Friday, May 27, 2005

Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal

Some Americans claim we should exclude Christian values from the public square. On the contrary, argues philosopher Jacques Maritain, good Christians make good citizens.

They live by gospel values: honesty, integrity, and compassion. They obey the law. They resist the selfishness that unbelief and materialism breed. And they subordinate their own interests to the common good.

No wonder, says Maritain, that American democracy -- which arose from a Christian people -- has served so well and lasted so long.

Here Maritain shows that in a society unleavened by religious ideals, an enduring democracy can never take root. And once a religious people abandons its faith, even the greatest democracy must wither and die. Untethered from transcendent values, democracy becomes little more than a struggle to be won by the most powerful and the ruthless.

The hour is late. Too long have we stood by while politicians promise never to let their religious beliefs influence their political judgments. Too long has a false understanding of democracy cowed us into laying aside our Christian values when we vote.

As Maritain demonstrates in these lucid pages, Christians are vital to democracy. Good Christians make good citizens, and good citizens make strong democracies. If America and her ideals are to endure, says Maritain, Christians and their values must not be excluded from public discourse, but eagerly welcomed into it.

In looking at the contemporary relationship between Church & State, the compatability of the 'American Experiment' and liberal democracy with Catholic Christianity, the role of religion in public life and education, one is likely to encounter the Jesuit political scholar John Courtney Murray. Less recognized, but rather more substantial in my opinion, is the Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) -- without consideration of whom no discussion of these issues is complete.

As Michael Novak said in his "salute to Jacques Maritain":

In political and social thought, no Christian has ever written a more profound defense of the democratic idea and its component parts, such as the dignity of the person; the sharp distinction between society and the state; the role of practical wisdom; the common good; the transcendent anchoring of human rights; transcendent judgment upon societies; and the interplay of goodness and evil in human individuals and institutions. Indeed, in the thrust that this body of thought gave to Christian Democratic parties after World War II, Maritain gained the right to be thought of as one of the architects of Christian Democracy both in Europe and Latin America.

Against the secularist philosophies of his day, Maritain espoused an "integral humanism" -- that is to say, a fully Christian humanism which "considers man in the integrality of his natural and supernatural being" -- which he believed could, if embraced, rescue modern democracy from the materialist spirit by properly orienting it to the 'horizontal' and 'vertical' dimensions of mankind:

The end of political society is not to lead the human person to his spiritual perfection and to his full freedom of autonomy; that is to say, to sanctity . . . Nevertheless, political society is essentially destined, by reason of the earthly end that specifies it, to the development of those environmental conditions which will so raise men in general to a level of material, intellectual, and moral life in accord with the good and peace of the whole, that each person will be positively aided in the progressive achievement of his full life as a person and of his spiritual freedom."

Having authored over twenty books, Maritain's writings on these topics can be rather daunting. Hence I was pleased to discover Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal, a "Jacques Maritain Reader" by Sophia Institute Press. In the space of a hundred or so pages, James P. Kelly III -- President of the Solidary Center for Law & Justice and Director of International Affairs for The Federalist Society -- compiles small nuggets of Maritain's thought on a diversity of subjects, arranged by pertinent themes as "The Limits of Social Planning," "Christianity and the Common Good," "Faith-Based Initiatives," "The American Experience", and "Christian and Democratic Evolution."

The book itself is deceptively small. Most of these selections are no more than a paragraph long -- just enough, in my experience, to whet the reader's appetite. But Kelley has skillfully arranged the work such that one quickly picks up connections from one chapter to another, and is moved to carefully ponder what Maritain is saying in one passage before moving along to the next.

Those who really want to benefit from Maritain will avail themselves of Kelly's recommendations for "further reading and reflection" at the end of each chapter, conveniently listing key passages from Maritain's numerous works, as well as related papal encyclicals and counciliar documents.

This would make an excellent gift for any student of political philosophy or Catholic layman interested in the social doctrine of the Church -- and, perhaps, to many a political legislator as well.