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Comparing Constitutional Democracies in Egypt and in America
By Michael Terheyden
January 26th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
Comparing the constitutional democracies in Egypt and in America, helps us to read the signs of the times. We live in an age of anti-reason. Therefore, part of our mission as Christians is to reintroduce reason into society.KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - When I think of this past Christmas for the Coptic Christians in Egypt, I am reminded of an 18th century, English Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I am also reminded of certain parallels between Egypt's new constitutional democracy and America's. What does Egypt's constitutional democracy have to do with a Christmas carol and America?
Based on the Gregorian calendar used in the West, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas on January 7, and President Morsi signed Egypt's new constitution into law on December 26. That was 12 days before the Coptic Christmas Eve. But that is not all. I also combine this numerical similarity with "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with a couple differences.
First, despite their rich heritage reaching back to the time of the pharaohs and the earliest Christian communities, President Morsi is not the Copt's "true love." Second, President Morsi did not give the Copts "a partridge in a pear tree" on the first day of Christmas. Instead, he stuffed a new Islamist constitution into their Christmas stockings. These lighthearted associations point to something quite serious about Egypt's new constitution.
Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church said, "There are dangerous articles in this constitution." Coptic bishops voice similar concerns. Bishop Kyrillos William said, "Everywhere in the constitution there are clauses saying everything should be in accordance with Islamic law." Bishop Zakaria said, "The Islamists want to apply sharia law especially with regard to women. It is very bad for women and very bad for non-Muslims in society."
Sharia law is the moral code of Islam, and it is believed to be the infallible law of Allah, the Muslim god. This statement is incredibly important because of the Muslim understanding of God. Both Muslims and Christians believe that God is all powerful, but for Muslims this quality is supreme and negates God's other qualities. This one idea colors just about everything Muslim's believe about God, reality, human nature, and society.
In his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Robert Reilly says Muslims believe that only Allah exists, so reality is illusion. Allah is believed to be unlimited, pure will and power. This means that he cannot be bound by order in the universe or reason or anything limiting. He can act arbitrarily and capriciously, and without regard for the good of the person or creation. Allah and reality are unknowable and without purpose.
In such a world, human behavior has no moral value beyond obedience to Allah's will, and rights have no meaning outside Allah's will. So sharia law is not tied to our experience of reality and the natural law. Not surprisingly, sharia law does not contain well-defined rules or precedents, and it is not formally codified. This allows Muslim judges much discretion in their application of the law.
We cannot help but notice certain parallels between Egypt's new constitution and our own constitution. Americans have a well-defined constitution which is based on an objectively ordered view of the world (the natural law). However, this view of reality is no longer accepted in a postmodern world. Postmodernism does not acknowledge Islam's all-powerful god or the Christian God. It is atheistic, yet it parallels an Islamic world view in significant ways.
Like Islam, Postmodernism sees the world as unknowable. There is no one truth. Truth is relative. So it is not important to seek truth. Instead of truth, Postmodernism seeks unrestrained power that can be arbitrarily exercised just like Islam's all-powerful god. Thus, morality and rights are not derived from nature or God but dispensed by the postmodern state according to its will. Although they come from opposite ends of the spectrum, both Islam and Postmodernism arrive at a view of reality which is essentially anti-reason and amoral.
As you can imagine, all this plays havoc with constitutional democracies, such as we have in Egypt and the United States. The rule of law is an important feature of a constitutional government. A constitution represents a higher or fundamental law that defines and limits a government.
The importance of the rule of law cannot be overstated. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that if human law is not in conformity with right reason, it is unjust and becomes an act of violence. I understand this to mean, at least in part, that laws need to be based on some sort of objective order that all people can come to know and freely ascent to. Otherwise, the enforcement of these laws can only be based on force or oppression.
By enshrining sharia law in Egypt's new constitution, the Islamists have based their democracy on an all-powerful, capricious god whose law is left in the hands of mere men to interpret and dispense as they see fit. Thus, the new government is not a true democracy. Under sharia law, all Egyptians will be ruled through force, and it will be much worse for non-Muslims, like the Copts, who are already treated as second-class citizens, discriminated against and persecuted.
On the other hand, the United States government was formed with the understanding that the rule of law would be supreme, that we would be a nation of laws not men. While our constitution is based on this idea, over the years, we have allowed this tremendous protection to be eroded to the point that we are often governed by arbitrary laws and force.
Although it was not the first time, we can see evidence of this erosion at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Warren Court was committed to social reform, but at the expense of reason and the Constitution. Robert Bork noted the opinions some scholars held toward the Warren Court in his book, The Tempting of America, as follows: unprincipled activism, disrespect for precedent, tortured reading of statutes, absence of neutrality and objectivity, and a court out of control.
Yet the Warren Court did not go far enough for a little known Illinois state senator in 2001, Barack Obama, who said: "The [Warren Court] never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. . . . It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution. . . ." Obama went on to say that "the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf."
President Obama does not like the limitations the Constitution puts on him, and he has attempted to circumvent these limitations throughout his presidency. He swore an oath to uphold the law, then he refused to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act; he gave a small army of czars unprecedented power over the American people; he acted unilaterally on immigration, he attacked our First Amendment right to freedom of religion; and he abused the commerce and tax clause under Obamacare. Now he is threatening to act unilaterally on the debt ceiling and the Second Amendment. The jury is still out these last two.
But when the law was divorced from reason, injustice and violence followed just as Saint Thomas said it would. In the process of all this so-called reform, some of our most fundamental rights were sacrificed. The most obvious was the right to life for the unborn. The right to be "secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" was also sacrificed. This right is assured to the American people in Fourth Amendment, and in many, if not all, state constitutions. Yet, today, law-abiding citizens are routinely arrested in America without regard to objectively verifiable standards, let alone a probable cause.
Both Islam and Postmodernism seem to view the rule of law and a constitutional democratic form of government as nothing more than means to an end. And what is that end? Reilly says that Islam and Postmodernism demand that reality conform to their world view. He also says they both seek earthly utopias in this life through politics and stringent control of the population.
Saint Augustine said something similar to Saint Thomas Aquinas about 800 years earlier, which we can also apply to our present discussion. Saint Augustine said, "an unjust law is no law at all," and "a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves." What are the Egyptian and American people to do under these circumstances?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently put out a statement regarding the threat to religious freedom in the United States, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty." Perhaps we can use their statement as a general guideline for the current situation in both countries. Part of their statement is included below:
"An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought . . . . If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith."
Christians are not the problem in the world, they are its hope. The Catholic Church is in many ways the protector of reason, rights, freedom, and people. Judaism gave us the insight that God and creation are rational and good. The book of Genesis says that God created the world and it was good.
As the Church tried to understand Christianity and spread the Gospel message, she engaged in rigorous prayer, study and debate. This prepared the ground for future developments which benefited Western civilization. In a series of videos, The Catholic Church-Builder of Civilization, Thomas Woods discuses some of these developments. One of them is law.
He says that the Church unified law under the principle of natural law. The first modern legal system in Europe was cannon law. Thus, the Church introduced reason into court proceedings. Before this time, court rulings were quite arbitrary, and they often involved magical ordeals to determine a defendant's innocence or guilt. The Church also said that rights were based on human nature and applied to all persons.
Fast forward to 1965 and Vatican II and the document, Gaudium et Spes. "At all times," it states, "the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task." This is the same task Jesus himself gave to his Church, "Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you" (Mat 28:19).
Comparing the constitutional democracies in Egypt and in America, helps us to read the signs of the times. We live in an age of anti-reason. Therefore, it seems that part of our mission as Christians living in the 21st century is to reintroduce reason into our societies, and the idea of government based on the rule of law and the idea of rights grounded in the natural law.
In this way, Christians can lay the groundwork that will help Muslims and Postmodernists accept the God who loved us so much that He gave us his only Son to redeem us by his death on a cross, which, I believe, is the meaning of the refrain, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree."
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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