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The escalating struggle between the democratic tradition and revolutionary democracy

Ideas do indeed have consequences, extremely serious ones, and we are now witnessing a war of ideas that remains very far from being settled.

(Image: Randy Colas |

When, several weeks ago, a Christian couple who own a bakery in Northern Ireland won a court ruling allowing them to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, it was international news. After all, here was one of the few recent actions by an arm of the state affirming religious rights in the face of secular pressure to conform. The trend of late has been in the opposite direction.

Whence comes this ongoing movement in support of official coercion? As Alberto Piedra explains in his new book No God, No Civilization (Lambing Press), its intellectually notable source is philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom historian Christopher Dawson once described as being the “spiritual father” of the post-Enlightenment era.

In his influential Social Contract (published in 1762), Rousseau offered this chilling prescription:

In order that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone gives force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.

Note that when Rousseau speaks expansively of the “general will” and the “whole body,” he means public policy as it has been shaped by the ideological elitists who manipulate and control public opinion.

In one sense, Piedra’s stimulating volume is an extended critique of Rousseau and his current intellectual offspring, whom he styles “Wizards of the Enlightenment.” The author, an emeritus professor at the Institute of World Policy and former dean of economics at the Catholic University of America, served as U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 1984 to 1987.

As he makes clear, there is a lot more at stake here than what one makes of Rousseau or any of the many other thinkers whom he cites in documenting his case. On the contrary, Piedra writes, it’s disturbingly clear that the “practical and wiser American democratic tradition” is now locked in a life-and-death struggle with what he calls “messianic, revolutionary democracy.” And this in turn goes a long way to explain alarming developments like the “growing encroachment” of government on families and education.

And wedding cakes for same-sex couples?

The U.S. Supreme Court in its last term delivered a weak 5-4 decision supporting a Colorado baker whose conscience wouldn’t permit him to provide a cake celebrating the marriage of two men. But the majority opinion, by now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, rested upon the fact that members of the state civil rights commission allowed their anti-religious bias ti be seen. Now, it appears, the baker and the commission are headed back to the court for round two in their continuing battle.

As I read Piedra’s account of the struggle between traditional values and coercive secularism, I was reminded of another recent volume about the same set of issues as viewed from a European perspective, Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy (Encounter Books). Like Piedra, Legutko stresses the essentially coercive nature of liberal secularism. And in Europe, as in the United States, this campaign reflects, in Legutko’s words, a persistent effort to deconstruct the family, “the institution to which the Left has from the very beginning felt a singular hostility.”

The publication of books like Piedra’s and Legutko’s is a sign that, despite the inroads of coercive, aggressive secularism, this battle is by no means over. Ideas do indeed have consequences, extremely serious ones, and we are now witnessing a war of ideas that remains very far from being settled.

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About Russell Shaw 271 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

1 Comment

  1. An interesting article pointed in its references to what’s shaping US democracy. The Am revolution was not that rather more war of independence. Colonies post independence retained Christian culture English social mores particularly the Common Law of England as the basis for jurisprudence most states today incorporating in their charter. Although today it’s forgotten since we’ve moved to what Shaw cites in Piedra conflict of the Am democratic tradition v messianic revolutionary democracy. Piedra identifies Rousseau as the motivator toward the Mod Man free to choose and self reliant. Robespierre idolized him as a legal advocate for the downtrodden yet when seizing power committed the sin of all social revolutionaries imposing dictatorial methods culminating in the Reign of Terror. Govt must govern rightly or wrongly. The reason also correctly identified by Shaw in his reading of Piedra is the jettisoning of God. Without God we abandon our understanding of Man, particularly the man known as Son of God. As often occurs the political mind is reflected in Christianity’s reaction to it. Today the historically unique phenomena is a Church that has adopted to the mod world’s Anthropocentric vision rather its previous Theocentric. Related to that is a peculiar messianic approach that resembles revolutionary messianic democracy.

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