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What’s the Point of Freedom and Democracy?

“I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reasons. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believe in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on these grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure.

“The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

C.S. Lewis, “Equality” (1943), in Present Concerns: Essays by C.S. Lewis

This isn’t the sort of quote we normally hear on Independence Day. It is, however, exactly the sort of quote we should hear. It points us to a more mature — and Christian — understanding of freedom and self-government than we’ll get from the culture around us.

In the U.S., a lot of people (politicians, especially) lionize Freedom and Democracy and the Will of the People as if these are naturally, inevitably good things. No, not just good things, but the best things — things that make us the best country there ever was. It’s part of the civil religion that even some Christians can get caught up in. But the civil religion, like all religions not built on God, is a false faith and a kind of idolatry.

The truth is, neither freedom or democracy is inherently good. They’re only as good or as bad as the people themselves. And even the best people are still sinful. They often abuse their freedom. They often abuse democracy too, sometimes at the expense of freedom. For example, some voters  use their power to seize the freedom and property of others, imagining that the democratic process makes it all legitimate. (You don’t have to agree with everything the early libertarian Fredric Bastiat said to appreciate his term for this: “legal plunder.”)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that some form of dictatorship is an improvement. On the contrary: If power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (per Lord Acton), that system is liable to be the worst system. Moreover, freedom may not be inherently virtuous, but it is a prerequisite to virtue — which by its nature can’t be coerced, or it’s not really virtue, just fear of punishment. Government can restrain vice somewhat — a legitimate and necessary function, up to a point — but it can do fairly little to create virtue. That’s the job of other institutions, like the family. As Samuel Johnson said, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” (They can cause more of what we endure than the days when Johnson wrote, but they still can’t cure much.)

As for the job of government, it’s mainly (to use the same words I did in a post a couple weeks ago) “to preserve basic civil order and justice so that we may be free to live peaceful and godly lives (e.g., Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-2).” Freedom and democracy — for the latter, a better word might be self-government — should be means to that same end. That, rather than self-indulgence, is their proper purpose: to help enable lives of faith and virtue. Those are the things that matter most: Freedom and self-government should play a supporting role.

Interestingly, though, faith and virtue also support freedom and self-government. The Founders knew that and said so repeatedly. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” John Adams wrote. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And as George Washington put it in his presidential Farewell Address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to a political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim that tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness. We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.”

Words to remember — and a heritage to treasure — on Independence Day. May they remain with us long after the parades and the fireworks are over.

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About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.

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