So I’ve started reading Jacques Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy, and – holy shit, we’re not even going to get to talk about the actual text today, because the introduction goes right for the hard sell. It’s the old ‘gays are hijacking democracy’ argument dressed up in a fancy suit, and we’re going to talk about it. For reference, I found this introduction in a volume of two works: Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law. It’s published by Ignatius Press, 2011, and the introduction – the foreword, rather – is by Raymond L. Dennehy.
Okay buckle up here we go. I honestly don’t know shit about the actual book, so we’re just talking about this foreword for now. I know that Maritain is – was – a French Catholic philosopher in the 20th century, and I don’t know how he’d feel about what this foreword is talking about. So as with Charles Taylor and James Smith, I’m just talking about the foreword and not the text itself.
The basic idea is that contemporary democracy has its roots in the Christian tradition. I’m not really in a position to comment on the idea – I don’t know much about political science, but I would’ve thought democracy originated with the Greek city-states. Anyway – the blurbs on the back push pretty hard for the idea that democracy is rooted in Christianity. One writer, Michael Novak, (a big-name American Catholic theologian) says that “Almost single-handedly, Maritain launched a hypothesis on the Christian (and Jewish) origins of the foundational axioms of democracy, of which many atheists are now coming to admit the truth.” That might be the point of difference made between democracy per se and our contemporary democracy; I don’t know, I haven’t read the book yet. But our Raymond Dennehy takes this idea of Christian democracy and demonstrates that he has absolutely no chill:
“Ever since the Renaissance, reason has been celebrated at the expense of faith… This secularist influence permeates democracy today. Current political debates are rife with accusations from advocates for abortion and same-sex ‘marriage’ [I love his bitchy little quote marks around ‘marriage’] that their opponents are trying to impose their religious beliefs on legislation and public policy.”
He goes on for a bit, but here’s the summary:
- Contemporary democracy is fundamentally Christian
- Trying to exclude Christianity from the public sphere is therefore an assault on democracy
- The homosexual agenda (his phrase) is anti-democratic because it’s anti-Christian
Zero chill. He ends with the hardest of hard sells:
“The ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin… if there can be no Christianity, can there be democracy?”
ZERO. CHILL. So basically the homosexual agenda is ruining democracy. It’s an idea that’s floated around a lot by conservative Christians – see here for my favourite textbook example – but this is a pretty striking example that touches on some interesting ideas.
Okay so firstly we have to talk about the whole secular/religious thing in terms of politics. There have been some pretty legitimate arguments made that the division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ government in its most recent manifestation is designed to justify American foreign intervention in Middle Eastern countries. The morally upstanding democratic Americans are morally obliged to go and insert democracy into Middle Eastern countries because they’re theocracies and they’re backwards because religion (read: Islam) is backwards and hateful and irrational and only (American) democracy can save us, and there’s definitely no concealed American national interest at play, and the Iraqis definitely have weapons of mass destruction. That’s a thing that’s happening, and obviously it’s not good. Secular government has its own set of values and principles just as much as religious governments do, and it’s not really on to present secular government as like the neutral value-free solution to religious government. That’s one issue that’s happening.
With regard to Dennehy’s argument, there’s a couple of fun ways to defuse it. In some ways it’s a very apocalyptic vision: the faithful Christians marginalised by a broader malevolent godless society. It’s a very American view, and it also harks back to New Testament times with Roman persecution – so you know they’re gonna milk that shit. One fun method is to point out that some Christians actually think there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage. Dennehy would no doubt tell you that those Christians are wrong and stupid, but as soon as he does that, he’s inviting trouble. If you, a Christian, acknowledge that some forms of Christianity are right and others are wrong, isn’t it possible that your form of Christianity is wrong? Once we leverage that argument, it stops being Christianity vs. the world and starts being about conflicting forms of Christianity. You can do the same thing with creationists – they’re very big on Christianity vs. secular science, and the proper way to defuse that is by pushing the Christians who support evolution. The creationists will tell you that the pro-evolution Christians have bad science, and then all the secular scientists can re-enter the conversation and bring the science-thunder.
But even after we’ve defused these little tricks, there’s still a very basic tension that we can’t really make go away. At the end of the day, there will be Christians who think there’s something wrong with being gay. That’s just something that is going to exist. And there’s a really important question about how these anti-gay people can co-exist alongside the gay community. How should the government operate with regard to these two communities? How should society be structured? These are important questions that are being worked out in the day to day life of our communities. Dennehy is trying to go nuclear: he wants to escalate the question into an all-or-nothing titanic struggle for the heart of democracy. It’s a little bit extra, but that’s what he’s trying to do. Really I don’t think it’s worth worrying too much about him. He’s talking big, but ultimately he’s standing against the slow, implacable march into a better future. More to come on this next week.