Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World by Robert P. Kraynak

To identify any particular form of government with Christianity is a dangerous error: for it confounds the permanent with the transitory, the absolute with the contingent….Those who consider that a discussion of the nature of a Christian society should conclude by supporting a particular form of political organization, should ask themselves if they really believe our form of government to be more important than our Christianity.–T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society 

The end of the Cold War has brought in its wake an unrestrained enthusiasm for liberal democracy, even among Christians who had previously maintained an agnostic stance toward any particular political system. Seemingly forgotten are the voices of those tutored under the dehumanizing lash of communism, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, even as they embraced the West, expressed significant concerns about modern democratic liberalism. Perhaps the only consistent opposition to global liberalism remaining may be that of the Islamic states, whose reservations are understandably receiving little sympathy these days.

If Robert P. Kraynak’s Christian Faith and Modern Democracy did nothing more than exhume and reiterate the critique of liberalism by such thinkers as Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Eric Voegelin, and Solzhenitsyn himself, it would be well worth reading. And this much the book certainly does. Kraynak skillfully dismantles the illusory neutrality of liberalism, which in reality “promotes its vision of the Good Life with all the weapons of cultural hegemony and state power.” The book serves as a welcome reminder that a robust social pluralism is incompatible with the totalizing and homogenizing force of the modern welfare state. But Kraynak’s project is significantly more ambitious.

The stated purpose of Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is twofold. Kraynak argues that liberalism requires Christianity to provide a sufficient foundation for human dignity—an account it is unable to generate on its own and upon which modern democracy depends. Having made his case for liberalism’s theoretical dependence on Christianity, Kraynak then devotes the bulk of his book to developing an argument that Christianity in no way necessitates modern liberal democracy. In fact, he proposes that liberal democracy and Christianity are profoundly irreconcilable.

Kraynak’s thesis is nothing if not bold. For most American Christians, who can perceive no tension between their religious and political devotion, it would appear that Kraynak’s intellectual project is both perverse and impossible. Remarkably, however, one leaves the book impressed that Kraynak is equal to his task.

Much as Richard John Neuhaus has observed that modern atheism is a “Christian” atheism— in the sense that the only God it bothers to deny is the monotheistic, eternal, and personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition—Kraynak contends that modern democratic liberalism is the only form of democracy that is a candidate for serious consideration. Modern democracy, unlike ancient Greek democracy, for example, is democracy as an end unto itself, a political expression of the rights that accompany a particular conception of human nature and human dignity. This particular notion of dignity is equated with “autonomy and mastery of one’s fate.” As such, liberal democracy is more than merely a system of social and political order: “it is a philosophy of freedom.”

Christianity’s account of human dignity, by contrast, is essentially hierarchical and unsuited to the purposes of modern democracy. Kraynak’s treatment of the politics of human dignity is particularly insightful, both for its lucidity and its ecumenical scope. Kraynak examines the way that the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all reflect a hierarchy of being in their understanding of the imago dei, human reason, and human responsibility. His examination of Christianity’s understanding of man as conceived within and measured by a cosmological order has important implications for law and justice and provides a stark contrast to the liberal democratic view of human dignity as absolute and undifferentiated. For Kraynak, the Christian understanding of human nature finds its political expression in Augustine’s doctrine of Two Cities—a doctrine that both accommodates a range of political systems and finds every particular regime (including our own) ultimately inadequate.

Over and against the prevailing conception of democracy, which only thinly disguises its claim to being the best regime, Kraynak offers a theory of Christian constitutionalism. Such constitutionalism is “more open to the diversity of political regimes than liberalism” and is less ambitious than its secular counterparts. Rooted in a substantial view of higher goods and higher spheres that cannot be absorbed by the state, the temporal ends of the state are more narrowly conceived than is the case with modern liberalism.

In effect, Christian constitutionalism in no way aspires to resolve or overcome what Peter Augustine Lawler has suggested is humanity’s essentially “alien” nature. The citizens of the City of Man are ever and necessarily strangers in a strange land, pilgrims on a journey, temporal beings longing for eternity and transcendence. Thus is the City of Man “desacralized.” Nonetheless, because it is divinely ordained, it can never be purely secularized. It is limited to temporal ends, but with an eye to eternal concerns.

Christian constitutionalism provides an alternative framework for limited government on a distinctly “illiberal” foundation. Indeed, Kraynak draws upon Reformed notions of “sphere sovereignty,” Roman Catholic conceptions of subsidiarity, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism to provide a metaphysical foundation for a pluralistic social order. But offering an alternative to the prevailing democratic orthodoxy is not Kraynak’s primary concern—it is only an element of his contention that liberal democracy cannot be harmonized with the Christian faith.

Kraynak examines several theoretical and historical movements that are commonly identified as ushering in the nighuniversal embrace of democracy and human rights as central to Christian political thought. These usual suspects include Scholastic constitutionalism, neo-Scholastic popular sovereignty, the Protestant Reformation, religious rationalism, and Christian responses to slavery, industrialism, and the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. Of particular interest in this examination is Kraynak’s discussion of modern democracy’s conspicuous rejection of essential political teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Kraynak’s forceful insistence that the Protestant Reformation is insufficient to account for the emergence of liberal democracy starkly distinguishes him from those on both sides of the Christian confessional divide who commonly attribute the inspiration for democratic liberalism to the Reformation and identify this effect, alternately, as a vindication or an indictment of the sundering of Christendom

Ultimately, Kraynak attributes the emergence of liberal democracy to the thought of Immanuel Kant. The pains taken to distinguish Kant’s political ideas from those of the Enlightenment as a whole may seem unnecessary, but his specific concern is the doctrine of rights that emerges from the Kantian conception of the autonomous person. This feature of modern democracy more than any other renders it incompatible with Augustine’s Two Cities framework.

Kraynak argues that while Kant makes human dignity the central theme of liberalism, he (like other Enlightenment theorists) is unable to provide a satisfactory conceptual foundation for human dignity apart from Christianity. But while the Kantian philosophy of freedom requires a Christian foundation for its notion of human dignity, the Christian understanding of human dignity is inherently at odds with the Kantian philosophy of freedom. Man conceived within a hierarchy of being as a “measured measure” cannot be reconciled with the indeterminacy of human ends that is the cornerstone of Kantian freedom, the animating force that inspires the modern democratic state.

Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is a valuable consideration of Augustine’s doctrine of Two Cities as it bears upon modern political theory. In the light of this work it is clear that any easy identification of Christian political theory with modern liberal democracy must be reexamined carefully.

What is less clear is the extent to which Kraynak’s thesis and critique may be applied to the American polity, at least as it was originally conceived. The possibility that the American founding bears a marked resemblance to the constitutional and limited republic that Kraynak champions in contrast to contemporary forms of liberal democracy warrants greater consideration than it receives.

In deference to the rhetorical flourishes of the Declaration of Independence, Kraynak appears willing to concede to Thomas Jefferson an intellectual dominance over the American founders—but such dominance is far from self-evident. Jefferson’s articulation of universal and inalienable rights may comport with the central principles of modern democracy, but they alone were clearly insufficient justification for revolution: the Declaration also details various abrogations of magisterial responsibility that would have resonated in the breasts of the Calvinists of the Continental Congress. Though Kraynak proposes that Protestant impulses are insufficient to account for the emergence of liberal democracy, there can be no doubt that they played a role in inspiring the American Experiment. Christian ideals, though surely not the sole—and perhaps not the primary—animating spirit, were certainly vital to the enterprise.

It is also unclear that the U.S. Constitution reflects the sentiments of Jefferson’s rights language. Such a notion is belied by the heated debate over the adoption of the Bill of Rights—amendments which may themselves be read as a re-articulation of the limits placed upon a federal government of strictly enumerated powers rather than an expression of essential human liberty.

To be sure, some explanation must be given for the marked difference in the American republic as originally conceived and as it is now understood. But might it not be contended that the “diluted and rationalized version of Christianity” that underlies modern democratic liberalism is better attributed not to America’s founding, but to her refounding? Perhaps the foundations of modern liberal America lie not so much in a declaration signed in Philadelphia as in an address delivered at Gettysburg.

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Graciously republished with permission of the Intercollegiate Review (Fall, 2002).

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