Chapter 10: The Christian Conscience and the State

Christian Ethics
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 10: The Christian Conscience and the State

We are to examine in this chapter some of the most difficult and complex aspects of Christian decision. The relations of Christian ethics to political power have had to be anticipated somewhat in preceding discussions; but though the Christian acts within a system of law in reference to his family, his job, and his relations with those of other races, these are essentially matters of personal contact and adjustment. We come now to his relations with what is by its very nature an all-encompassing, impersonal framework of his life.

Almost every Christian is at the same time a citizen of a national state, and those few who are not citizens in the official sense of having explicit political rights and duties are still required to obey laws. Ever since Augustine early in the fifth century drew a distinction between the civitas dei and the civitas terrena, the interrelatedness and at points the conflict between the demands of the "city of God" on the one hand and the earthly power on the other have been crucial issues in Christian ethics. Long before this time, Christians who faced martyrdom under the persecutions of the Roman emperors rather than deny Christ met this problem in practice, even as many of our contemporaries have been forced to in our own day.

Let us begin with a brief statement of what is meant by the State, followed by a look at the biblical foundations for Christian decision. The greater part of the chapter will then be devoted to certain major problems such as the interplay of justice with love, the legitimacy and limits of coercive power, the application of the principles of liberty and equality in a democracy.

1. What is a State?

A State is a sovereign political unit to which its citizens as members of a national community owe allegiance. It offers protection to its people and in turn demands obedience to its laws. Though in strict accuracy the term "nation" refers to the people and "State" to the political authority exercised upon and through them, in practice the two words are generally used interchangeably. Unless there is occasion to do otherwise, we shall use the term to refer not to a single state within the State, such as New York or California, but to the government that has jurisdiction over the nation as a whole.

There are certain inherent difficulties in considering the ethical dilemmas of citizens in relation to the State. The first of these is suggested above in the difference yet convergence of nation and State — that is, of people and political authority. Even in the most totalitarian regime the State is never wholly an impersonal thing. What it demands, persons demand; what it does, whether for good or ill, persons do. Government "of the people, by the people, for the people," is the explicit aim of democracy, but there is no government of any kind unless some persons govern. Thus it comes about that no State, even the most autocratic, is morally neutral, for those who exercise authority within it are morally responsible beings. On the other hand, a State always contains elements not directly subject to change by acts of will — accumulations from the past in the form of tradition, law, or constitution that can be changed but slowly if at all, competing interests within its membership, interlocking relations with other states in which the interests of justice and of security at times conflict. For these reasons it is a mistake to assume either that states are solely impersonal mechanisms of coercive power or that they are responsive to the moral demands of love and justice to the same degree that individual persons can be expected to be.

A second inherent dilemma appears at the point of the definition of a State as a "sovereign" political unit. It is here that many difficulties regarding world government in principle, and the United Nations in practice, are focused. No nation can be a State unless it can exercise authority over its own people; if it loses that authority, it is either absorbed by some other sovereign State or becomes a constituent, federated part of a more inclusive State, such as are the various states in the United States. The perennial clash between states’ rights and the federal government, brought to fresh virulence in the American scene by differences of opinion over the desegregation issue, shows what an uneasy tension there is even within long-established sovereign authority. The United Nations makes no claim to being a super-State, but the bounds between domestic and international issues are so hard to fix that opposition to its jurisdiction at some points is inevitable.

These difficulties and dilemmas are present even before one says anything about the claims of Christianity in reference to the State. But at four points there is bound to be a difference in the demands made upon the Christian citizen by the two "worlds" in which he has membership. These are: (1) The State tends to regard its power and authority as supreme; the Christian owes his ultimate loyalty to God alone. (2) The chief concern of the State is with its own national community; the Christian sees all men as beloved of God and hence envisions a world community. (3) The State has as its primary moral demands the maintenance of justice and security; the Christian finds his highest obligation in love to God and his fellow men. (4) The State must use coercive power to enforce its authority; the Christian can accept some forms of coercion as right and necessary, but at others his conscience is bound to rebel. How to act as a Christian should within this tension is a matter on which directives are discernible in the gospel, yet no arbitrary authoritative word can be found. But let us see what help we get from the Bible and from the assured convictions of Christian faith.

2. Our biblical and theological base

We must look first at the Old Testament, for there we find, particularly in the messages of the prophets, a more explicit reckoning with social problems than is reflected in the New Testament. Israel, unlike the early Christian community, was a political State, and during much of its history its leaders had civil as well as religious authority. This dual relationship, as we saw in Chapter 2, gave a particular turn to the significance of the covenant, the Law, and the prophets. It is both asset and barrier as we try to apply the moral insights of the prophets to our own times.

No literature of any people reflects a keener concern for social righteousness than is found in the writings of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, and in a different setting in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The prophets did not hesitate to rebuke kings, as well as people, who disobeyed the commands of God. The evils reflected in their words, and indeed portrayed throughout the Old Testament — avarice, exploitation, bribery, chicanery, and attempts at seizure of power for personal gain — are perennial human tendencies which appear in every State. Both the situation and its remedy are timeless. In the message of the prophets there is a call to personal and social righteousness which stems from the sovereign rule of a righteous God. They spoke to the conditions of their times from the standpoint of both the judgment and the proffered deliverance of Yahweh, and proclaimed their faith in a divine Ruler who moves within political events as in all other events of human history. Dark as their messages appear to be with indictment and doom, hope through the mercy and faithfulness of Yahweh was never withdrawn. Both their discernment of human affairs and their insight into the moral nature of God make their messages of incalculable and permanent worth.

Yet when we are confronted with the need to apply the social teachings of the prophets to a particular measure before Congress in our time — for example, to expenditures for military defense, or a farm bill, or fair employment practices — the directives are less clear. Aside from the obvious disparities in the general social situation, there are major differences between Israel’s political structure and our own. Israel was a theocracy, owing its very existence to the intermingling of political with religious destiny, while we are committed to the principle of separation of Church and State. Israel was not a democracy, as we are, and while the prophets pleaded eloquently for personal righteousness in social relations, there was no expectancy of or challenge to the individual civic responsibilities basic to a democracy. Thus even the highest moral insights of the Old Testament leave us with a large gap.

Is the New Testament a more specific guide? It is, and it is not. The most direct political reference in the words of Jesus is the familiar "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" (Mark 12:17). This is ambiguous because it does not tell us how to distinguish between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. As we have noted repeatedly, Jesus was concerned to set up a spiritual, not a political, kingdom, and it is unlikely that he gave much thought to the structure of the political state in which his followers were to find themselves. He did foresee that they would endure persecution as he sent them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves," but his call was to fidelity in witness rather than to assumption of the wolves’ prerogatives and power.

Nevertheless this passage through the centuries has had very great value, and it is so today. For one thing, it recognizes the right of duly constituted civil authority to exercise control — and this at a point before which human nature is chronically reluctant, the payment of taxes! More significantly still, it recognizes that God has claims upon the citizen that cannot be wholly subsumed within the claims of the State. On the strength of this declaration, Christians from the first century to the twentieth have refused to let the State have their total allegiance, and not a few in our own time have died in Nazi concentration camps and Communist purges rather than render to Caesar the things that are God’s.

When further directives are sought within the experience of the early Church, the principle enunciated by Jesus stands, but the ambiguity is not removed. Peter’s "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) carried the first Christians boldly through persecution to victory or death. Yet there is a sharp contrast between Paul’s conservative and on the whole conciliatory attitude toward the ruling powers and what is portrayed in the book of Revelation. Paul could say in words destined to have great influence, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." (Rom. 13:1.) Similarly in I Pet. 2:17 we read, "Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." These injunctions seem to have equal status, and there is no suggestion that only the good emperor is to be thus honored. Nevertheless, the book of Revelation emerging out of the persecutions under the emperor Domitian does not hesitate to refer to Rome in cryptic but pointed terms as "Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations. . . , drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Rev. 17:5-6).

In general the Church has followed the lead of Paul in enjoining obedience to the ruling powers. This has been more true of the Lutheran than of the Calvinist tradition. It led Luther to side with the princes against the peasants in the Peasants’ Revolt, and modern Lutheranism in Germany to defer revolt against Nazi tyranny until it became clear that Hitler was usurping the place that belonged only to Christ. Calvin established a theocracy in Geneva in which the Church dominated the State, though not without a long struggle to establish this control, and this temporarily resolved the tension between the two. However, he did not hesitate to sanction resistance to rulers who defied God and commanded abominations, saying that "when they rise against God they must be put down, and held of no more account than worn-out shoes."1 Both the Puritan and the American Revolutions drew largely from Calvinism for their spiritual undergirding.

With this ambiguity as to the degree of allegiance owed to the State embedded in the Bible and in the history of the Church, we cannot expect to be wholly extricated from it. Yet two other aspects of Christian faith throw light upon it and must not be left out of consideration. These are the sovereignty of God and the Christian view of man.

Reference has been made to the claim of every State to sovereign political authority. Yet to the Christian there is a higher sovereignty, that of "God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." Since the State like the family is an "order of creation," it owes its very existence to God. God has ordained that men should live together in communities and that such communities, larger or smaller, should be structured into forms of government. But God has not ordained that any existing national State should be exactly as it is. As we saw regarding economic systems, none is perfect enough to be equated with the kingdom of God — or can be while human sin exists. Some are better, some worse, carriers of divine justice; democracy is better fitted than either fascism or Communism to bring about the kind of human society willed by God. Yet before the sovereign Ruler of the world, every political State must be judged defective, and all Christian citizens must seek to bring their State more nearly into harmony with what is believed to be God’s will for human life. This we noted was the major concern of the prophets of Israel, and in this they gave us a permanent legacy that must never be surrendered. Taken seriously, recognition of the ultimate and final sovereignty of God could transform the structure of human society.

The second principle stems more directly from the New Testament. It is the recognition of the supreme and equal worth of all persons to God. It is here that democracy is grounded. It is apparent that "equal worth" cannot mean equal endowment or ability; certainly to us and presumably to God it does not mean equal usefulness to society or equality in the attainment of personal character. Yet the equal and impartial love of God for all men, both saints and sinners, both high and low in the world’s esteem, is the indisputable deduction to be drawn from the words and acts of Jesus. Here is a guiding principle for both personal and political action which is bedrock.

Thus it comes about that to say that every soul everywhere is "a person for whom Christ died" is more than pious verbiage; it is an affirmation of the duty to treat every person as a being of supreme and infinite worth. One may speak in some contexts more formally of the "dignity of human personality," but in a Christian context this stems from the, conviction of the immeasurable love of God for every man. A religious insight has profound political significance when it makes the difference between a fragmentary adherence to democracy and its practice in human relations.

3. Love and justice

This brings us to a crucial matter, the interplay of love with justice in Christian moral decision. To the brief statement at the end of Chapter 4 must now be added more specific analysis.

Love has been repeatedly defined here, and it has been said that the Christian’s love commandment is to agape love and not of necessity to eros or philia, though these may often be subsumed within it. But what is justice?

The time-honored and seldom disputed definition of justice is "giving to every man his due." It goes back to classical Greek thought, was accepted both by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Reformers, and is generally cited today when a definition is called for.2 With such a weight of evidence behind it, it requires temerity to dispute it.

The positive note in this definition need not be disputed. In every issue of justice or injustice some element of "belonging" or possession is involved — whether of material goods, status and prestige, power over another, personal opportunity, or any other of life’s many intangibles. A situation is just when a person, or a group of persons, has what he (or they) ought to have; a situation is unjust when for some reason this is denied.

To say this is to affirm that there are certain rights which cannot be set aside or infringed upon without injustice. From the playground, where even young children sense the difference between fair play and its opposite, to the relations of governments to their own citizens and to other states, justice involves the preservation or the securing of basic rights. What these rights are may be a matter of differing opinion; that there are such rights is inherent in any consideration of justice.

Yet when this has been said, it must also be pointed out that the definition is seriously defective at the point of its ambiguity. When does a man have "his due"? Aristotle, who gave the definition its classic formulation, regarded slaves as instruments for the use of free men, held that barbarians had no rights that the free-born Greek was obligated to respect, and regarded women as an inferior group existing only for the bearing and rearing of children. This was corrected somewhat within the Christian Church, though Aristotle’s scorn of manual labor was carried over into it. Christian history shows progress toward an equalitarian conception of justice, but the Church has never fully divested itself of aristocratic assumptions. Even with the present democratic and Christian emphasis on the dignity of personality and concern for "liberty and justice for all," we are still far from agreement as to what constitutes for every man "his due." Every clash over racial status, labor and wages, or the legitimacy of some particular form of power gives evidence of the ambiguity of this principle.

Can justice be rescued from ambiguity by equality? In one respect Yes, and in another No. Where basic human rights are at stake, they ought not to be denied to anybody because of "class, color, creed or previous condition of servitude." Brunner is right that there is a certain impersonality about a system of justice, a definiteness and a structured quality which is not dependent on attitudes of personal like or dislike.3 Yet justice within a family requires adaptation to individual need, and justice within an economic order requires some variation in income according to contribution as well as need. Even in those structures of justice aiming to be completely impartial — the apprehension of lawbreakers and the affixing of penalties for crime — the best jurisprudence takes into account the maturity and the motive of the offender and the possibilities of remedial as well as of punitive treatment. Hence it appears that no rigid equalitarianism, but only equality of opportunity according to individual circumstance, will give to every man his due.

What is just can never be determined apart from a social context. A young child is not treated justly if responsibilities are placed upon him beyond his years, or a mature adult if treated like a child. A just system of grading in school, or of compensation in work, must take into account the legitimate expectancy of performance of the individual within his group. The Oxford Conference on Church, Community, and State redeemed the classical definition of justice somewhat from ambiguity when it stated that justice is the "ideal of a harmonious relation of life to life."4 This has its own ambiguity in that it states no criterion of harmonious relationship, but it rightly stresses that justice can never be an abstract or static thing. A person’s right is not something fixed by a "primal order" of creation;5 it must be determined impartially but not impersonally by adjustment of life to life within every concrete situation.

What, then, is the relation of justice to love ? According to Brunner there is a radical difference between them, with love belonging to the sphere of personal relations and justice, because of its fixity and impersonality, to institutions and systems. Justice then must precede love to give to society an ordered structure; the Christian must seek to ensure it as a foundation for the exercise of love, but justice and not love is the principle of the social order. Reinhold Niebuhr is less dualistic in that he stresses the relevance of love as an "impossible possibility" to every human situation, but he warns so continually against a sentimental substitution of love for the requirements of justice that the major impact of his thought is a dichotomy in which again justice, and not love, is the determining principle of social ethics. Hence, both Brunner and Niebuhr make much of the need to use coercive power to secure even an approximate justice in human relations.

If what I have said as to the meaning of justice is true, no such separation of justice from love or substitution of justice for love is consistent with it. The difference appears sharply at the point where Brunner says, "If I treat a man justly, and only justly, I regard him as fitting his place in the structure. . . . I do not see him himself. I see his ‘claim,’ his right, we might even say his ‘share’ in the whole structure. As contrasted with love, justice has this statutory quality, this sense of things fixed." 6 In between this inflexible and impersonal view of justice and one which blurs the distinction between justice and love is an intermediate view which I hold to be the true one.

Justice is the "harmonious relation of life to life" as this harmonious relation is determined by concern for other persons in agape love. Where it is felt toward persons who are not known in face-to-face relations, it takes the form of good will, respect for personality, eagerness to serve, willingness to be helpful at personal cost. It is not the sole prerogative of Christians, but Christians who do not have this attitude can scarcely be said to be either loving or just.

To illustrate, there are millions of Negroes in America and of Africans in South Africa who are denied their rights as persons and hence are unjustly treated. My duty to act in love to try to secure for them justice, insofar as my voice or vote or influence extends, is not limited by the fact that my personal acquaintance extends to only a small fraction of this number. Wherever there are victims of Communist tyranny, of prostitution, of underworld gangsterism, of the traffic in narcotics, of injury to children, of economic exploitation, of any denial of basic human rights, I am obligated by love to do my utmost on the side of justice even though my influence may be slight and my connection with these victims of injustice very indirect. Responsibility for action increases with opportunity; I am more responsible for the race situation in America than in South Africa. Yet at no point will Christian love, if I am sensitive to it, permit me to be acquiescent before injustice.

Furthermore, justice actuated by love requires concern for the perpetrators as well as for the victims of injustice. Understanding and sympathy must temper condemnation. Remedial action is called for which may take the form of expressions of understanding, indictment given in love, forcible deterrence or punishment, but which so long as it is Christian can never be actuated by vindictiveness or the simple desire to "get even." The latter, which often poses as justice, is far more often its antithesis. Structures of justice must be embodied in laws. We are in fact the present recipients of centuries of concern for justice in the laws that govern a civilized society. Some of these are bad laws that require change; most of them have stood the test of time, and ought not to be disobeyed by a Christian unless his conscience convinces him of a higher law in the will of God. In many areas of life more laws, or modifications in those we have, are required for a just society, and Christian agape should stir us to work for their enactment.

Thus it appears that there is no basic antithesis between Christian love and justice. Neither is a substitute for the other, but neither can do without the other. Love for persons gives justice its structure and marks it off from vindictiveness on the one hand and indifference on the other. Justice in social relations, to be embodied in just laws and their enforcement, is one of the primary pursuits to which we are called by neighbor love.

The practical programs and political strategies available in the attempt to secure justice at the call of love will, of course, vary with circumstances. It is seldom that in a complex issue, such as the race question or the international order, the immediate next steps that are open will embody everything that love prompts us to desire. Progress comes slowly, and often by compromises, but it is essential that Christian goals should always point the way forward.

For this process J. H. Oldham has coined the phrase "middle axioms," and the term is effectively used by John C. Bennett in Christian Ethics and Social Policy. A middle axiom is not something of permanent validity, as the love commandment is, nor is it a specific legislative policy, but an intermediate guidepost derived from Christian ethics as to what must be done next. Says Oldham of the meaning of middle axioms, "They are an attempt to define the directions in which, in a particular state of society, Christian faith must express itself. They are not binding for all time, but are provisional definitions of the type of behavior required of Christians at a given period and in given circumstances."7 Bennett gives as examples of middle axioms for our time the need of international collaboration in the United Nations, the maintenance of balance between free enterprise and government control of economic power, the removal of racial segregation in the churches and its progressive elimination in society.8 Provided such middle axioms are taken for what they are, as Christian "next steps" and not as a watered-down version of the full implications of the love commandment, they can be extremely helpful in the quest of a fuller justice as this is actuated by Christian love.

4. Love and coercion

The foregoing may be accepted, and still a deep problem will remain. Justice ought to be actuated by love, with concern for persons even in the most impartial, and in this sense impersonal, structures of law and its enforcement. But can justice be maintained — or an approximation of justice — without coercive force? The answer is clearly No.

Even within the intimate relations of the family where love ought to be most regnant, there can be no justice without the exercise of authority, and authority sometimes necessitates coercion. Children have their "just rights" within a family, and excessive domination by their parents is neither good psychology nor good religion; yet the undisciplined child suffers severely from his lack of restraint, and without some coercion there can be no "harmonious relation of life to life." This is clearly evident within the State, which would not be a State at all unless it could exercise coercive force upon recalcitrants and thereby ensure a measure of security and order for all its members.

Coercion is necessitated by sin. All men are sinners; all are in some respects self-seeking. For "law-abiding citizens" this does not generally require the penalties of the law to be invoked, though one need only to ask himself how far his driving is affected by known traffic regulations, or his income-tax filing by fear of penalties, to realize the degree to which the law is in the background as a restraint to his self-centeredness. In some, a sinful and selfish defiance of the rights of others leads to crime, and coercion must be invoked for restraint and punishment.

The need for coercion does not stem from sin only. As in the family immaturity necessitates coercive authority, there are immature adults in every State. Coercion is required also by the sheer complexity of human existence, where even mature and law-abiding adults "tread on each other’s toes" unless their proper bounds are marked out and these enforced.

Granted that coercive power is necessary if a State, or even a harmonious lesser order of society, is to exist, several very basic questions remain. Is Christian love compatible with the use of physical force? What of competing coercive groups within a State and their relation to law? When, if ever, is revolution justified? Is it ever right for one State, to use coercive force upon another? The very asking of the questions suggests the enormity of the problems involved. I shall attempt only to point the direction of the answers.

Physical force must always be available; it should be used as little as possible, and always under restraint. No State can get along without police protection for its citizens. Though this fact should not be used. illicitly to justify vast military establishments and their use in international war, there is justification for an international as well as a domestic police force, provided this is used with due restraint. These restraints, to look at the domestic scene, require the avoidance of brutality and excessive cruelty in the use of physical force, its use under impartial and established processes of law, and the preservation of personal freedoms up to the point where these freedoms infringe on the rights of others. To illustrate, a citizen ought not to be arrested for expressing an unpopular opinion; he can properly be arrested for inciting or engaging in acts of violence, but the physical force with which he is restrained ought not in turn to become counterviolence. The customary regard for policemen as trusted protectors in a democratic state and the terror with which the police are regarded in a totalitarian regime, as in Nazi Germany, give evidence of the difference.

But what of competing centers of power within a State? This issue becomes vividly evident in the contest between "big business" and "organized labor," and the effort of both to secure government backing for their interests. A "middle axiom" at this point is that a government ought not to become the tool of either interest, and laws must be enacted and enforced to restrain the aggression of one group upon the other. The processes of a democracy, as contrasted with economic feudalism or a Communist society, are favorable to the exercise of such restraints, but injustices are bound to exist in the struggle for power. It is a particular imperative of the Christian conscience to have enough concern for persons to work for the correction of injustices by both personal and political means whenever these are perpetrated by any group upon another.

It is not true that "the best governed people is the least governed." The Old Testament reflects a situation in the period of the judges when "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25), and the result was anarchy restrained only by family and tribal custom. Governments exist to exercise control, not only upon individual persons, but upon great groups of persons. The Christian Church, with its membership in all economic strata and among persons of virtually all occupations representing all sectional interests, has a special opportunity and obligation to develop in its members political attitudes transcending narrow group interests. This is true in spite of the fact that secular alignments in the contest for power are often tragically evident in the practices of the churches.

A particular problem which stems from the two preceding is the right of revolution when a ruling group dominates another against its will and sense of justice. Here some definition is imperative, for while revolutions seldom occur without some bloodshed, there is a difference between violent revolutions like the French Revolution or the American War of Independence, and the relatively peaceful Industrial Revolution or the Gandhian revolution by which India secured her independence. The problem is particularly pertinent now in the Orient, where many subject or recently subject peoples are in the processes of revolutionary change.

It is characteristic that every people thinks its own revolution justified and tends to decry uprisings elsewhere. Edmund Burke wrote scorching invectives against the French Revolution and John Wesley against the American, but neither man doubted the rightness of the English Revolution of 1688. What, then, can be the position of the Christian conscience?

Without minimizing the great complexity of issues in most concrete cases, which make snap judgments out of order, some principles can be affirmed. Among these are:

1. That violent revolution wherever possible should be averted by any honorable means, since it not only induces hate and bloodshed but often destroys more than it builds;

2. That objection to revolution should never take the form of complacent acquiescence in injustice;

3. That Christians should seek to be a reconciling and mediating force to remove the causes prompting revolution, to avert its outbreak, and to preserve justice and good will within it if it occurs;

4. That if it is adopted on apparently just grounds to overthrow tyranny, it must never be regarded as more than a preparatory step to positive structures of law and justice.

The issue is not whether the American Revolution ought to have occurred. It did occur, and a great nation has come out of it. But what of the present? If Communism could be overthrown by internal revolt, most Americans would rejoice, and few Christians would condemn flatly all forms of revolution. But the positive note needs always to be sounded. The aspirations of subject peoples today for political and spiritual freedom should be viewed with understanding and sympathy by those who prize their own liberties, bought by the effort of their fathers. In particular in the Orient, where the impact toward revolutionary change is so largely the product of the Christian emphasis on the dignity and worth of the individual, Christians are obliged to see the issues through by sharing their spiritual, moral, and economic resources.

The final question, as to the Christian conscience and the coercive use of military power by one State upon another, we shall defer to the next chapter which will be devoted centrally to this issue. This one will conclude with some observations upon liberty and equality and their’ meeting point in a Christian democracy.

5. Liberty, equality, and democracy

Democracy is both an ethical ideal and a form of political government. As an ideal it stresses the worth and dignity of every man, and hence the need of securing for every man his basic human rights and his highest attainable self-development. This has Christian roots in the New Testament, though its roots are also to be found in Platonic eros and in a natural law of morality which has come down to us from Stoic philosophy.9 As a political system democracy stresses not only the "rights of man," but the opportunity and obligation of every mature citizen to have a part in shaping the direction his government will take. However far from the ethical ideal it may be in practice, it is always in a measure guided by it and responsive to it. Where democracy prevails, men are never perfect, but their worst impulses are held in check both by the inner discipline of responsible citizenship and by external coercion upon the irresponsible. Reinhold Niebuhr’s epigram is relevant: "Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."10

Basic to the principles of democracy are equality and liberty. Both are ambiguous terms requiring definition to avoid distortion.11

Democracy as an ideal is not to be identified with equality, although it is closely related to it. Equality may mean (1) equality of intrinsic personal worth (that is, spiritual equality before God), (2) equality of endowment, (3) equality of opportunity, or (4) identity of function. A democratic ideal presupposes equality in the first and third senses, but not in the second or fourth. It is obvious that not all persons are created "free and equal" from the standpoint of either biological or cultural inheritance and therefore ought not all to do the same things or enjoy the same experiences. Yet within a framework of disparate biological inheritance fixed by nature and of disparate social inheritance which is the result of both biological and human forces, the democratic ideal requires that every person be given an opportunity to experience the "abundant life" and do the work for which he is best fitted.

Democracy as a form of social organization clashes at some points with democracy as an equalitarian ideal. This happens when persons of inferior intelligence or ethical sensitivity are able by force of numbers to exercise coercion upon other persons in such a manner as to thwart their fullest self-realization. It happens also when for the real good of the greater number, legislation is enacted the enforcement of which works injustice to a minority. The former situation presents a problem to be dealt with through education, particularly moral education. The latter is embedded in the metaphysical problem of evil. Neither can be wholly eliminated in a complex social order.

The democratic ideal is a principle of liberty as well as equality, but again it is necessary to distinguish among types of liberty. Liberty may mean (1) freedom to do as one pleases without social restraint, (2) freedom of thought, worship, or expression of opinion, or (3) freedom to act in social relations within limits set by the group. All three are types of individualism but with quite different social consequences. The first conforms to the democratic ideal of respect for personality only in small, highly moralized groups. Ordinarily it coincides with egoistic hedonism, anarchy, and "rugged" (that is, ruthless) individualism. The second, which is a major presupposition of both secular and religious liberalism, is not only consistent with but essential to the maintenance of the democratic ideal, and is formally guaranteed in all democratic societies but often violated in practice. The third is both an indispensable prerequisite to the democratic ideal and a primary source of its corruption. Rightly used it grants "liberty under law," uniting freedom with order; misused it unduly restricts freedom for the sake of order or upsets order for the sake of freedom. A large part of the problem of social and political ethics lies in distinguishing between its use and misuse.

So essential is liberty to democracy that any setting aside of civil liberties, or attempts to stifle freedom of thought and honest, peaceable expression of it, must be viewed with much apprehension. Under the hysteria caused by some degree of actual Communist infiltration, fear of subversion has grown out of all proportion to the actual danger, and prophetic Christian utterance has fallen under the same condemnation as Communist distortions of truth and democracy. It is a basic Christian duty and an obligation of responsible citizenship to preserve the right of minorities to challenge the status quo and of individuals to express unpopular views, provided this is done without violence and without subterfuge within the law.

On rare occasions, a Christian may even feel called upon to defy the civil law for the sake of the higher law of God. This ought never to be done without much soul searching, and with full willingness to take the consequences. It is more safely done for others than for one’s self, and there is no general basis on which it can wisely be encouraged. It is one of the truly great things about democracy that it provides so extensively for conscientious dissent and upholds the right of minorities to differ with prevailing opinion.

A democratic political system makes possible both more equality and more liberty in the right sense, and hence more justice, than any other alternative system. Under it the values the Christian ethic exalts can thrive and grow as in no other. Hence, not only from its roots but its fruits there is a valid sense in which it is possible to speak of Christian democracy. But always this needs to be spoken with caution. Democracy ought not by any superficial synthesis to be identified with Christianity simply because in the democratic West the majority of the citizens profess to be Christians. Political power and spiritual power are not identical, and no actual democracy has been — or while sin remains will be — the city of God.

Both the possibilities and the perils in the issues discussed in this chapter come to focus in the matter of international order and conflict. They assume their gravest significance at the point of recourse to war when this is waged in defense of democratic ideals. These issues are so complex, yet so overwhelmingly vital, that a full chapter will now be devoted to them.



1. Calvini Opera, xli, 415-16. See my John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics, ch. xi, for more extended citations.

2. Emil Brunner, who makes it basic to his discussion in Justice and the Social Order, says of it: "According to Plato, Republic, 1, 331, the suum cuique, though not in this clear and definite form, goes back to Simonides. It is explicitly formulated by Aristotle, Rhet. 1, 9. That it was, however, the principle of justice, not only in the Catholic law of nature, but also for the Reformers, is proved by hundreds of texts in Luther, Zwingli and Calvin." P. 263.

3. Ibid., pp. 19-20. As noted presently, I do not in general accept his position.

4. The Oxford Conference (Official Report), Section III, 1.

5. Brunner’s term, Justice and the Social Order, pp. 18-19. Though he recognizes that what justice requires changes with changing circumstances, his thought about justice is so dominated by a "sense of things fixed" that little if any place is left for personal adaptation in its exercise.

6. Ibid., p. 19.

7. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft and 5. H. Oldham, The Church and Its Function in Society (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1937), p. 194.

8. Op. cit., pp. 77-83.

9. Greek philosophy, other than Stoicism, was strongly tinged with an aristocratic note. Greek political practice, though never fully democratic, was in advance of the insights of Plato and Aristotle as to human equality.

10. "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1944), p. xi.

11. The next three paragraphs are restated from the chapter entitled "Christian Faith

and Democracy" in my The Modern Rival of Christian Faith, pp. 87-88.