Magazine article The Spectator

The 21st-Century Problem: Bringing Back God the Policeman

Magazine article The Spectator

The 21st-Century Problem: Bringing Back God the Policeman

Article excerpt

Last week America's most famous historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, delivered the James Bryce Lecture in the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn, on the question, `Has Democracy a Future?' One of the threats to democracy, he suggested, was the fact, confirmed by pollsters, that large numbers of Americans believed they talked to God regularly. His observation produced a sycophantic giggle from a few in the audience, but it jerked me into saying, I think aloud, `But most of us believe that.' Afterwards I said to Margaret Thatcher, who chaired the occasion, 'I talk to God, don't you?' She replied, `Of course, that's what prayer is.'

It is odd that an American, and a distinguished historian too, should imagine that democracy and a firm belief in God are somehow incompatible. The British colonies in America were originally founded, in part at least, for religious purposes, and the Great Awakening - talking-toGod religion at its most intense - was the emotional and spiritual engine of the American Revolution, which created the United States. The overwhelming majority of the men who shaped it believed that their country had come into existence as a direct result of providential intervention.

The day after the House of Representatives passed the First Amendment, guaranteeing religious freedom, it gave a two-toone majority to a resolution appointing a day of national prayer and thanksgiving. It read: `We acknowledge with grateful hearts the many signal favours of Almighty God, especially by affording [us] an opportunity peacefully to establish a constitutional government for [our] safety and happiness.' That was the origin of the American public holiday of Thanksgiving, which President Washington inaugurated with the words: `It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful to His mercy [and] to implore His protection and favor.'

These sentiments were not merely spiritual but utilitarian. The Founding Fathers believed that their Republic would not work without religion, and the need for faith and morals became all the greater as the elites shared power with the people. James Madison, chief author of the United States Constitution, imbibed the philosophy of his Princeton teacher, John Witherspoon, that politics could not be ethical (as opposed to Machiavellian), except on the basis of religious distinctions between vice and virtue. As Benjamin Franklin wrote to Tom Paine, rebuking him for dismissing the need for religion: `If men are wicked with religion, what would they be without it?' Hence the United States was a secular state born and nurtured in a society where religious belief and practice were virtually universal. That is why Tocqueville, analysing it half a century later, concluded that 'religion . . . must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country'. Americans, he said, held religion `to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions' -- above all, democracy itself

The truth is, religion is the principal ally of democracy - I speak of course of religion in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Philo Judaeus, the first-century philosopher, specifically equated religion with 'democracy', which he described as `the most law-abiding and best of constitutions'.

He defined democracy as a form of government which `honours equality and has law and justice for its rulers'. Here he put his finger on a central point of constitutional government. …

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