what is man and what is his nature?

*John Snyder is host of In the Public Square heard every Friday night in Sacramento California , from midnight to 2am on KTKZ 1380 AM. Other materials are available along with archived radio programs at . Programs are also pod cast through itunes . You can contact John Snyder at:



[1] This essay is a sketch of many complex historical and cultural events and therefore contains many generalities and statements that otherwise deserve more subtle consideration and exploration. Nevertheless the content of these four essays is true in substance, even while they shave off many avenues of description that might otherwise belong to such a narrative.

[2] One might claim this title for the Dutch or the Swiss, who also deserve to be mentioned as progenitors of modern democracy. The simple fact is, however, that neither of these people grew into the “Empire of Liberty” that the British did. The institutions of political liberty that exist today around the world are primarily the legacy of Britain .

[3] Most scholars concur that the great Golden Age of Greek Democracy lasted for only about 200 years, until it was finally extinguished by the Spartans and their allies at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. (Compare this with the fact that representative democracy in one incarnation or another has existed in North America for nearly four hundred years thus far.) Thucydides recounts the tragic fecklessness of an irresolute Athenian people confused and disoriented during the momentous conflict for its survival. Democratic men did not acquit themselves well during those closing dark days. Indeed the recurring witness of history, from the trial of Socrates to the alienation of Alcibiades after the Battle off Syracuse is of a breathtaking folly on the part of the Athenian citizenry.

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