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The Positive Role of Religion in a Liberal Democracy


One of the winning essays in the Acton Institute's annual essay contest. In 1997, the contest theme was "Freedom and Order" and the winning essays explored the role of religion in promoting the concepts of order and personal morality which are essential to freedom.

Originally published by the Acton Institute. Republished with the permission of the Institute.


Greg Markey

 Author Notes

American Catholic theologian

 Essay - 12/1/1997

One hundred years after the American experiment began, Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" could "long endure." More than a hundred years have passed since then, and the country has survived two World Wars, The Depression, and the Cold War. However, the nation has also experienced a massive influx of immigrants from both the East and the West. In addition to this, developments in technology, communication, and leisure time have challenged man to understand his ability to be free. The Second Vatican Council emphasized this point: "Man is growing conscious that the forces he has unleashed are in his own hands, and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them. Here lies the modern dilemma." [1] Lincoln's question is once again relevant today: "Can a democratic nation that is conceived in liberty, yet possesses so many diverse opinions and technological advancements, long endure?" In this paper, I will attempt to show that a liberal democracy can long endure if it promotes virtue and truth; historically, it is religion that has promoted virtue through ensuring a strong family life.

In the nineteenth century Lord Acton wrote: "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." This understanding about the proper sense of liberty is crucial in answering Lincoln's question. Acton's statement makes the basic distinction between liberty and license: Liberty is "the right of being able to do what we ought" and license is "the power of doing what we like." The difference between the two is that liberty possesses a moral implication, what one "ought" to do, whereas license does not. The importance of the distinction lies in the fact that people today rightly place great value on freedom. Unfortunately, freedom is too often equated solely with license, thereby ignoring any morality. Pope John Paul II addresses this issue in Veritatis Splendor:

Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute... Human freedom would thus be able to 'create values' and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. [2]

In the words of Lord Acton, freedom could become "the power of doing what we like."

Freedom then, properly understood, is the "right of doing what we ought." It is a guaranteed ability to choose without coercion what is true and just. Freedom and truth are, therefore, intimately linked. In his address to the United Nations in 1995, John Paul II stated:

Freedom is ordered to the truth and is fulfilled in man's quest for truth and in man's living in the truth. Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals; and in political life, it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation upon freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person ... is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom's future. [3]

He has also written: "This essential bond of truth-good-liberty is largely lost in contemporary culture, and therefore today it is one of the proper tasks of the mission of the church for the salvation of the world to lead people back to seeing this union." [4] Determining truth is, therefore, a pivotal part of any free and democratic society.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, liberal democracy has become the acceptable form of government in the modern world. As a system of government, it is based on a written constitution and self-evident individual rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Beyond a constitution, however, it can become confusing for the nation to determine truth because a democracy, by definition, is "value-neutral," inasmuch as it does not impose an ideology. [5]

For example, what about the legitimacy of same-sex marriages? Nowhere in the Constitution is this issue addressed. Nevertheless, this does not imply that society should be without virtue. In a properly ordered democracy, its citizens deliberate over the issue and then vote by a referendum or through legislative representatives. In his evaluation of the American experiment, Tocqueville was concerned that, without any regard for truth, the "tyranny of the majority" would decide the law. Therefore, inherent in a democratic system is this potential error: Freedom as the highest norm determines truth, and thereby can distort truth. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia expressed this point in an address at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome. In a response to a questioner who asked about the rights of minorities, Scalia stated, "The whole theory of democracy, my dear fellow, is that the majority rules; that is the whole theory of it. You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection." [6]

Because a liberal democracy functions in this manner, three major transgressions occur. The first is that decisions about moral issues are decided pragmatically. [7] For example, the discussion of abortion by the government rarely focuses on the moral question of when it is permissible to take a human life. Instead, it takes a more practical approach, such as, "Abortions will happen in any case; they should be made 'safe,'" or "A woman should have the freedom to choose privately." In a recent statement about the legality of partial-birth abortion, President Clinton stated this exact point: "This is not a pro-life, pro-choice issue. To me this is a practical problem." [8]

The second result is that private interest groups and lobbying firms have a powerful influence on determining public policy in the legislature. [9] Laws are not made according to what is ethically right or wrong but according to the pressures of the strongest lobbying organization. In a recent lecture, Avery Dulles spoke about how liberal democracy can be reduced to a mere conglomeration of political associations: "...[T]he procedural republic does not offer adequate foundations for a healthy self-governing society. It creates a moral void. Political association sinks to the level of a mere coalition in which the members are not inspired by any shared vision of the good." [10]

The third effect is that beyond the Constitution there are no guiding principles to help determine the society's values. When freedom is the highest guiding principle, tolerance becomes the greatest good. There is no right or wrong, only complete acceptance. Virtues such as courage, prudence, patience, and justice are enacted into laws only if the people feel they ought to be. Ultimately, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" is only as virtuous as its members. This is why James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers that the United States' version of democracy requires a higher degree of virtue in its citizens than does any other form of government. [11]

How does a liberal democracy, such as the United States, instill in its citizens a shared vision of the common good? How does it develop civic virtue among the people so that they, in turn, vote for just laws and virtuous leaders? One difficulty with this question is where to begin. Virtues once considered commonplace by American standards are no longer so prevalent. For example, respect for adults, marital fidelity, and parental responsibility are not as common as they once were. [12] Nonetheless, children need to learn these virtues along with self-control, courage, loyalty, and the ability to exercise their freedom with responsibility. The United States relies on many organizations to foster these virtues, such as schools, local government, and community groups. Historically, however, religion has played the largest role in promoting a society of free and responsible individuals through ensuring a strong family life.

Tocqueville states that although religion does not directly steer the government of the United States, it is still appropriately the foremost political institution in American politics. The separation of church and state keeps religion from becoming directly involved, "...but it directs the manners of the community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state." [13] Tocqueville's point is that churches do this by inspiring a strong family life. It is in the home where a man and woman find their joy and peace, which is then spread into the community. "...[T]he American derives from his own home that love of order, which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs." [14]

In fact, many modern liberal thinkers are coming to the same conclusion that the future of the liberal democracy is dependent upon the stability of the family. [15] The Christian tradition has always stated its support for the family because God has ordained through the natural law that all people be raised by a mother and a father. Marriage is viewed in the Christian tradition as a sacrifice of one's personal desires for the good of one's spouse, children, and ultimately for the good of society. [16] Religion promotes family life through prayer, counseling, encouragement, and the preaching of the Gospel. Pope John Paul II emphasizes the Catholic Church's position in Centesimus Annus:

The first and fundamental structure for 'human ecology' is the family, in which someone receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny. [17]

Families today, however, have an even higher divorce rate than in previous times. Fewer and fewer children are being raised in a two-parent home. Expressing his concern for these children the Pope has written: "When he has no family, the person coming into the world develops an anguished sense of pain and loss, one which subsequently burdens his whole life." [18] Children in this situation will possess a greater difficulty developing their full potential and becoming well-integrated citizens. Ultimately, this situation could jeopardize the future of the entire nation. With its strong emphasis on family unity, religion is capable of playing a positive role in reversing this negative trend.

The United States, as a liberal democracy, faces a unique opportunity in history. It is no longer subject to the political and economic policy restrictions that it faced during the Cold War. It is both an economic and military world leader and no longer possesses a common external enemy. Now the nation's enemy is primarily from within, and its destiny resides in its own hands. In a certain sense, the American experiment really begins now. Can our liberal democracy effectively function as a system of government? The answer lies in how we will articulate the relationship between freedom and truth. Will freedom become a vehicle for the promotion of virtue and a strong family life, or will freedom degenerate into a form of license? As Tocqueville observed, from the inception of the United States, religion has played an extremely important role in fostering and securing a society of free and responsible individuals. Today, churches proclaim the same message: With freedom comes the obligation to choose what is true and just. Only if this message reaches the hearts of the citizenry will the American experiment "long endure."


1. Austin Flannery, ed., "Gaudium et Spes," Vatican Council II (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), #39.

2. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1993), #32, 35.

3. John Paul II, "The Fabric of Relations Among Peoples," Origins, 19 October 1995, 29399.

4. "The Pope Speaks, AAS 79 (1987): 1374.

5. Janne Haaland Matlary, "Ethics in the Public Debate," Catholic World Report, November 1996, 49.

6. Robert P. George, "The Tyrant State," First Things, November 1996, 40.

7. Matlary, 52.

8. "Excerpts of President Clinton's Staff Announcement and Transcripts of His News Conference," The Washington Post, 14 December 1996, sec. A13.

9. Matlary, 51.

10. Avery Dulles, "Context of Christian Proclamation Sets Parameter of Dialogue," National Catholic Register, 7 December 1996, 7.

11. James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1937).

12. Mary Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn, eds., Seedbeds of Virtue (New York: Madison Books, 1996), 13.

13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Edward Walker, 1847), 332.

14. Ibid., 333.

15. Glendon, 11.

16. Flannery, #49.

17. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1991), #39.

18. John Paul II, Letter to the Families (Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1994), #2.

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