It’s one thing to be born free; it’s another to be set free, and it’s quite another staying free.
How ironic it is, for example, to watch the Antifa movement’s black-clad and hooded, club-wielding activists trying to silence anyone they think holds to far-right and/or white supremacist ideologies. I too loathe racism but, thinking they’re fighting Fascism, they’re as thuggish as the worst Fascists. The freedom of speech they seek to destroy includes their own, living proof that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
But how much thought do the rest of us give to keeping our political freedoms? We’re born free but do we know how to stay free?
Do we ever think on how we were set free in the first place? Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1992 that ‘the universalisation of Western liberal democracy’ has brought us to ‘the end of history’, that we’ve reached ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and… the final form of human government’.
He was almost right but not because we’ve cleverly evolved our ideology – we’ve simply, agonisingly slowly, and piece by wonderful piece, rediscovered over the last 400 years what Moses introduced to the planet as the complete package in the 15th Century BC. If we’d all been smarter, we could have been enjoying this political freedom for the last 3,500 years… but we had to learn the hard way. As Winston Churchill famously observed:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
And now, when we at last have this precious experience of liberal democracy, we’re close to squandering it; not understanding nor valuing our inheritance, we may even be despising elements of it or dismantling it, piece by piece.
Let me ask you, do you know what ‘liberal democracy’ is?
Do you know its five essential elements/values/ideals?
Do you know that in the last 100 years, every nation that has abandoned these five has crushed freedom, whether politically left-wing (Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Kim Jung Un’s North Korea) or right-wing (Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany)? That every Islamic nation is always being tempted to totalitarianism? This is because Islam calls for the joining of ‘church and state’ under a Caliph. Think of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), Erdogan’s Turkey or Bolkiah’s Brunei, all heading in that direction, or King Salman’s Saudi Arabia which seems to be heading away.
I’m not suggesting that New Zealand is on the brink of falling for this but do you know that each of these elements is forever under threat? Are you defending or neglecting them? We need to recognise and value what we can all too easily take for granted.
A liberal democracy is a country or state based on the liberty and equal rights of all citizens and governed by elected representatives. It is the ultimate political means of ensuring maximum freedom and fairness for every one of us. It’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.1
The name ‘democracy’ derives from the Greeks’ 5th Century BC political experiment but their exclusion of women, slaves, debtors, and non-citizens meant only 10-20% of their population could vote cf. NZ’s eligibility today at 89.5%.2
A thousand years earlier, in about 1446 BC, Moses spelled out a true democracy’s five essential elements: the worth of every individual, the rule of law, the separation of powers, freedom of conscience, and elected leaders. This is freely acknowledged by Jürgen Habermas who is described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as ‘one of the most influential philosophers in the world’:3
Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.4
So, setting aside ‘idle postmodern talk’, let us consider more carefully our extraordinary legacy and heritage which has given us freedom in all its glory.
Each element matters – Mussolini and Hitler only gained unbridled power because they were allowed to dismantle them, one by one. I was surprised to learn that it was Mussolini who defined Fascism for Hitler:
Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State [i.e. democracy] is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results [i.e. elections]: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality…5
Mussolini badly underestimated the extraordinary power of democracy – it is not ‘merely a force limited to the function of recording results’ but actually the best available system of checks and balances to restrain both mankind’s and the state’s propensity to evil, as Churchill knew, ‘in this world of sin and woe’.
The Five Essentials
Each element must be understood and treasured as essential. I’ve included the references so you can fact-check.
(i) The intrinsic worth of every individual.
While Mussolini, as above, dismissed individuals as worth less than the State, Moses wrote:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.6
Being created in the image of God means every individual is worth much more than any institution. Every Jew thereafter learned that human government exists to protect us all by maintaining justice for all7 and punishing the unjust. Paul explained this to his Gentile audience in Rome:
[The government] is a servant of God to you for justice. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 8
Remember, when Paul was writing, the Roman Empire was using this power to unjustly crucify Jesus, exile John, imprison and ultimately execute Paul himself, as well as Peter, James, and many other believers simply for believing. These abuses of power did not remove the government’s right to enforce obedience for the cause of justice by use of ‘the sword’ in the 1st Century or today’s lethal equivalent, the gun.
Every nation needs an authorised agency to use lethal force if necessary to stop murderous individuals, to protect the lives of all because we are all made in the image of God. Our part is to be subject to this authority and to ensure the rightful use of it.
This is readily seen in NZ’s deadliest mass-murder in a sleepy little village called Aramoana in 1990. Gunman David Gray had killed twelve men, women, and children, and wounded two more before being called on to surrender by police sergeant Stu Guthrie. He then killed Sergeant Guthrie before being shot by our nation’s Anti-Terrorist Squad. No-one, not even the most ardent pacifist or anarchist, has suggested that David Gray should have been left to carry on his rampage. On the other hand, every shooting by our armed forces is scrutinised by our Independent Police Conduct Authority to see if it was justified or not.
The idea that every human being is made in the image of God motivated believers to be at the forefront of the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage throughout Western Civilisation, as well as caring for the sick and handicapped, the poor and orphans, and for the rights of unborn children and convicted prisoners.
By way of contrast, over the last 100 years, those believing like Mussolini – Stalin, Hitler, Hirohito, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Hoxha, Ceausescu, et al – happily killed over 269 million individuals. Mao’s regime caused the deaths of 83,702,000 (all in peacetime) while the USSR killed 61,911,000, with 43,000,000 attributable to Stalin personally (details in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, pp. 121-132).
(ii) The rule of law for all
Some attribute the principle that no one is above the law to 17th Century philosopher John Locke who argued against ‘the divine right of kings’. Others, to the 13th Century’s Magna Carta, “the book of the foundation words of the free world”.9 Baron Woolf, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, described this Charter of Liberties in 2005 as “the cornerstone of liberty in the English-speaking world”.
However, the principle was actually spelled out by Moses 3,500 years ago, in 1446 BC. Read for yourself the divine command to kings in the Torah, or Law of Moses:
Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel. (Deut 17:18-20)
(iii) The separation of powers
This is often credited to the American Constitution which set up an independent judiciary, a free press, and the separation of church and state. Others again credit the Magna Carta of 1215 which set limits on the power of the monarchy, the barons, and the church but this separation also goes back to Moses. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”12 so any unchecked power will always be disastrous. Although we are all made in the image of God, we are all also fallible and prone to corruption. As Solomon puts it:
Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices13
In other words, we are all devious. Accordingly, all of our power structures must address this fallibility and corruption of man in every role, just as they were in ancient Israel.
The rulers, the judiciary, the priestly educators, and the prophets were strictly autonomous – any infringement was severely punished – but all were answerable to God through each other. For example, Samuel, a prophet and judge, spoke out against the corruption of Eli the high priest14 and lawlessness of King Saul;15 Hilkiah the high priest called King Josiah back to the Law of Moses and he sought confirmation from Huldah the prophetess.16
The prophets’ only authority lay in their speaking truth to those in authority. Today, this prophetic function is often exercised not only by the churches but also by our free press. Consider, for example, the effects of Woodward and Bernstein’s revealing of President Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal, or the Washington Post‘s non-partisan exposé of both Republican and Democrat administrations’ corruption in publishing Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon papers. Today, we have Sara Carter and John Solomon of Just the News to thank for revealing the extent of the partisan corruption in the highest echelons of the FBI and DOJ.
All tyrannies seek to silence or control the media or “fourth estate” so every one of us must be aware of our responsibility to keep the press free. Conversely, if the press is to speak truth to power, every one of us should be seeking to keep the press truthful (see Safeguarding the Fourth Estate).
Today, many are claiming President Trump’s battle with the mainstream media is Fascist and Hitler-like but this is Antifa-like ignorance – he has no thugs closing down any newspapers or networks and, just as it should in a liberal democracy, criticism has actually flourished, as can be seen in this graphic, even rejuvenating some outlets and increasing their ratings.
(iv) Freedom of conscience
In the 16th and 17th Century, the Pilgrims fled to the Americas from the oppressive state churches of Europe, Catholic and Protestant. Their principle of ‘separation of church and state’ was to prevent any denomination using the state to enforce their doctrines on all:
The American concept of freedom of conscience is rooted in the Puritan’s quest to practice their religion freely and their desire to promote religious tolerance… a revolutionary new idea of religious liberty, an idea that goes much beyond the Puritan vision of liberty for themselves alone… that freedom of conscience must be extended to people of all faiths and none… this deeply American idea of religious liberty…17
This ‘deeply American idea’, however, was actually Jewish, originating with Moses 3,000 years earlier:
“You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice” (Ex 23:2)
Again, Paul spelled it out for his Gentile audience in Greece and Italy in the 1st Century AD:
By the 4th Century AD, after the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the Roman Empire stopped compelling worship of the emperor but began compelling conversion to Christianity. Abandoning the revelation of Moses and Paul, the churches consistently denied freedom of conscience until the Pilgrims rediscovered it and many today think they invented it.
We may take this freedom for granted but it was hard won and needs to be maintained. As Viktor Frankl wrote:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.20
(v) Elected leaders
A thousand years before the Greeks’ democracy, the primary leadership of Israel in every circumstance – in the wilderness, in the land, or in exile – was representative elders in every village, city, tribe, and in the Sanhedrin, their national assembly. Here it is, in Moses’ writings again:
“Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads” 21
Corrupt or abusive elders were publicly called to account by Ezekiel (Ezek 34:1-10) and Jeremiah (Jer 23:1-4). In N.T. times, every church was led by elders (Acts 14:23) who were recognised for their wisdom and experience (1 Tim 3:4-7) but publicly corrected if necessary (1 Tim 5:19-20).
As long as our elections today are free and fair, our representatives can be held accountable and there’s a peaceful transition of power. In the USA, the two-term limit for the President seems to be a healthy check on executive power in the largest and most powerful liberal democracy ever.
(i) Staying free
The values and governing structures of liberal democracy as revealed by Moses 3,500 years ago provide the checks and balances that ensure our freedom, on the one hand revering every individual and on the other, addressing our inherent corruption. The five elements are: the worth of every individual, the rule of law, the separation of powers, freedom of conscience, and elected leaders.
The ignoring, neglecting, or dismantling of any of these five erodes our freedom.
(ii) 20th Century Lessons
In the last one hundred years, the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hirohito, Hitler, Hoxha, Ceausescu, and Pol Pot have been defeated at terrible cost, and today, Italy, Japan, Germany, Albania, Romania, and Cambodia are liberal democracies in varying degrees of success.
China has made spectacular progress since Mao Zedong. The World Bank reports that reforms have lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty, from 88% in 1981 to 6.5% in 2012. Today, those living below the national poverty line is around 30 million (2% of the population) and they hope to eradicate poverty by 2020. However, Xi Jinping’s becoming Chairman for life may prove calamitous. Similarly in Russia with Vladimir Putin.
As for North Korea, we can only hope that Kim Jun Un will discard his grandfather and father’s disastrous beliefs and learn from South Korea’s experience of freedom.
Only the freedoms of individual rights, of conscience, of the press, and ultimately, free and fair elections will save these great nations from reverting to civil wars or absolute tyranny.
(iii) Islamic states
We need to keep an eye on the evolution of all Islamic states, as to whether they are becoming modernist and embracing liberal democratic ideas, or traditionalist and denouncing them. Of particular concern today are Erdogan’s Turkey and Bolkiah’s Brunei but our largest Islamic neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, renowned as modernist, are showing disturbing signs.
In the Middle East, King Salman seems to be modernising Saudi Arabia despite fierce opposition and el-Sisi’s Egypt narrowly escaped Morsi’s caliphate. The battlefield defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is only a partial solution – the war of ideas remains unrelenting and the Arab Spring has returned to winter.
These nations’ only hope of true freedom for their citizens is to adopt the five elements revealed by Moses instead of the totalitarian vision of Muhammad.
(iv) Little ol’ New Zealand
Our liberal democracy is healthy today but listen to Wendell Phillips. Speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1852, he said:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten… The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted22 agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”
Benito Mussolini By Martianmister and Vps – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=By неизвестный (unknown) – http://sarbaharapath.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mao2.jpg, Public Domain,
Mao Zedong https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53879271
- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863
- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/ 7 October, 2011
- Translated interview in 1999. Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, Cambridge; Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151
- The Italian Encyclopedia, 1932; www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/mussolini-fascism.html, 4 Feb, 2010
- Gen 1:27
- Gen 9:5-6
- Rom 13:1-4
- Melvyn Bragg, 12 Books that Changed the World. p. 71.
- 2 Sam 12:1-14, 1 Kin 21:18-19
- Matt 14:3-4
- Lord Acton’s letter of 1887
- Eccles 7:29
- 1 Sam 3:11-20
- 1 Sam 13:8-14
- 2 Chron 34:14-31
- www.freedomforum.org/packages/first/Curricula/EducationforFreedom/supportpages/L09-FreedomofConscience.htm, 30 Aug, 2012.
- 1 Cor 10:29
- Rom 14:22
- Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946
- Deut 1:13
- Uninterrupted; continuous