Christianity, Liberalism and the Democratic Tradition
From The Western Democratic Tradition by LJM Cooray

The rise of Christianity and Christian ideas led to the decay of the ancient Pagan idea of the omnipotent state defining the area of law and state control. It is a fundamental principle of the totalitarian state that it has the right to govern all of life. Plato, in a different form, expressed the same idea in his Republic. The State had the right to govern everything.

The early church resisted the claim of the state at every turn. Under the influence of Christianity Europe moved gradually, slowly and painfully from feudalism and totalitarianism to a decentralised system of government influenced by the Christian conception of man and the secular doctrines of democracy and liberalism. It is my analysis of history that it is this period of relative freedom, after the decline of feudalism, and prior to the rise of the modern big government interventionist state, that has seen the greatest degree of human progress in all areas. when the power of governments was reduced, there was opportunity for individual initiative. From that there has been a great deal of progress. But we have forgotten the lessons of history. The power of the state which declined with the fall of feudalism has once again been increased.

There is a connection between the decline of the size of government and the prosperity of western society. There is a like connection between the increase of government and the problems, of modern society, not only the economic ones, but the social problems. I do not have space to explore this.

There is a connection between the western theory of constitutionalism focussing on limited government and a defined role for government which I would like to have developed. But the liberal theory of constitutionalism is, by itself, inadequate. Individual freedom is meaningful only if balanced by individual responsibility. It was this balance that was stressed in developing western society through the doctrine of limited government and through a system of law which was derived from Christian principles by people who were Christians. The constitutional and legal structures were also supported by social values which emphasised a moral basis for all action and the family as the basic unit of society.

As I watch what is happening in Western society my conclusion is that western civilisation in toto is doomed unless the west rediscovers the quest for the spiritual and the importance of moral values.

There are eternal moral values. Structures may change — and they do change — and we do not need to have any loyalty to structures, but there are eternal values without which no civilisation can prosper and endure. Roman civilisation was built on the family and moral values and as these values crumbled the civilisation crumbled.

The attempt by liberals to use purely secular means to combat the results of secularism is, in my mind, diverting some of our best people and most creative minds from the only hope we have. Just as nature abhors a vacuum so does society abuse rights which are not exercised. The existence of liberty in a society consisting of people who have not the spiritual development to make constructive use of it simply leads to self indulgence, indolence and anarchy and the ascendancy of the self-righteous busybody, the totalitarian reformist zealot and the meddling do-gooders.

The liberal tradition, growing out of "The Enlightenment", has a priore validity when applied to a populace which is already motivated towards progress and guided by spiritual and moral values. When western populations were still in touch and tried to reach out to spiritual reality, this could be taken for granted, particularly when such progress had such a significant and self-evident material dimension. These conditions are breaking down. Many liberals now imagine that freedom is an end in itself and this in the hands and minds of almost completely secular individuals can lead us into the wilderness if the liberals ever attain political ascendancy.

Socialists believe equality is an end in itself. They are much more dangerous than the liberals. Equality and social justice are values which in many respects are antagonistic to the moral base of Christianity. On the other hand, liberalism, moderated by the moral and spiritual dimension, which it lacks today, can co-exist with Christianity. Indeed, liberalism was influenced by and probably would not have evolved in the form it did without the Bible. The Bible emphasises the importance of the individual and at the same time it emphasises the ideal of individual responsibility in the context of righteous living involving the observance of moral values.

Democratic western societies evolved in the context of freedom and individual dignity and laws and social customs based on moral values. What people value is what they put their faith in. In a secular intellectual climate it is rational to put faith in wealth, power and other means of self assertiveness. When the desire and means of self-assertiveness are so widespread, the ensuing lack of restraint will demand increasing social control simply to maintain enough order for the economy to flourish. Voluntary individual self restraint supported by law can circumvent the drift to totalitarianism - and voluntary individual restraint, as the Greeks discovered, (except for the philosophical elite) depends on the individual being able to place himself in the full universal context, so that faith and trust can operate to counteract social disintegration.

If men do not hope for salvation and self transcendence, self indulgence appears rational. From this point the purely social reformer cannot proceed because salvation and the spiritual quest generally are purely personal between the individual and God. Social reformers get nowhere by exhorting people to discover God for the good of the social body. Society cannot discover God; only individuals can do so, even though it remains true that only those societies composed of God's seekers will, in the long run prove viable. Many liberals see the great surge in western civilisation as coming through the secular enlightenment. I suspect that it is the religious reawakening of the preceding era which lies behind it all. Motivation is in response to faith and faith derives from the human spirit in its struggles to know God and do His will. Therein lies the key to social progress. Therein lies the key to the progress or the decline of our civilisation.

Lord Devlin, in an essay on morals and the criminal law said:

"Society means a community of ideas, without shared ideas of politics, morals and ethics, no society can exist. Each one of us had ideas about what is good and what is evil, they cannot be kept private from the society in which we live. If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil they will fail. If having made such a common agreement the agreement goes, the society will disintegrate. Society is not something that is kept together physically; it is held by invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds are too far relaxed the members would drift apart. The common morality is part of the bondage; the bondage is part of the prize of society and mankind which needs society must pay its price."