The Collapse of Liberal Democracy

We face an apocalypse. The specter of death and economic collapse spread by the COVID-19 pandemic, the convulsive mass protests over police brutality coalescing with multiple preexisting crises: such things as global warming, identity crisis, fraying social fabric, polarized politics, tribalism, mass discontent, failing states, and an unraveling global order. If we picture these crises together, the silhouettes of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse practically become visible on the horizon, primed to romp into our postmodern and post-Christian consciousness. Propelled as we were by seemingly limitless scientific-technological innovations, we thought we had left these four horsemen far behind, way back in the premodern world.

We were wrong. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” to cite William Faulkner’s famous lines. The return of the repressed—conspiratorial cults, magical thinking, scapegoating, witchcraft, and mass fear in the wake of a medieval-like plague—reveals that in many ways we didn’t exit the premodern world as cleanly as modernization narratives convinced us. For there are immutable, unchanging elements in human nature. That’s why ancient texts—Greek philosophy and Roman literature and the Bible—still speak to us, however little we sometimes listen. They are, after all, the principal sources of our modernity. It was precisely by reading them directly, without the gloss of medieval commentaries, that the Renaissance humanists and Protestant Reformers inadvertently shattered the medieval universe and unleashed the forces that gave birth to modernity.

Of these ancient texts the most explosive and most influential in shaping the contours of modernity are the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. And if we are to understand how we got here, then we must understand them. For what made them so explosive and so influential was the millennial vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” of total change secularized into the idea of revolution in modernity. In the medieval world the conception of time was cyclical, and the worldview was of an ordered universe arranged in a fixed structure of celestial, clerical and social hierarchies—the Great Chain of Being. Within these static hierarchies and bounded worldview the preoccupation was for preserving the status quo and a clear cultural bias to freeze time: expressed in the deep respect for tradition and aversion to qualitative or radical change.

The practical influence of the Apocalypse was to unfreeze time and upend this aversion to change. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) is a revolutionary and modern promise. The past and the present were devalued, the best was now in the future. Time became linear, with a beginning (creation), a middle (cross) and an end (second coming of Christ). The Protestant Reformation, the English and American revolutions, and all the English virtuosi from Sir Francis Bacon to Sir Isaac Newton were inspired by this millennial vision. In his reform of science, Bacon said his goal was “to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.” The epigram on the cover of his Great Instauration is from Daniel 12:4. And his secretary, Hobbes, based the second half of his Leviathan on the Apocalypse. John Locke’s liberalism, too, required divine sovereignty. That’s why he denied toleration to atheists. Newton wrote more on the Apocalypse than he did on scientific matters, because his “providential, universe-sustaining Lord God of Dominion” was also sovereign over history.

If the Apocalypse underwrote the Bacon-Newton-Lockean synthesis, Voltaire, its famous popularizer and transmitter to the Enlightenment, dismissed Newton’s apocalyptic studies as a pastime: something “he played with for relaxation.” He thus excluded God from Newton’s universe. In his deistic universe human reason and agency displaced God’s will and providence. This displacement is the nodal motivation of the French Enlightenment, which through its self-glorification eclipsed the Bacon-Newton-Lockean synthesis or the Anglo-American tradition to become the foundation of modernity. Precisely, the preoccupation of French and German philosophy, reflected in their all-embracing systems, was to fill the immense vacuum created by the displacement of God, or “death of God,” in Nietzsche’s words.

Again, it’s crucial to recall that functional modernity is seen in Descartes’ pride that science makes us not only “masters and possessors of nature” but also “in a certain manner equal to God and seems to exempt us from being his subjects.” But as we are finding out with the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, we are not masters of nature, and we are far from being equal to God. In fact, the loss of mastery, the gnawing feeling that no one is in control, is behind the revival of the occult and the nihilism that allows some to characterize the modern response to crisis as anarchism. But prejudiced by a materialistic epistemology that discounts spiritual phenomena and an artistic culture that romanticizes the magical and the demonic, our age is ignorant of the grave danger posed by the revival of the occult.

We should recall Ernest Cassirer’s warning in the wake of Nazism that “the demonic mythical powers have not been vanquished. They are always there, lurking in the dark, waiting for their hour and opportunity.” Their hour comes in time of extreme crisis, like the one we are facing, when things spiral out of control and hearts melt with fear. Then the demons are animated to inspire false prophets, spread falsehoods and conspiracies that deflect attention and effort from practical solutions. The crux is for the crisis to go unsolved, to create total chaos. For only in total chaos, where truth and untruth, reason and unreason, the real and the unreal, the visible and the invisible, flow into each, forming an undifferentiated mass as in the primitive sacred, can the demons reign supreme.

The full economic, political, and social meaning and significance of the COVID-19 has yet to reveal itself. It is clear, however, that it has accelerated trends that were already eroding the foundations of freedom, order, and reason. Social media has created a veritable “supernatural imaginary,” to use Eric Kurlander’s description of a myriad of occult, pseudoscientific, and religious ideas that the Nazis drew upon to forge their virulent ideology.[1]

In light of this “supernatural imaginary,” it’s crucial to remember that one of the signal contributions of biblical religion to Western culture, as noted by Martin Buber, was polarizing and moralizing the pagan universe, that is, differentiating the natural from the supernatural and the divine from the demonic. The rationalization and the scientific outlook resulting from this differentiation is what Max Weber famously described as “the disenchantment of the world.” But he was keenly aware of its fragility. He feared the old pagan gods, warned of their return in new forms. That’s why he emphasized the limits of science, denied it could “teach us anything about the meaning of the world,” and excoriated “academic prophets” who tried to use science to “construe new religions.”

Weber’s insight into the limits of science, its inability to provide meaning and bonds of social cohesion, is crucial to understanding the identity crisis, alienation, cultural nihilism, fraying social ties and the return to tribalism polarizing liberal democracies. To put it simply, science cannot replace religion. Indeed, that liberal democracy needs religion is one of Tocqueville’s fundamental insights in Democracy in America. “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot,” he wrote. Actually, “religion is much more needed in democratic republics most of all,” since people are by nature divisive and egoistic. For “how could a society escape destruction, if when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? What can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”

All these questions, we must remember, were directed at the France of Tocqueville’s day in response to the bitter ideological and cultural conflicts that had produced, as he put it, a “strange confusion,” in which “men of religion fight against freedom, and lovers of liberty attack religions.” But America, as he was very surprised to discover during his visit in the 1830s, had solved these questions pragmatically. Specifically, unlike France, where “the spirits of religion and of freedom were almost always marching in different directions,” in America he found them “intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land,” yet church and state were institutionally separate. He traced this exceptional “joint reign” to America’s dual founding: the New England Puritan colonization and the revolutionary founding of 1775-1789.

In Tocqueville’s view, the former was more decisive in the development of democracy in America. In putting primacy on the Puritan background rather than the Founders, Tocqueville recalls Marx’s famous aphorism that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Indeed, Puritan covenant theology, doctrine of original sin, freedom of individual conscience, and millennialism are conspicuous in the political and social ideas of the Founders themselves.

Yet historians (such as Voltaire) have curiously overlooked or dismissed them, a reflection of their secularist prejudices. That’s why the intellectual historian J.G.A. Pocock decried that history “has suffered from a fixed unwillingness to give the Hebrew and eschatological elements in seventeenth-century thought the enormous significance which they possessed for their contemporaries.”[2] As it is, if we grant the Hebrew-eschatological elements their due, the conventional narrative, so popularized by the French Enlightenment, crumbles: the idea that the modern age resulted from reason overcoming Christian superstition and obscurantism.

To be sure, Christianity as the enemy of reason reflects the fact that the FrenchEnlightenment arose from conflict with an absolutist Catholic-monarchical establishment. As Tocqueville noted: “Unbelievers in Europe attack Christians more as political than as religious enemies [because] European Christianity has allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of this world.” By contrast, separation of church and state in America had spared Christianity from being “mingled with the bitter passions of this world.” This is what impressed Tocqueville. “Let us look there [America] for instruction,” he wrote to his fellow French people.

In an irony of ironies however, the “American prescriptions” Tocqueville intended for France and Europe now apply to present-day America, because somewhere along the way a strange thing happened. Either indifferent to or ignorant of America’s dual founding, radical liberals shattered the “joint reign” between liberalism and religion, the “series of tacit compromises” of American ideology, as Henry F. May called it. If Tocqueville were to awake today, I’m sure he would be very surprised that the “joint reign” was ruined under the spell of French theory (postmodernism), which led radical liberals not only to assume hostility toward Christianity, but also seek to “reign” alone in a sort of cultural hegemony.

He would be surprised also, I’m sure, that American Evangelicals too are seeking a Christian hegemony: a theocracy, in response to liberalism’s cultural hegemony. Apparently they too are ignorant of America’s dual founding. But most troubling to me as a Christian is that in seeking political or legal remedies for spiritual maladies, they evince an acute spiritual blindness to the true nature of evil: that it’s rooted in the heart, and thus it can’t be uprooted by force. Indeed, evil must be uprooted by the spirit or persuasion, because the gospel, as Dostoevsky warned, “is a double-edged weapon, which may lead a person not to humility and ultimate self-control but, on the contrary, to the most satanic pride,” that is, usurping the authority and prerogatives that belong to God alone.

And the temptation for such usurpation is greatest in times of extreme crisis like the one we are going through, because our thinking about crisis is rooted in the modalities of the apocalypse. Ever since the biblical apocalypse entered the stream of Western consciousness, its prophecies of the cosmic war between good and evil, God and Satan, have been used to make sense of cataclysmic disasters, and also used demonically as vehicles for social animosities, demonization of others, revolutionary millenarianism and warrants for genocide, as Norman Cohn wrote in The Pursuit of the Millennium. And this is even though the Apocalypse itself explicitly warned (Revelation 22:18) against adding or taking away from its words.

As such it’s apropos to recapitulate the incommensurable difference between God and humans stated in Isaiah 55:8, 9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts,” a difference also encapsulated in the ancient Greek Delphic maxim “Know thyself,” that is, your limits as mortals. Don’t try to be gods—limits that Plato posited in the transcendent good that humans must observe. Of course, these limits can breached. But once breached, “everything is possible,” as Dostoevsky dramatized in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, prophetically anticipating all the atrocities of twentieth-century totalitarianisms.

As it is, the emergency responses to the coronavirus have breached limits hitherto inconceivable in free societies, opening an unlimited field of authority and action that leaders never dreamed of or thought people would submit to. Implicit in these breaches, to cite Tocqueville’s words (which echo Dostoevsky’s), is that “everything is allowed in the interests of society.” But as Tocqueville perceptively added, it’s “an impious maxim invented to legitimatize every future tyrant.” We must take heed. Liberal democracy was already in grave crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. And just as COVID-19 has been fatal to those with preexisting conditions, the multiple preexisting crises of liberal democracy—crises inextricably woven into the very fabric of modernity—may prove fatal.

But whether it’s fatal or not depends, in my view, on taking into account the full amplitude not only of the Enlightenment’s abysmal failure to fill the “God vacuum,” but also of postmodernism’s attempt to fill it with a Nietzschean unbridled individualism evocative of the attributes identified with Dionysus, the Greek god of formlessness and madness. To put it differently, liberal democracy must recover its Anglo-Protestant formative principles, and restore Newton’s “providential, universe-sustaining Lord God of Dominion,” who was displaced by the French Enlightenment and “murdered” by postmodernism. He is the ground of the first freedom—freedom of religious conscience—from which all modern freedoms inadvertently stem, with the concomitant liberation of politics, science, economics, art, and other culture spheres from religious hegemony.

The coronavirus has deformed these culture-spheres into an undifferentiated mass. But the real test of their autonomy and the freedoms that go with them is coming in the economic and social shock waves unleashed by the pandemic, but not yet quite registering on the political seismographs. So it’s crucial to recall what made Hitler’s rise possible, that is, without faith in “a providential, universe-sustaining God,” when the foundations of life are shattered, the burden of sustaining the universe is usurped by the man gods. As T. S. Eliot crisply put it in 1939: “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

The choice between God and the man god, denoted by the antichrist, is the subject of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky’s dramatized prophetic preview of the crisis of liberalism culminating in a global totalitarianism, in which people give up freedom for “bread” and “security.” As he put it, a time will come of “insoluble confusion of freedom, free thought, and science,” that liberal societies “will crawl” to the Catholic Church, saying “we come back to you, save us from ourselves.” Also the “flock (Protestants) will come together again and submit once more.” Then “the Tower of Babel” (medieval-like society) will be rebuilt; “then, and only then, will the kingdom of peace and happiness come for mankind.”

Dostoevsky’s prophecy of a Catholic-led universal order has been regarded as fanciful, a fabrication of religious prejudice. But to the script since the 1970s Catholics and Evangelicals have fought the “culture wars” as one “flock” (Ellen G. White also predicted in the late nineteenth century the convergence of Catholicism and Protestantism).[3] And after the 2008 financial crisis Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate (2009), called for a “worldwide integration that is open to transcendence” and creation of “a true world political authority,” to tame global capitalism.[4] Again, since 2008, as the crisis of liberal democracy has deepened, Catholic and Evangelical scholars have urged that “liberalism has failed” because its “pathologies”[5] are congenital. And they are tellingly offering retro medieval visions of a post-liberal order based on moral paternalism, authority, and community: “the Benedict Option,”[6] “the common-good capitalism,”[7] and “common-good constitutionalism,”[8]

But through a curious and alarming historical amnesia, as Joseph Loconte noted, “they fail to reckon seriously, if at all, with the sins of Christendom: the denigration of individual conscience, . . . the hedonism of clerical leadership, the deeply rooted anti-Semitism,” and the “long campaign of repression and terror.” The crux for Loconte is that “conservative critics of liberalism ignore its actual historical beginnings,” that is, as a reaction to the moral failure of Christendom—a failure that “generated a robustly Christian response”— “Luther’s Reformation,” “John Locke’s biblical vision of natural rights and culminating in James Madison’s religiously rooted republicanism.” Or, in short, culminating in the Anglo-American Protestant liberal tradition.[9]

Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism is facing its greatest crisis since the Great Depression. And given that its most formidable foes have been, and still are, religious and moralizing ideological critics, it’s critical that its “robustly Christian” moral origins be highlighted and saliently put forward. Post-COVID-19 rebuilding projects must as a minimum requirement respect the Protestant bequeath of freedom of the individual, with the plurality and autonomy of culture-spheres it implies. As all too human, our solutions must reflect the partial, contingent, and fragmentary nature of our finite knowledge. We must not, as Dostoevsky warned, rebuild the “Tower of Babel.”

Jesus’ charge to let the wheat and the tares grow together until harvesttime (see Matthew 13:24-30) means the good and the evil, the spiritual and the secular, and the tensions and contradictions intrinsic to the coexistence cannot be resolved or harmonized, except eschatologically, by Jesus Himself. To attempt otherwise is to be the antichrist, it’s to create a Babylon, “confusion,” the demonic apocalypse prophesied by Dostoevsky.

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[1] Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017).

[2] J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), p. 161.

[3] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), p. 588.

[4] https://www.veritascaritas.com/

[5] Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018).

[6] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

[7] Marco Rubio, inhttps://www.nationalreview.com/2019/11/the-case-for-common-good-capitalism.

[8] Adrian Vermeule, in https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/common-good-constitutionalism/609037.

[9] Joseph Loconte, “Anathematizing Liberalism,” The National Interest (March/April 2019), p.57.


Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.