Eric Voegelin and Reinhold Niebuhr on the Moral Resources of Democracy

Article excerpt

AT A TIME WHEN the faith and liberty of free men everywhere are challenged by anti-Americanism and the ruthless fanaticism of foreign enemies, public discourse reconsiders the moral underpinnings of democracy and reform movements across different continents and cultures. This discussion benefits to the extent that it builds upon rational and religious insight into the moral potential of human beings who seek through representative government the defense of liberty under law. Few American thinkers have surpassed Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)--one a philosopher, the other a theologian--in dissecting the messianic corruption at the core of totalitarian movements. Their diagnosis of the disorder at the root of closed societies was matched by a common concern about the philosophical and ethical resources for the rediscovery and defense of human integrity.

The central argument advanced herein is that Voegelin's characterization of the "open society" is mirrored by Niebuhr's reliance on "Christian realism" for assessing the moral vitality of individuals and groups in democratic regimes. Voegelin's search for the ground of existence in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy depicts the nature of man in openness toward transcendence. Niebuhr's Augustinian realism exposes a sinful and anxious creature forever tempted to misunderstand the tension between his finiteness and freedom. This tensional relationship, bounded by the polarities of immanent and transcendent divine being, has implications for the moral choices that lie behind the purposes--both pragmatic and ultimate--of democratic government.

Conspicuously absent from many academic debates about the meaning of democracy is the extent to which liberty and freedom are tied to a personal attitude of mind and spirit. Contrary to various ideological perversions, whereby one is forcefully liberated in cultural revolutions or labor camps, the promise of genuine freedom requires an open, receptive, and generous attitude. Part of the resilience of liberal democracy can be explained by the way it leads to the life of the spirit, and ultimate values, without committing us to any dogmatic formulation of those values or to any specific means for their realization. (1) In this context, the term liberal denotes the way in which a person comes by his convictions rather than the convictions themselves.

The open society is the free society. On the one hand, the affirmation of freedom of conscience promotes appreciation for the inviolability of the human personality. On the other hand, the institutions of democratic rule--constitutional government, rule of law, checks and balances--help restrain would-be tyrants. These institutions, however, are not the sole creation of the liberal mind; they have their origins deep in the Middle Ages. (2) Both the English and American Revolutions, while steeped in the language of the Enlightenment, were influenced by remnants of classical and Christian culture that opposed an overly strict reliance on liberal formulae. As Voegelin pointed out:

  In this situation, there is a glimmer of hope, for the American and
  English democracies which most solidly in their institutions represent
  the truth of the soul are, at the same time, existentially the
  strongest powers. But it will require all our efforts to kindle this
  glimmer into a flame by repressing Gnostic corruption and restoring
  the forces of civilization. At present the fate is in the balance. (3)

Voegelin's observation, made at the halfway point of the twentieth century, is no less instructive for the world America and the West confront after September 11, 2001. The way in which democratic institutions are conceived and used will determine their efficacy as instruments of freedom. The lesson for Iraq and Afghanistan, no less than for Russia and the new Palestinian authority, is that government by persuasion and consent can easily degenerate into government by manipulation and reckless majorities. …