Democracy, The Individual, and Moral Revolutions (Part 4)

Part 1Part 2, Part 3

Is Democracy Traditional or Not?

The “progressive” moral revolution of the last half century is not in fact all that “progressive” when considered against the backdrop of traditional American values. Given the moral contours of democracy it is not surprising that American history in crisis times, continues to return to the overriding restraints on authority and exclusion that have characterized it from the beginning. It is/was a part of our cultural DNA from the founding of our nation against the tyranny of King George III.. And woe to the evangelical that supposes that the moral clock can be simply be turned back without abandoning the crucial checks and balances that have defined American culture for more than two centuries.

The moral center in a democracy is the individual as opposed to the community in which he/she stands – whether it is a tribe, or a feudal society or a religious institution. The noble elements of democracy have everything to do with the sacred nature of individuals created in the image of God. It is a distinctly Christian argument that keeps democratic restraints against the abuse of authorities in place. But as many have noticed, the noble side of democracy is often accompanied by its corrupting tendency to loosen individuals from any and all moral contexts. The self is not self-defining. It is given an identity by that which it images. The permanence of the divine image in humans protects it from ever completely being corrupted by oppressive authorities. But its very ephemeral qualities, lend itself to the yearning for security and safety. It is these values which are almost always trumpeted by tyrants and dictators in the face dissent. Witness the rhetoric from middle eastern despots in this freedom spring of 2011 who have consistently harped on “law and order” to squelch the movements of independence. Democracy is a threat to authoritarian regimes, but it is also a threat to the dignity of individuals, when it can locate no other moral center than the autonomous self. For very different reasons, evangelicals and the gay community have not been very perceptive about this latter danger. The claim of autonomy can protect oneself from external authorities, but it does little to protect the self from oneself. Recognizing this provides one important door into the Gospel.