The Importance Of Republican Institutions

Back in November, the faith-based Rushdoony Center For The Theonomical Reconstruction Of America urged its members to not rest on their laurels after the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and at the same time to assure those outside of its membership that they were not advocating a radical and dangerous rewriting of the Constitution to implement Christian Dominionism in the United States. In the words of its First Vestryman Carroll Howard McManus:

We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for members of our church, not just for Christians, but for all Americans. We do not intend to take a dominant role in the ongoing political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for 2012. …

As our nation heads toward liberty, however, we disagree with the claims that the only options in America are a purely secular, liberal democracy or an authoritarian theocracy. Secular liberal democracy of the European variety, with its firm rejection of religion in public life, is not the exclusive model for a legitimate democracy.In America, religion continues to be an important part of our culture and heritage. Moving forward, we envision the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, which are central American values. We embrace democracy not as a foreign concept that must be reconciled with tradition, but as a set of principles and objectives that are inherently compatible with and reinforce Christian tenets.

What do we make of a claim like this? Do we believe such a person? Do we take him at his word, do we trust him? Do we think it is an elaborate ruse, a shading of the truth? Is this a case of a slow, advancing creep towards the institution of a theocratic state? Or perhaps we do not believe that Christian Dominionism has enough power or political credibility to merit substantial worry in the first place? Perhaps most importantly, would we feel comfortable if someone who subscribed to Vestryman McManus’ statement attained high political office?

Of course, this was not issued by a dominionist American Christian organization, and there is no such person as First Vestryman Carroll Howard McManus. Who really wrote this?

It was actually, mutatis mutandis, from an editorial in today’s Gray Lady authored by a member of the guidance council of the Muslim Brotherhood, commenting on the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals and intentions with respect to the ongoing civil strife in Egypt in an effort to urge the U.S. government to take a more activist role in getting Hosni Mubarak out of power there sooner than is actually happening.

The United States’ primary objection to, and fear of, the institution of a democratic state in a nation like Egypt is that if given the power to select their own government, the Egyptians will vote wrong and put in power theocrats hostile to the United States. The Muslim Brotherhood is identified variously as a “jihadist,” “Islamist,” or “terrorist” group with ties to al-Qaeda or other criminal sorts of people, and we are to believe that if they attain power, particularly in the phase of rewriting Egypt’s constitution, they will author an Iranian-style pseudodemocracy in Egypt.

In other words, if we give the Egyptians get democracy, they might vote wrong. <EDIT: Wow, was that arrogant of me!>

If it were really an American dominionist organization saying things like the modified Muslim Brotherhood quote I had above, we would not particularly fear such statements or the possibility that they would be able to attain their goals of theonomy. Partially because such a group would obviously be a “fringe” group incapable of acceding to significant political power, but not mainly. Mainly, we would not be anxious about it because we have a lengthy tradition of democratic self-government and strong institutions of Constitutional republicanism in place. We have courts that would not allow such a theonomic regime to take a strong hold over the laws. Our people possess a common ethic of pluralism and most of us perceive that too strong a degree of Christian theology influencing the general laws would ultimately make life unacceptably difficult for non-Christians (or those not deemed Christian “enough”  by those in power).

Egypt lacks these things. It is already a “nation” — a geographic and governmental entity which ties its population together with a common identity. It might become a true “democracy,” in the sense that it would select its leaders and lawmakers through a process of more or less universal and equal suffrage and charge them with representing those who elected them to office.  But would it be a “republic” in the sense of the common identity and the democratic government coming together into a system of social norms and expectations, of established institutions and understood boundaries of behavior both by and in the public? I have my doubts.

Many of tomorrow’s leaders in Egypt have been educated abroad. Importantly, Egypt’s military has had substantial contact with Western militaries and seems to have acquired their taste for apolitical professionalism. But this does not necessarily mean that the Egyptian electorate would be averse to religiously-based political parties or parties who adopt platforms hostile to the West. (And by “the West” I mean the United States and its military allies.) Indeed, it seems likely that there would be a significant bloc of voters who would find such policies appealing.

Looking north from Egypt, we see that a religious party has taken over the government in Turkey through peaceful, democratic means, and Turkey’s policies are as a result causing it to drift out of its orbit with the US and the EU. The drift is slow; Turkey is still an associate member of the EU and has not withdrawn its candidacy to join as a full member. It is still a part of NATO. It’s easy to overstate the case that the new ruling party is anti-Western and anti-secular, and the people of Turkey retain a significant culture of secular government. Where Turkey is different than Egypt is that it has had nearly a hundred years of secular government to look back on, a tradition founded by a heroic and charismatic figure. We can, until further notice, tolerate* a religious party in power in Turkey because that party can only adopt a moderately oppositional posture with respect to the West. A more radical stance could result somewhere that there are not the moderating influences Turkey enjoys.

For Egypt to start down that road, it needs its own Atatürk, its own Garibaldi, its own Washington. It does not look to me like Mohammed ElBaradei is capable of filling that role. Nor does there seem to be any leader emerging from the protests who can step into it. This is partly because like all dictators, Mubarak has made it a point throughout his regime to identify people with leadership potential and either eliminate them from the field of competition or co-opt them into his own organization.

This is why, tempting as it is to agitate for democracy in Egypt now, it is probably a good thing that the transition of power there be gradual rather than revolutionary. After all, a true revolution usually includes a period of time after the fall of the old regime in which radicals take power and institute a reign of terror. That is probably not something that we want to see happen in the most populous and one of the most prominent Arab nations regardless of the seemingly-beneficent impulses that might lead us to wish for democracy sooner rather than later.

* Yes, I realize that to some extent we would have to tolerate it no matter what — Turkey is an autonomous, sovereign nation and its people can elect whomever they please and we must tolerate the results of that election. What I mean is we don’t have to treat Turkey like we do Iran even if the Turks vote “wrong.”

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

One Comment

  1. This is largely why I’m having such a hard time thinking about Egypt – the lack of a clear leader or established republican institutions suggests a strong likelihood of a vacuum if Mubarrak leaves quickly. On the other hand, I’m increasingly convinced that if Mubarrak does not leave quickly, especially given the (probably justified) lack of trust that he will actually leave come September, then the level of anger will eventually boil over into violent revolution.

Comments are closed.