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Is Democracy Always The Answer?
By Dr. Frederick Liewehr
September 5th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
RICHMOND, VA (Catholic Online) - To any American, at least of my generation, the word "democracy" has a familiar and almost theophanic connotation. America is certainly the most successful political experiment in history, and the fact that it is a democratic republic is credited with much of that success. So, the mention of democracy tends to elicit a knee-jerk unquestioningly positive response from most of us.
Americans have long been aware of their favored status, and particularly since their successful prosecution of the Second World War, they have encouraged their government to export our system of government to nations considered less fortunate than we are. Although there were never a set of principles that defined Manifest Destiny per se, it was nonetheless keenly felt in the 19th Century, along with the notion of American exceptionalism.
Andrew Jackson spoke of "extending the area of freedom", and used the concept of manifest destiny to increase the size of the Continental United States. Other Presidents used it to annex Texas, annex Indian lands, and annex Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines overseas. In more recent times, the United States has had no desire to annex foreign nations, but rather to export our system of government, believing it to automatically guarantee that the recipients would become as free and prosperous as our own citizens.
The flaw in this thinking is that the means are confused with the ends. Saying that the goal of a nation is to have a democratically elected government is like saying that the goal of our vacation plans this summer should be to have a car. The car may get us to our vacation destination, assuming it is in good repair, but sitting in a car does not a fun vacation make. The real goal, of course, is to get to our vacation destination and enjoy ourselves.
Thus it is with government. What is the real goal of government? To elucidate that issue, we turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. CCC #1897 says, Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.(italics added)
CCC #1901 then defines what consists of a morally acceptable political regime: The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.
Thus, man has need of government to organize society and enable it to operate efficiently, which serves the good of all. There exists a "diversity of political regimes" that are morally acceptable, so long as they serve the good of the people they govern. Democracy is not unique in being able to accomplish that end.
There is no reason why a monarchy or an appointed benevolent leader could not do as well. One has only to think back on the reign of St. Louis in France or St. Wenceslaus of Bohemia, about who the term rex justus was coined to realize that a sovereign could be a saintly man and a just ruler, which is far better than many democratically elected leaders could ever hope to be.
Recently, the deposition of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, an ostensibly democratically elected official, has caused many, particularly in Egypt, to have second thoughts about the results of this democratic election. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections a year ago by promising reform, freedom, and economic progress.
What they actually did was to rewrite the constitution, institute sharia law, and further impoverish the people. Notably the attacks on Coptic Christians increased dramatically, either perpetrated or at least sanctioned by the government. Seeing that Morsi was not what he promised, the people took to the streets, and ultimately the army stepped in and deposed him.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, however, claim that he is the legitimate head of Egypt. Obama and his group agree, because Morsi was "democratically elected." It is instructive to note that on March 6, 1933, the Nazi party received 44% of the vote in Germany, making them the largest party in the Reichstag, or parliament.
When President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler's cabinet passed a law transferring the power of the presidency to Hitler as both Chancellor and Führer (Leader). In mid-August a plebiscite was held, and 85% of the people voted to sustain Hitler as supreme leader of the state, people and military. Thus though not technically elected, once he was in place he was democratically ratified. Did that make his government legitimate?
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood do not depend on his democratic election, however, when they speak of him as the legitimate ruler. Democracy means nothing to Muslims, a fact of which our government does not seem to be aware. It is, in fact, anathema to them because it would subvert the authority of Islam. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda, weighed in on the "legitimacy" question saying to Morsi supporters, "We have to admit first that legitimacy does not mean elections and democracy, but legitimacy is the Sharia . which is above all the constitutions and laws."
Although our secular administration would argue that any government put in place by a vote of a majority of the people is legitimate, Muslims believe that legitimacy comes from Sharia law and their interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. But if Morsi was legitimate, what about the persecution of Christians that his government fomented? What about the myriad human rights issues that only became worse under Morsi that made the people finally revolt?
To understand what any clear-thinking person would intuit, let us turn again to the Catechism. CCC #1902 says, Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a 'moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility'. A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence. (Italics added)
CCC #1903 says further, Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, 'authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse'. (Italics added)
Thus there is no support theoretically, or in the specific case of Morsi, for the assumption that someone who was democratically elected is automatically a good legitimate leader. Democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his "Democracy in America", is nothing but a tyranny of the majority. Consider a lynch mob; does the fact that the decision to hang someone was reached democratically by the mob make it just?
Being elected by a majority does not make a government legitimate. In fact, being elected by 100% of the population does not make a government legitimate. Only to the extent to which governmental actions are consistent with God's law and the moral order is a government legitimate.
What is the #1 reason you hear people give for why the Third Reich was not legitimate? The leaders were in fact chosen, as we have seen, democratically. The judgment of history, however, is not based on that fact. It is based on the fact that the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of some 6,000,000 Jews, not to mention Slavs, gypsies, Christians, mentally defective people, homosexuals, etc.
If the taking of those innocent lives was a great crime against humanity, then what about the legitimacy of our government sponsoring, encouraging, and bankrolling the ongoing slaughter of over 54 million innocent babies since Roe v. Wade in 1973? What about the legitimacy of Muslim governments that either practice and condone, or at best turn a blind eye, to the torture and slaughter of Christians in their countries?
With the denial of the existence of objective moral values, often associated with a contemporary form of secularization, we are witnessing in our own nation, a loss of religious and human rights which we thought were set in stone - and it is happening through our democratically elected officials.
In Syria, a group of so-called "rebels", consisting of Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaida soldiers and other assorted terrorists, are committing horrible atrocities as they wage a war of genocide on Christians, other religious minorities, Kurds, and anyone who does not actively support them in that beleaguered country, and our government wants to support their rise to power.
Ultimately a government is judged not by the type of political system it incorporates but by the extent to which it conforms with and to God's law. The respect for human dignity and life must always and everywhere be the foundation of any society and the protection of life must be the mission of any legitimate government.
The extent to which a government aligns itself with the moral order determines its legitimacy, no matter how it came to power. As Matthew 7:16ff says, By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.
Dr. Frederick Liewehr is an endodontist who teaches and works in private practice. He converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1983, having been drawn ineluctably to Christ's Church by the light of Truth. He is a member of St. Benedict parish in Richmond, a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus and a Cooperator of Opus Dei.
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