The Pagan Roots of Democracy
I stepped into the voting booth with civic pride and religious inspiration. The pastors urged the congregation to renew America and vote for a good Christian man, Ronald Reagan. I voted a straight Republican ticket. Those godless Democrats were no better than communists. That night I watched the returns come in and praised Jesus for the return of America to Christian values.
Over the next few years my disillusionment with Reagan, and Christianity lead me to study the roots of democracy. I was shocked to discover that democracy is Pagan.
The Birth of Democracy
The first democratic government was established in Athens in 490 BCE. Athens was chafing under dictatorship installed by the Spartans. Cleisthenes of the family of Alcmadonids rallied the common people by promising them a voice in the government of Athens. The people rebelled and drove the Spartan puppet government from Athens. Cleisthenes kept his promise and instituted a limited democracy which kept the majority of power in the hands of the aristocracy, but allowed participation of the middle class in some legislative and judicial functions.
The system slowly evolved, bringing Athens both wealth and influence in the Greek world. By the time of Pericles, fifty years later, democracy had evolved into a system of participation in decision making by all adult male citizens. Speakers would address whoever attended a particular debate and decisions would be made by a simple show of hands.
Athenian Democracy was not popular with the surrounding city states, especially the Spartans who lived under a tightly controlled dictatorship. Even Plato scorned democracy. Plato asserted that "democracy originates when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest an equal share in the citizenship and in opportunities of office." Plato thought that rule by the aristocracy was the natural order and that democratic leaders would "deprive the rich of their property, give some to the masses, keeping most of it for themselves." There were never any mass confiscations in the Athenian democracy, these assertions were fabrications by Plato to prey on the fears of the rich and to keep the common people subservient. Plato's words greatly influenced later scholars and after the fall of democraticAthens the very idea of democracy lay dormant until the Renaissance 1800 years later.
The Christian interlude
The early Christians inherited the Roman empire, now renamed the Holy Roman Empire and changed little of its political policies. The early church considered studying the nature of God the highest form of learning and despised the study of man and nature. Mobs of Christians, urged on by their Bishops, would burn libraries and slaughter Pagan teachers. Early Christians believed in the imminent coming of Jesus and the destruction of the earth to be replaced by paradise. There was no need to study something so transitory and evil as man or nature. Christians believed that God rules the universe, and the Pope was appointed by God to rule the earth. The Pope used the Church to rule men's spiritual lives and the King to rule men's secular lives. Man was a fallen creature, born in sin and saved only by the mercy of God. Because of his vile nature man had to be ruled by God's chosen, the church. Democratic thought was anathema to Christians and was punishable by death.
There were occasional forays into Democratic thought outside of the power structure of the Church. In the twelfth century a fiery and noble-minded ex-monk, Arnold of Brescia, induced the Romans to throw off the authority of priests and establish the first Republic in the world since Athens. He was, of course, hung and the democratic movement crushed.
In 1215 when King John submitted to his barons' demands and signed the Magna Carta, limiting the king's power and guaranteeing limited civil rights, the Pope exacted recognition of England's feudal dependency on Rome, and then, as feudal monarch, excommunicated the barons.
There were three major factors in the flowering of the renaissance and the return of democratic ideals: the Black Plague, which killed half of Europe and destabilized the feudal system; the Crusades, which exposed Europeans to the prosperous, civilized and non-Christian peoples of the east; and the revival of study of the classic Pagan authors.
After the turn of the first millennium when Jesus still hadn't returned, educated men began to doubt the immediate return of Christ. With the advent of the Black Death which killed half of Europe in the 14th century, scholars began to doubt the providence of God and began to study in earnest the physical and psychological nature of man.
The crusades to free the Holy Lands from the infidel Moslems brought the barbarous and backwards Europeans into contact with the refined and sophisticated cultures of the east. Although the Crusades at first brought prestige and power to the Catholic church, they soon degenerated into random slaughter of enemies of the Pope. But the damage was done. Freed from their narrow vision of the power and prestige of the church, European nobles began to distance themselves from the spiritual authority of the Pope. To finance the Crusades, many noble families sold town charters to free the town from obligations to the nobles. Many Serfs also bought their freedom. This was the beginning of the end of feudalism and the beginning of an educated and cultured middle class. This middle class began to demand individual rights and freedoms, freedom from the tyranny of the church and freedom from the tyranny of the Nobles.
The seat of the Holy See was littered by the remnants of the grandeur of classical Rome. Living among the ruins of a once great civilization and disillusioned by the debaucheries of the Popes and the frequent slaughters of Christians, Jews and Moslems committed or sanctioned by the church, scholars turned to Pagan authors for inspiration and wisdom.
Studying Pagan wisdom was a difficult task in the 12th and 13th century. There were few manuscripts and few scholars knew how to read Greek. Through the centers of Moslem learning in Spain the Classics were slowly rediscovered. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, many scholars fled to Italy with their learning and their manuscripts. It took a almost a century for this learning to be understood and disseminated, but once it did the tyrannical hold the church held on the people and the state began to wain.
It is not a coincidental that the purging of the wisdom of Pagan authors began the Dark Ages and their rediscovery brought on the Renaissance.
One of the first Renaissance scholars to drive a wedge between church and state was Dante. Dante in his Monarchy saw the state as essentially separate in function and goals from the church and needed its independence for well-being.
In 1324 Marsilio of Padua published his Defender of the Peace which denied the authority of the Pope and Church in state affairs and asserted that the final authority for spiritual affairs lay with the circle of believers, not in the Pope. These egalitarian sentiments were repeated by John Wycliffe a decade later. Wycliffe urged that believers appeal directly to God for blessings and bypass the church.
As these radical ideas spread they fostered both the rise of Protestantism and Deism, and with these movements we begin to see the concept of modern democracy.
The Protestant failure
Beginning with Luther, leaders of the Protestant Reformation began to claim that Christians must free themselves from the hierarchy of the Catholic church and have personal interaction with their dieties. This was a major step towards individual freedom of thought and worship. As the Protestant rebellion spread, the Protestant leadership began to persecute those who deviated from Protestant doctrines as fiercely as the Catholic Church had persecuted its heretics. It seemed freedom of thought and religion was only allowed as long as your thoughts led to the exact same conclusions as the leaders of the Protestant church. Although the Protestant church championed egalitarianism, their equality was restricted to Protestant believers only. The Protestant Reformation was a match that lit the flame of freedom, but it was quickly snuffed out in the name of religious conformism. True freedom of thought had to wait for the rise of a movement called Deism.
Deists, the first Neo-Pagans
Deism was a rejection of the Christian notion of revealed truth, especially revealed truth about the divinity of Christ or the meddling of a supernatural god in human affairs. Deists accepted some aspects of Christian morality but interlaced them with Pagan notions of rationalist individualism.
Because nature has endowed humans with reason, truth must be found by every individual for him/herself. These truths would be the same for the uneducated peasant and the scholar because both can see the truth by the pure light of Nature. Inalienable rights were not granted by God but by Nature. Deists considered that progress in religious thought from the earliest humans to the present to be an illusion. Deists accused Christians of corrupting the natural religion of our ancestors by adding layers of philosophy and by twisting religion for the benefit of the priests and church hierarchy. The Deists' doctrines laid the foundations for the return of Democracy. Deists were inspired by the ideals of Pagan Athens, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the writings of Herbert, Locke and other early Deist and Freethinkers.
The not-so-Christian founding fathers
Benjamin Franklin notes that during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a motion to pray was voted down with only three or four members of the Convention voting for it. I think we can be assured that Biblical Christians would vote for prayer while drafting the Constitution of their newly formed republic. We can easily conclude that out of all the members of the Constitutional Convention only three or four were Christian.
Looking at the writing of the founding fathers, we can see that they had little regard for Christianity.
Ben Franklin was a member of the Hell-Fire Club. Franklin wrote to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, saying he doubted the divinity of Christ, although he believed in his moral teachings. Franklin in his disdain for Christianity once said that "Lighthouses are more helpful then churches."
George Washington, a professed Deist, refused either to take communion or to kneel in church. Washington stated that "The government of the United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian religion. The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation."
John Adams, The second president of the U.S. once said "The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity," Adams once speculated, "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it."
In 1802 Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Constitution, wrote "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature." During the eight years of his Presidency, Jefferson refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. Jefferson later declared, "Calvin's religion was demonism. The God of Christianity is a being of terrific character-cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. The Christian God is a hocus-pocus phantasm of a God, like another Cerebus, with one body and three heads."
Jefferson relates a story about the drafting of the Bill of Rights: "Where the preamble (of the Bill of Rights) declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words Jesus Christ, so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion"
The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindoo and the Infidel of every denomination."
James Madison, fourth president of the United States stated "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution." Madison added, "In no instance have...the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people."
A vast majority of the men who founded the United States were essentially Pagan. This is not surprising. Monotheistic Gods inspire totalitarian governments. Polytheistic Gods inspire democratic governments. As democracy matured and the founding fathers' influence began to wane, Christians began to institute blasphemy laws. The laws used the power of the state to protect the church from criticism and derision. The laws were used sporadically until 1968 when the supreme court finally declared them unconstitutional.
Modern day democracy
As democracy spreads throughout the world, we are still embroiled in the same controversies that have raged from the earliest days of the Holy Roman Empire. How much power should the church influence on the state? Where is the balance between personal freedom and interests of the state? How much regulation of religion should government impose?
Most Christians have finally decided that freedom of thought in matter of religion and politics is acceptable, but some still wish to return to the Holy Roman ideal of the Church exercising power over the state. In the newsletter of the Foundations for Biblical Studies, Greg Loren Durand states that "Human depravity is such that, if left unchecked, it will absolutely destroy human society; it can never change it for the better. Fallen men have no capacity within themselves to live in peace with each other, much less to create a 'New World Order' based upon the ever shifting sands of relativistic standards. Only an unchanging standard can be trusted to maintain a stable society; and this the Reconstructionist insists is found in God's Law alone."
Fortunately not all Christians favor the idea of increasing the power of the church in government affairs. Ray Gingrich, a professor of Bible and church history at Eastern Mennonite College testified to a congressional hearing exploring the possibility a religious equality amendment that the amendment "is not a move toward democracy but toward majority rule; not a nudge toward greater freedom and a deeper national spirituality, but a shift toward the potential for religious tyranny."
I watch the polls for signs that Dole will wake up from his senile dementia (cigarettes are non-addictive, tobacco company political donations obviously are) and begin to seriously threaten Bill and Al. I may be a bit queasy at pulling the lever for Clinton, (is it alright just to write in Al Gore for President on my ballot?) but I will be there through Hades or Rocky Mountain blizzards.
Athena doesn't care how I vote, but she damn well cares if I absent myself from a Pagan tradition 2500 years old.
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