Escaping the Bunker: Democracy Needs Christianity
By Mark Hamilton. So What Imprint, Dublin, 2021.
The world before Christ was a savage place. Ancient civilisations were cruel and unforgiving. In this world, despite the benign and wise voices of people like Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Socrates, Cicero and others, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome placed very little value on human life.
But if Rome was not built in a day, neither was Christendom. Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire, or the story of St. Columbanus and his missionaries in the turbulent Europe of the 6th and 7th centuries, show us how long it took for authentically Christian values to take root in a pagan world.
Even into the 12th and 13th centuries, the flowering which we see in the lives of St Francis, King Louis IX, and St Thomas Aquinas, personal brutality accompanied a confused and confusing political morality, exemplified by blundering Crusaders, the unedifying struggles between the Empire and the Papacy, and the Hundred Years War.
The path to the modern world, was long and arduous. In the 20th century, it faltered at least twice and was threatened with extinction.
What was the common denominator of the regressions experienced by Christendom – which we now coyly call Western civilisation? It was the abandonment of the principles of life and living which Christians derived from the teaching of a Man who claimed to be the Son of God.
A new book, Escaping the Bunker: Democracy Needs Christianity, by the Irish writer Mark Hamilton, looks at today’s society and politics. He finds it in grave danger of catastrophic collapse. Of his book he writes:
The book stems from an awareness that the secular state cannot adequately protect its citizens and that as time progresses such failure may prove catastrophic for democracy itself. Democracy without Christianity is fundamentally incomplete — it is like a tree which has lost the roots which anchor and feed it.
Hamilton argues that the decline in democracy can only be reversed if the secular state rediscovers its Christian roots. For this to happen, he says, Christians need to understand the challenges, immerse themselves in political life, and take the opportunities presented to restore the democratic process.
The book is a calm piece of didacticism rather than a polemic raging against the failures of secularism, the flawed pedigree of relativism or the apathy of supposedly committed Christians. It explores the political landscape and points to a way forward to restore the damaged fabric of democracy on the basis of the Christian values on which it is based.
His arguments will make great sense to some. They will not be easily accepted by others, but one suspects that their counter-arguments will seldom rise above the level of knee-jerk reactions – like the lazy confusing of misguided Christian zeal with what is of the essence of Christianity.
Dr George Huxley, classicist, mathematician and archaeologist – to mention but three of the disciplines in which he is distinguished – is emeritus Professor of Classics at Queen’s University Belfast. In a lecture given in University College Dublin some years ago he defended Aristotle’s right still to be considered a wise man. Huxley said:
We speak much of democracy because we have elections and a wide franchise for women and men. But an ancient Greek democrat would with reason question our assumption that we are democrats. We emphasize elections, but we take too little thought for the quality of our elected rulers. Unlike the Athenians of the ﬁfth and fourth centuries BC, we do not subject ofﬁce holders to adequate scrutiny.
While, he admits, some effective scrutiny is to be seen in the activities of Congressional enquiries in the United States, he describes House of Commons committees as toothless instruments and finds little evidence of scrutiny in the work of European Commissioners. Judicial enquiries become necessary because elected representatives fail to police themselves.
Huxley suggests that we are deceiving ourselves. Perhaps it is this self-deception that is getting to us and disillusioning us about our “democracy”? Modern governments, he thinks, are not democratic but oligarchic.
The oligarchic establishment of the self—describing ‘great and good’ knows how to use the law to defend itself. An Athenian, therefore, would question our democratic credentials and Aristotle, who yet had grave doubts about radical democracy, would have agreed with him: the millions. of dollars required to secure election to the Presidency of the United States, or the close connexion between British politicians of all parties and business interests … are all oligarchic features.
For an ancient Greek, he said, there were two important questions: are the laws good and are they obeyed? If they are not good, they can be changed, but they must not be circumvented. “How then would an ancient Greek, having read Aristotle’s Politics, classify most Western polities? He or she would not call them democracies. They are, rather, oligarchies interrupted by elections with low turnouts.”
So, is it the case that in our readiness to live a lie about our political institutions we do not even reach the standard of the pre-Christian Greeks? Honesty, integrity and a sense of justice are human virtues attainable by all humans. But grace is the most powerful of all the agents which reinforce the civilising virtues. In that sense Hamilton is correct in seeing Christianity as the true guardian of the common good in the world. What makes a Christian Christian is grace and not self-description.
This brings us to the one haunting question posed implicitly by Hamilton’s book but not really addressed.
Where are the Christians who will transform this self-deceiving world? Democracy is not an ideology. It is a process through which a community gives expression to a vision. If our community is dazed and confused, then democracy will create chaos. By all means Christians should engage in the democratic process but perhaps their first responsibility and their first desire should be to speak their faith loudly and clearly, live by and help many others to live by the truths and values which their faith embodies.
Then, slowly but surely, as their forebears did at the dawn of Christianity, they will transform society.
This essay has been republished from Garvan Hill. It has been slightly abridged.