Democracy in the Conflict of Ideologies


By REV. THOMAS E. HILL, Ph.D. (Edinburgh), Professor of Bible, Southwestern College, Memphis, Tenn.

Delivered before the fourth Southwestern College Public Forum on a "Just Peace and World Reconstruction," Memphis, Tenn., April 8, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 702-704.

GOVERNMENT of the people, by the people, for the people." Aside from the technical distinction between absolute democracy and representative democracy, the spirit of democracy has never been more satisfactorily presented than in these words of Abraham Lincoln. People's government arose from two tap roots. The first is that Athenian democratic order of which Pericles spoke so eloquently in his great funeral oration. The other is that democratic spirit which was vigorously expressed in the life of the Hebrew people whose literature has played so significant a part in the development of civilization. From the beginning of the Christian era democracy, passing through many vicissitudes, gradually strengthened its hold until, with the signing of the treaty at Versailles, it promised to become the way of government for all lands.

However, communism was even then offering with every year of its endurance a growing challenge to the democratic order; and after 1922, the year of Mussolini's march upon Rome, one country after another began to abandon democracy. The volume of the anti-democratic clamor continued to increase and the prestige of democracy to decline until by 1940 people's government seemed to many to be essentially a thing of the past and totalitarianism to be borne on the "wave of the future."

Today the problem of democracy is not, as might have appeared to be the case in 1920, to discover philosophical reasons for holding what everyone already believes; rather the Question is: What in the light of the burning conflict of ideologies is the essential, the fundamental truth about this way of government that once seemed beyond dispute? For the enemies of democracy are right; the struggle is not one of techniques of government, but of moral philosophies. We must prepare to cast aside our superficial prejudices and plumb the depths in fearless candor in the light of all that the critics of democracy have said if we are to discover an enduring foundation for our governmental way of life.

Two questions emerge. The first is this: Upon what basis, if any, can it be asserted in these days that democracy is really the best order of government? This question leads us immediately to an attempt to find essential moral values and realities. Although such values must be verified by rational, moral, and religious judgments, they should and Can be discovered in the solid earth of historical fact. History does not always mean the same thing to all people, but, as one tries to be as genuinely objective as possible, one fact emerges from the struggle of the ages as the clue to an intelligible interpretation of the drama of the human story: and that is the inherent and incomparable worth of every individual human being. A person lives in and is responsible to a society, but he is himself the sole center of consciousness and the bearer of all other values. Material wealth, states, political and economic processes, races—all these are significant only in terms of their relationships to persons. This, I take it, is the supreme moral discovery of the great Hebrew prophets which sets them so far above all their contemporaries in their era and makes them teachers even of contemporary civilization. Especially is it the characteristic doctrine of the Founder of Christianity. In a world where human life was cheap, men and women counted for little,and autocracy was the rule, He dared to declare that under the Divine Father every human life was of inestimable value. "It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish." "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." "How much then is a man better than a sheep." "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." Thus does our Lord ring the changes upon the truth of the worth of a person.

This is the essential basis of the spread of Christianity in the Roman world. The friendless peasant, the down-trodden woman, the slave, the humble member of a suppressed race, through this way of Jesus, felt that at last he could stand up as a man or a woman upon the basis of his own worth before a God to whom alone he was really responsible. It was this, appealed to by kings and reformers, which at the close of the Middle Ages called in question the rights of both churchly and secular authorities who had asserted claims to autocratic power. This, in the ringing phrases of Rousseau, Paine, and Henry, laid the foundation of those great upheavals the French and American Revolutions. More than this, strange as it may seem, this fact of the inherent value of the individual was in part the force which made possible the rise of the fascist and communist revolutions, as men and women in the midst of unfortunate circumstances groped, though in misguided ways, for rights of which they felt themselves unjustly deprived. This, I say, is the supreme moral value revealed in the solid facts of history; revolutionary in the past, it is tremendously potent for the future.

What is discovered in history is also backed by reason, which compels us to recognize in others a selfhood which we cherish in ourselves, by a conscience which refuses to allow us to escape from the principle involved in the Golden Rule, and by a religion in which the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man are the most universally appealing elements.

How do our philosophies of government stand relative to this basic moral fact? This is the acid test of political ways. Communism and fascism have been able to make some use of the principle, but their essential teachings are the antithesis of it. Their leaders deliberately and violently repudiate it. In fascism the supreme moral value is the State, a fiction if ever there was one, as though the State, not the individuals which compose it, were a center of consciousness. Such a concept has no place for persons as such. In communism the supreme moral value is the productive laborer, an abstraction of a misleading kind, as though there could be a worker who was not also a man with a variety of interests which have little to do with his work or its reward. If the fact of human worth be a test, fascism and communism are but partial and hopelessly unbalanced forms of political order.

What of democracy and the supreme moral value whichwe have discovered? No form of government alone can guarantee a condition in which men are treated according to their worth. Such a condition depends upon economic, ethical, religious, and educational factors, over which the State can never and should never have complete control. However, in so far as any form of government can secure an adequate recognition of the rights of the individual, in so far as any form of government can assure that all persons will be treated as bearers of inherent worth, democracy does this, and in proportion as it is genuinely democratic. Every step in the progress of democratic theory has sought its justification, whether sincerely or not, precisely in an appeal to the principle of the worth of human beings. Every step in the development of democratic fact has been a step in the direction of the realization of this principle in the order of society. All of the great documents of modern democracy are firmly planted upon this principle. Thus the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident:—That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Thus also the preamble to the Constitution. Thus also the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Thus also those great speeches of American and British; patriots which have become classics of democracy. If Abraham Lincoln's definition of democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is at all true, democracy is an expression of a deliberate attempt to found; government solely upon the truth of the inherent value or persons. It is an attempt to discover and put into operation a mechanism through which the will of the people becomes the rule of the land. It is, in so far as it is real democracy, government "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

That the inherent and inestimable worth of the human being is the clue to history is, then, verified in reason, conscience, and religion. Democracy is the sole form of government founded upon this solid reality.

The establishment of the superiority of democratic theory over rival theories is by no means the sole concern of a study of democracy in the conflict of ideologies. Equally important is the discovery of the course to be pursued by democratic fact in face of the challenge of rival systems.

This then is our second question: What must democracy do to save itself? Certainly it must win the war. That is imperative, but however thoroughly that is done, the essential problem posed by the current criticism of democracy will still remain. The fact that half the world has turned in distrust from people's government is strong indication that there is something wrong in the house of democracy itself, and that not alone in those countries where democracy has been superficially tried and rejected, but also in those countries to which men have looked for its best expressions. Something desperately needs to be done, something more than that which can be accomplished by a military victory. If we ignore this elemental fact, we may fail to destroy the roots of that against which we struggle and be rudely awakened by its recurring forms, which may arise next time nearer home. What then must democracy do to survive in a world which in important places has lost faith in it?

To be sure the cure of our democracy's ills does not lie alone in the sphere of government, but in so far as it does, three courses are possible.

For one thing democracy can limit itself; that is, it can become less democratic. Many people believe that democracy has gone too far, that it stands in great danger of becomingmob rule, that what we need is not more popular participation, but more intelligent direction. We must return to the principles of Alexander Hamilton and have done with Thomas Jefferson. We must let the people feel that they govern, but place the power in the hands of those who are fit to rule. We require an aristocracy of intelligence, a stabilization by property-holders.

It is not yet generally recognized how widespread this view is. Two statements recently made by students are typical of ideas held by many of their elders. When asked if there were any value in the fascist idea, one said that the leadership principle is sound and, if we could get the right kind of leader, autocracy would be the right kind of government. The other replied that, considering all that our labor unions are doing, we might have to learn something from the fascist. Perhaps more cautious people would not put the matter so plainly, but many are convinced that some withdrawal of people's participation is necessary.

This is a possible way, but it is not a way of saving democracy. Rather in precisely that degree in which it is achieved is it a surrender of democracy. Democracy is not simply government for the people, it is also government by the people. From its point of view even the most benevolent despot is still a despot, and government even by a perfect leader would still be bad government without people's participation. If a person is of real value, he requires as an expression of that value a real participation in the control of the affairs of the society of which he is a part. What is more, the restriction of democracy is not likely to work. People who have tasted freedom and self-rule do not easily surrender it on a permanent basis. This way of retreat isa betrayal of the very foundation upon which democracy makes its claim to be the right way of government. It involves a fundamental distrust of human nature which plays into the hands of the enemies of democracy. It is much more apt to be based upon an attempt to preserve property than upon an endeavor to further the interest or promote the well-being of people.

A second way emerges: Democracy can exert a greater effort to preserve itself just as it is. The kind of government that we have now attained is adequate, the argument runs, and we dare not risk any change. This is what is often meant by "preserving our American Way." At all cost, it is said, we must preserve the status quo. Our answer to this view is clear: We must not forget that it was in face of this status quo that the rival ideologies have emerged. To confirm uncritically the status quo is to close our eyes to the force of these rival philosophies. It is another way of doing what was done after the last war; that is, of relapsing into complacency, blindly oblivious of the fact that opposition to democracy would not arise on so large a scale if the working of democracy were perfect, and that making the world safe for democracy is not complete with the winning of a war and the repression of the enemy.

Can it be that the ground for opposition to democracy is that the status quo in democracy is really not quite democratic? Certainly many normal men and women have sincerely felt that our American democracy is not entirely what it pretends to he. While democracy has progressed a long way in our country, we are by no means guiltless of the charge of pledging allegiance to people's government with one hand while holding out the other to special privilege. We speak of universal suffrage; yet a large part ofour adult population, the Constitution notwithstanding, is effectively kept from the polls. We speak of a land of opportunity for all, while the surroundings in which many of our children are compelled to live would dwarf the mental and moral stature even of a potential genius. We speak of liberty and equality, yet we nurture class feelings, refuse to surrender racial antipathies, and remain indifferent to grave injustices based upon distinctions of color. We speak of the brotherhood of all men, but often allow those who are indifferent to the effects of our national policies upon citizens of other nations to choose our course in foreign affairs. We speak of the worth of people, yet conduct our affairs as though things counted more than human beings. We are willing enough to recognize value in our own persons, but are much more reluctant to act as though the value of others were as real.

To preserve the status quo is not to preserve democracy, for the status quo is not sufficiently democratic. Rather, to preserve the status quo is to substantiate the charge of hypocrisy leveled at our democracy by our enemies and so to foster that kind of dissatisfaction in which anti-democratic ideologies breed.

One other course is open to us. We can see to it that the democracy of fact becomes more really the democracy of ideas. That is to say, we can make our democracy more democratic, more genuinely a people's government. This is the only way of salvation for a democracy; and for the very simple reason that only in this way can democracy place itself squarely upon that moral fact which it claims to express, the fact of the inherent value of every human being. From its connection with this fact democracy has gained its strength in all ages. Only by being increasingly true to it can democracy maintain that strength in a period of conflicting ideologies.

To express the value and support the interests of some individuals and not those of others will never do, save as a passing stage. If democracy is to live, it must become increasingly what it claims to be, a people's government. Only so can it remove the sting of its critics' cries and make its rightful appeal to those who, feeling that they have been cheated of their rights, have been tempted to turn to other ways. The real threat to ordered government is not the people, but the fear of the people.

We must broaden the electorate, in fact as well as in theory, until every sane literate adult has an opportunity to make his will felt in the affairs of state. We must simplify the ballot so that the essential issues will not be clouded by a mass of technical details. We must be ever alert to discover better ways of finding, and sounder techniques for executing, the will of the people. We must see to it that every child has. a decent environment and an educational opportunity in accord with his ability, regardless of the financial status, race, class, or creed of his parents. We must be ready to surrender special privilege for the common good. We must be democratic in fact as well as in name.

Democracy was born in the struggle of personality to express itself. From the moral appeal of this struggle it has derived its strength. Where men have become indifferent to the extension of freedom while many were not yet free, democracy has become weak and listless. It must resume with vigor the march for liberty and the good life, at home as well as abroad, in the cultural and economic spheres as well as in the political. It must be relentless in its fight for freedom and the development of the human spirit, not of some persons only but of all. Then and then alone will democracy be true to itself, the governmental expression of the worth of a man.