April 22, 2005


Limits of democracy

Democracy is much in the news these days. President Geroge W. Bush praised its virtues during his inaugural address and it appears that some of the ideas in that address came from a new book by Natan Scharansky titled The Case for Democracy.

Lest we forget who Natan Scharansky is, he and his wife were both outspoken dissidents in the Soviet Union back in the early 1980s. He was imprisoned for his views. While he was in prison, his wife continued an intellectual assault against communism in the Soviet Union. In 1986, the United States made a deal with the Soviet Union that permitted the Scharanskys to leave the Soviet Union and move to Israel. It wasn’t too long before Natan Scharansky became head of a faction in the Israeli Knesset. Now his new book has catapulted him back into the news.

He appeared on NBC ’s “Meet the Press” on Feb. 13, debating with Patrick Buchanan. Both basically agreed with one another about the importance of democracy, but Buchanan maintained that the United States does not have a mission to spread democracy throughout the world. Scharansky insisted that there can be no justice without democracy, thus at least hinting that perhaps the United States does have such a mission.

The Bush Administration hopes that it can bring democracy to the Middle East, and the recent election in Iraq demonstrated that it might be able to achieve that objective. It would indeed be a glorious achievement if democracy could spread throughout the Middle East, an area that has never known that form of government except in Israel.

We must recognize, though, that democracy has its limits. It is not a panacea for all the ailments in the world. We agree with Winston Churchill’s famous statement that democracy is not perfect, but it is better than any other form of government ever tried.

Pope John Paul II pointed out some of the important imperfections in democracy in his latest book, his fifth (not including his encyclicals). The book was compiled from conversations the late pope had with Krzysztof Michalski and the late Father Jozef Tischner in 1993 at the pope’s summer residence. Titled Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums, it was published on Feb. 23 in Italy.

Much of the book concerns what he remembers about Mehmet Ali Agca’s attempt to assassinate him on May 13, 1981, but it also touches on other ­topics. At one point, he compares abortion to the Holocaust, saying that both derived from democratic governments in conflict with God’s law.

He says, “It was a legally elected parliament which allowed for the election of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and then the same Reichstag that gave Hitler [the political power to invade his European neighbors] and to the creation of concentration camps and for introducing the so-called ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question, which meant the extermination of millions of sons and daughters of Israel.”

He continued, “We have to question the legal regulations that have been decided in the parliaments of present-day democracies. The most direct association which comes to mind is the abortion laws. Parliaments which create and promulgate such laws must be aware that they are transgressing their powers and remain in open conflict with the law of God and the law of nature.”

The limits of democracy can be seen clearly by what has happened in much of Europe and is beginning to happen here in the United States. Secularism now dominates the culture. People with a completely secular perspective are free to democratically enact laws that are, as the pope put it, “in open conflict with the law of God and the law of nature.”

If the Bush Administration is successful at spreading democracy in the Middle East, it will remain to be seen what kind of democracy it will be. We naturally prefer that it be a secular democracy rather than one controlled by a militant Islam bent on destroying our culture. But it could also be a democracy controlled by Muslims who are content to live their religion devoutly and in accord with their beliefs in the law of God.  

— John F. Fink  

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