The End of Liberal Democracy?

A Christian response to radical secularism

In February 2022 Canada’s Liberal cabinet invoked the Emergencies Act in response to what some hyperbolically termed the “occupation” of downtown Ottawa by protesting truckers. The truckers’ convoy was protesting the vaccine mandate that was threatening their ability to do their jobs. Many of them were vaccinated and some were not, but all of them wanted to protest a year and a half of crippling shutdowns, the ruining of businesses, and ordinary people not being able to visit their dying loved ones in hospital.

The Trudeau government was slow in relaxing Covid restrictions as Canadians watched other countries open before us. The weak Conservative opposition, led by Erin O’Toole, failed to hold the government’s feet to the fire. Arguably, the failure of the opposition to do its job all through the pandemic paved the way for overreach. A lapdog media was no help either.

But nobody forced the liberal cabinet to set their hair on fire and invoke the Emergencies Act. This act was the successor to the old War Measures Act and was designed to be used in case of war or a major natural disaster that threatened the ability of the government to govern the country. It was supposed to be the last resort when facing societal breakdown, not when the horn honking annoyed downtown residents.

Yet Justin Trudeau, after failing to do anything to de-escalate the tension with the truckers and after ignoring their legitimate demands and having hurled insults at them, suddenly reached for the nuclear option.

Canadian’s bank accounts were frozen without court supervision. Protests in public places near Parliament Hill were banned. Money collected on-line by the convoy organization was not forwarded to the organization. Names of donors were hacked and made public, and no effort was made by the government to find and punish the perpetrators. Rights? You have no rights, peasants!

A thousand years of British parliamentary democracy was tossed out the window at the whim of a priggish prime minister who was miffed at being challenged by the unwashed, lower classes. The frivolousness of the excuse and the ferocity of the response was utterly astonishing. Sorry, we had to kill democracy to save it.

Canada’s reputation around the world has yet to recover.

The point of relating this story is that liberal democracy is fragile. We should not take it for granted. The old USSR had religious freedom written right into its constitution. It also had a gulag full of pastors as political prisoners.

Speaking of Christians in jail, Canada also managed to acquire pastors as political prisoners during the past two years. Tim Stephens and several other pastors were jailed for not shutting down worship services. And did I mention that they were outdoor services? Trudeau told us to “trust the science.” Apparently one of the unique features of the Covid-19 virus is that it spreads at conservative Christian outdoor events but not at left-wing ones. It’s the first virus in history sensitive to the political orientation of its hosts. Isn’t science amazing?

But wait, isn’t Canada supposed to be a stable liberal democracy?

When I visited the British Library in 2019, I was fascinated by the Magna Carta display. It must not have seemed like a big deal at the time. Some barons got the king to be a little less high-handed. Can’t you just see the peasants rolling their eyes?

But it was the beginning of a long process in Britain that led to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the secret ballot, the division of powers, common law, trial by peers, habeas corpus, and all that we commonly associate today with parliamentary democracy. The Anglosphere growing out of the British Empire witnessed the development of the freest, wealthiest, most productive, societies in history, especially in the United States of America.

But now it seems that things are going backward. The fragile fabric of liberal democracy is unraveling, and many people seem to be at a loss to understand why.

The basic right to life of unborn children is systematically denied and that denial is celebrated ghoulishly. In Canada euthanasia is out of control. Schools groom children into sexual deviance and hide it from the parents and nobody goes to jail. Leftist propaganda-meisters indoctrinate school children and college students into hating Western civilization. Money needed for hospitals is funneled off into windmills and solar panels as a sacrifice to the pagan “green” gods. Politicians routinely gaslight us. Marxists justify the “noble lie” when it results in advancing the party’s interests.

The modern West is committing suicide, assisted by radical leftists. Western civilization is never compared to other civilizations; it is condemned for failing to be perfect. So what if it gave us modern medicine, classical music, gothic cathedrals, and computer technology? Who cares if Western culture literally invented universities, hospitals, and universal literacy? Forget that it was the first major civilization in history to abolish slavery.

And then, of course, there is Western-style liberal democracy. Many people today think that liberal democracy should be exported around the world because it is the last, best, and permanent political order for the human race. But what if I told you that liberal democracy only works in nations that recognize natural law as true, which historically means almost exclusively Christian nations?

No political theory is sufficient to ensure a just society. That is not to say there are not better and worse ones, or that debating how to change and implement them is useless. But my theory is that religion is more important to a functioning society than political philosophy.

Encoded within the word “culture” is the word “cult,” which refers to religious worship. The worship of gods, god-substitutes, or God, is at the heart of every culture in history. Human beings are incurably religious. Even atheism functions like a religion and this is what we should expect if humans are created in the image of God, by God, for God. We should expect that we have a “God-shaped hole” in us (Augustine) that we all desperately try to fill. We exhibit a yearning for transcendence and when we try to use non-transcendent things to substitute for genuine transcendence we fall into personally and culturally destructive behaviors, from drug abuse to family breakdown to social media addiction. We need God.

How is the contemporary West destroying itself? Solzhenitsyn warned us: by rejecting God.

Western civilization was the fusion of Greek philosophical ideas with biblical revelation and the result was Christendom. Perhaps the intellectual high point of Christendom was the synthesis of faith and reason in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologicae. Soon after Thomas died, however, late medieval scholasticism began to move away from the synthesis of faith and reason that provided a basis for science. Voluntarism (Duns Scotus) and nominalism (William of Ockham) were the seeds out of which modernity grew. The classical metaphysical realism of Christendom was gradually, over centuries, replaced by a rejection of natural theology and natural law. This trend peaked in the so-called “Enlightenment” when David Hume, in his eagerness to refute proofs for the existence of God, went so far as to deny the principle of causality. At that point, natural science was undermined.

The so-called “wokeness” we see today, which is a combination of relativism and the will to power, is the result of the loss of confidence in the harmony of faith and reason. The rejection of classical realism led to the post-Kantian situation in which we have no actual knowledge of the world, just “worldviews.” We impose order on the world with our minds, but we do not know things in themselves. We do not know the natures of things or if natures participate in universals. Therefore, we do not know what things are for. We have blinded ourselves to the natural, built-in teleology of the created order.

Most importantly, we do not know what humans are for.

Liberal democracy as an Enlightenment philosophy knows nothing of universals, teleology, or God. It is an attempt to formulate laws that maximize individual freedom. But the power to make choices does not by itself lead to happiness. Real happiness can be obtained only by realizing our true nature as human beings. Only the Good for human beings can ultimately satisfy us and make us happy. Freedom means the ability to choose the Good. And our Good is God.

In some ways liberal democracy is a decent political system. It is not the “end of history” or the only one in which justice can be accomplished. But it’s okay. It arose during the last two hundred years in the West as Enlightenment thinkers pushed back against Christendom to try and expand individual liberty.

That worked for a long time because Christianity has its own in-built reasons for wanting individual liberty, rightly understood. Each person needs to hear the gospel and respond in faith and repentance. That is how people become real Christians. A society that prevents people from converting to Christianity is harmful. Therefore, the church needs religious freedom to carry out her mission.

But we also know that in a fallen world populated by sinners in rebellion against the Creator, personal freedom cannot be unlimited. We need laws, police, jails, courts and so forth. Otherwise, the strong simply exploit the weak.

Liberalism constantly pushes for more and more personal freedom. Christianity says “Okay, we can go this far but no further.” For example, we won’t put anyone in jail for homosexual acts in private between consenting adults, but you cannot indoctrinate school children into sexual deviance when their minds are young and impressionable. This is the kind of negotiated compromise that has allowed personal liberty to be maximized to the extent that it is compatible with a functioning social order that protects the young, the old, the weak, the poor, and the sick.

Liberal democracy needs Christianity, or it collapses into anarchy. The state requires a healthy Christian church that does evangelism and discipleship effectively. Only those able to control their own desires and impose discipline on themselves make adequate citizens for a liberal democratic nation. Belief in God and a moral order is necessary as the foundation of a free society.

We cannot just empty the jails, open the border, and legalize every vice. The answer to the problem of the autonomous individual living for personal sexual gratification instead of forming a stable family structure is not to increase access to pornography.

Somebody has to be the adult and say “No.”

Ironically, if we continue down the road we are currently on, we will get the opposite of what we want because we will provoke a totalitarian reaction. As individuals become more atomized and less personally disciplined, the need for social controls increases. Eventually a social credit system will be implemented in which citizens will be treated  like children. The infantilization of the population is the natural outcome of hyper-individualism.

A healthy society enshrines its vision of the common good in its legal system and enforces it by education when possible and by coercion when necessary. This is true of all societies, but some Christians seem to think that enshrining the natural law of God in civil law is too much of an imposition on atheists. Let me say clearly that if atheists cannot give up some “rights” (like polyamory or abortion) because society is imposing morality on them, well tough. A few disgruntled atheists is a small price to pay for preserving our society and its freedoms.

I don’t want one Christian denomination to be the established church and spend all its time harassing other denominations. Baptists don’t want that, and I do not believe that my fellow believers in other denominations want it either. But can we not all agree on the existence of God, the existence of a moral law, and the need to base law on human nature? No? Well, we won’t be able to keep liberal democracy.

All I want is freedom to worship according to my conscience within a society that recognizes (as the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms puts it) “principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” 

I’m not saying we should make disbelieving in the Trinity or Incarnation punishable by a fine or imprisonment. The preambles of faith, not the articles of faith, should provide the basis for civil society. But when we cannot even agree to promote natural marriage and forbid abortion as a society we are in trouble.

This is “Christian Nationalism,” you say? Well, if so, then maybe we could use a little old-fashioned Christian Nationalism. Why do people today seem to think that tradition and history is irrelevant and that we have to invent everything about our political system out of nothing right now? You don’t have to embrace Theonomy or some other silly novelty like that in order to believe that a peaceful, just society requires a religious basis. Most Christians have believed this for a millennium and a half. Were they all wrong?

The events of February 2022 made me more aware than ever that just when you think things can’t get worse you suddenly realize they can get much worse, very quickly. No, our society is not perfect, and Christendom never was perfect, but it could be a lot worse. Somebody has to say “No” to the radical secularists who want to tear it down.

It seems to me that over the past century we have experienced a massive, collective failure of nerve. It is time for the adults to speak up.

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Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario. He is the author of several books including Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. He is also a columnist for World Opinions and writes a substack newsletter entitled The Great Tradition.