Posted by: Paul Chiariello | August 8, 2011

Christianity, Democracy & Western Civilization: How Influential was the Former?

I don’t know what to do.  I don’t want to be antagonistic, but I so often hear people argue that Christianity was necessary for the birth of liberal democracy, human rights, and all of these other things.  That it could happen only with the inspiration of Christianity and not Islam or Buddhism, for example, is silly.  Christianity has had its positive roles, but it simply cannot lay claim to Western democratic civilization to the degree so many people I talk to want it to.

I’ve already written another post about the roots of Democracy in Islam, so I won’t go into that now.


First, The idea of Democracy was founded and practiced in a pagan, non-Christian society (in fact, one named after the personification Reason!).  Western Civilization at very least didn’t need Christianity to birth the idea and get it going.

Democracy isn’t an idea that sprouted out of the Bible or people inspired by it.  Much the reverse.  And once Christians inherited this system, they didn’t start practicing it.

But did Democracy and Greek thought need Christianity to flourish?  Maybe.  We’ll get to that. 

Second, Christianity endorses slavery and the Divine right of Kings.  For slavery read passages like Leviticus 25:44-46 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 (there are many others).  Jesus even explicitly permits the beating of slaves in Luke 12:47-48.  For earthly political Kings there is the very clear injunction in Romans 13:2-4, again among others.

The ideas of a person’s inalienable rights over their own life, protected from either a earthly Master who owns them or a King who divinely leads them, does not come from the Bible.  In fact it states the opposite repeatedly.

Am I just picking certain verses and interpreting them the way I want with my non-Christian glasses?  Maybe.  Let’s see.

Third, St. Augustine, arguably the most influential writer in Christian political ethics, argued 1) that those in error had no rights and could be compelled toward religion using ‘great violence’ (he often cites Luke 14:16-23 and Christ blinding St Paul); 2) that  non-believers could not justifiably use persecution because they did it for cruelty while Christians persecuted by love; 3) that war was justified to preserve or restore the unity of the Church, a bellum Deo auctore, which God Himself waged; and 4) dissension of the Church was dissent towards the State and therefore the State ought punish heretics and others condemned by the Church.

The forced coercion and holy war in the Inquisition, Crusades, Colonialism, witch hunts, pogroms, etc has its roots indeed in the Bible and prominent Christian thinkers.

For a brief comparison with Islamic Political ethics click the link to one of my earlier posts.

But maybe these thinkers were all wrong about the Bible and Christian history had to wait for people to correctly interpret it to get the wheel to start grinding?  Maybe, that could be true.

Fourth, a broad overview of history places the whole Christianty-is-the-Prime-Mover/Root narrative in question.  1) Christians are handed the Roman Empire in toto; 2) Roman empire fractures over theological issues (homosexuals didn’t do it); 3) Dark Ages; 4) Muslim Empires maintain Greek and Roman learning and greatly expand on it, also borrow from Indians and Chinese a lot; 5) Europe gets it back and has their Renaissance.

This outline is superficial, but two large points being that if Christianity has the answers to political flourishing, it started its first 1500 years of history by mostly going backwards.  but most interestingly, it only started flourishing after receiving the wisdom and learning of pagan Greeks kept and expanded on by empires under Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Maybe Christianity was needed to finish the job of these others merely set the foundation?  Again, maybe….

Fifth, let’s forget about Jefferson, Ben Franklin and all the other Western agnostics or Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Sina, Al Ghazali and the other pagans and Muslim thinkers.

There are a host of avid atheists that have been central to the foundation of Western society and politics.  One of the two key thinkers that comes to mind first is Spinoza, who’s name was synonymous with ‘atheist’ for centuries.  He was the first to argue that the Government can only interfere with actions and that it was counterproductive and unjust to interfere with citizens’ beliefs.  Second is Thomas Paine who was also an avid atheist and the author of The Rights of Man. In his treatise justifying the American Revolution, the Rights of Man, he argues ‘Monarchy, it means arbitrary power in an individual person’.  Paine certainly didnt get this from the Bible (see above).   And further founds the the concept of rights on personified ‘Nature’ and not God.  All of these concepts were argued first and best by those rejecting Christianity.

There are many other examples to cite but not enough space.  I only need to show there are many prominent ones.

Of course, there are many Christian theorists or those that used Christianity.  It was a society where Christianity was the only live option after all.  But you simply cannot argue that those Christian thinkers wouldn’t have come to similar conclusions without Christianity.  1) If you believe people can manipulate the Bible for bad messages, why not good ones?  2) Very simply, many, if not most, other thinkers that influenced Western thought came to their conclusions without it and often in battles against the Church.

But maybe Christianity was the larger context that was needed to incubate and influence all these things indirectly?  Uh!  Well… maybe…

Sixth, I could go on about this last vague excuse, but I think the preceding outlines of arguments above are good as they stand.  The weak point that Christianity was needed in some ambiguous and amorphous way is fragile, ill founded and brushes over as less significant so many historical and geographic narratives going on that had nothing to do with a Christian atmosphere.

For instance is Anglicanism the best form of Christianity because of the success of England?

Most people won’t jump up to use this argument, like they jump to Christianity in Europe.  Instead, things like England’s massive coal deposits and forests necessary to fuel the birth of Industrialization and their geo-political positioning on the sea giving both better protection from fewer neighbors as well as access to the rest of the world for trade and colonization had something to do with it.


If anything, Christianity in its present form has likely been influenced more by its pagan foundation, the Muslim thinkers that saved and greatly expanded these roots, the atheists and agnostics that fought against it from within and the luck of its geo-political position.


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