Index to Western Institutions, Democracy, Freedom, Market, & Empiricism
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

Religion & Democracy, Freedom, Market, Empiricism

It is commonly thought that modern institutions, democracy, civil liberties, the market, and empiricism are somehow opposed to religion. Both the religious and the secularist will commonly claim this. The religious leaders probably claim this as an excuse for their failures and because they are disappointed. The secularist triumphantly makes the claim as part of their argument that religion is outmoded. But these institutions actually favor religion in many ways.

Democracy

This is particularly true of democracy. Democracy by its very nature empowers religion and religious leaders.

In the original Greek democracy meant the rule of the poor. In the modern world we use the word to mean the rule of the people. Scholars commonly use the word polyarchy instead, this means rule of the many, as opposed to oligarchy the rule of the few, and monarchy the rule of one. It is this last meaning that is the key to my argument.

In a democracy many vote and therefore one voter is very unlikely to decide the election. This severs the tie between the vote and self-interest, freeing the voter to vote for their values, which are commonly determined at least in part by their religious faith. As the voter is very unlikely to cast the deciding vote it costs them essentially nothing to set aside their temporal, this world, self-interest, and vote the values of their faith. How would Jesus vote, is frequently the relevant question.

On a theoretical level the idea that voters vote their values because its free is generally attributed to the economist Gordon Tullock and his 1971 article in The Journal of Economic Inquiry “The Charity of the Uncharitable.”

However, this is not just a theoretical argument based on rational decision making. David Sears and a number of collaborators did many empirical tests that confirmed the power of values as opposed to self-interest. Sears and company used multivariate analysis to examine why people voted the way they do. Variables representing values and self-interest were included, but in almost all cases the self-interest variable proved to be insignificant. The values variables determined the vote. So the theory of rational decision making and empirical evidence tell us the same thing.

Furthermore, there are numerous studies that have been done in political science that have shown that religion is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, factor that determines how people vote, and at least one study that showed that those that attend church regularly are far more likely to vote.

Because of all this democracy is to a large degree theocracy. Democracy, however, is not a theocracy of religious fanatics or clerics. Democracy is ruled, or at least heavily influenced by the faith of the average voter. So it is usually a moderate theocracy. For two and a half millennia these moderate thocracies have provided relatively just and benevolent government and fostered societies that were economically, scientifiically, and artistically creative and productive.

This can be a disturbing idea for religious leaders. Frequently the voters do not vote the way they would prefer. Given that voting is pretty much free of self-interest, voting reveals how badly the religious leaders have failed in leading their flocks. It is less disturbing for them to blame their failures on a secularist society and evil institutions leading the people astray.

While the religious leaders do not get all they want, how could they, various religious leaders want different things, It is remarkable how well modern governments serve religious agendas. Porn is a prominent part of many magazine racks run by private business, but is absent in the public library. People will pay for their guilty pleasures but they will not vote for them. Governments give far more to the poor, than private charities do. The Catholic Church wants to stop capital punishment and reserve pistols for the police and other government authorities. This is pretty much what most democracies do.

It has been noted that the generally powerful Catholic Church does not achieve what it wants on sexual issues, but it has also been frequently noted that the laity do not follow church teaching in their private lives either.

Some people argue that the monarchs were better for the Catholic Church, at least the occasional monarch who was devout. Actually the Catholic Church frequently found the devout monarchs among the most troublesome. They were more inclined to interfere with church affairs.

But the monarchs in general made a show of being religious because it was good politics and they were politicians. However, the monarchs generally did what they thought was necessary to stay in power. Staying in power helped them to keep their heads attached to their bodies, and since monarchy is a family affair, it also kept the heads of their family members attached to their bodies. The monarch's self-interest dominated their decision making.

The voter is in a very different situation. Their individual vote has almost nothing to do with their survival or the survival of their family members. In some cases the outcome of the election might be crucial but as argued above they have almost no control over the outcome of the election.

More evidence of how democracy empowers religion comes from what the religious institutions are doing. The Catholic Church in the last century and a half has frequently taken positions on issues in a way that the Catholic Church previously avoided. For many centuries the Catholic Church said, monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, we have no position, we will work with whatever exists. More recently they decided democracy was best.

For many centuries popes left economic issues to governments. In 1891 however Pope Leo the 13th issued the first of the social justice encyclicals, Rerum novarum. In the 20th and 21st century this was followed by many other social justice encyclicals. These social justice encyclicals laid out a Catholic position on economic issues. More recently Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment. Now the Catholic Church is addressing voters who unlike monarchs are likely to listen, so now the Church teaches on what it formerly was silent.

Civil Liberties

So democracy increases the political influence of religion enormously, but all of this influence has a down side. What if another faith dominates the electorate. If that happens religion in general maybe empowered but your religion specifically could be persecuted. This brings us to the second of our four institutions, civil liberties, or simply freedom.

The American First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. At first glance this is a limitation on the government, not religion. If, however, we accept my above argument that religion dominates democracies it can be seen as a limit on the dominate religion of a country. Like many other civil liberties it protects minorities from a tyrannical majority.

So freedom of religion and the related idea of separation of church and state are to some degree a limitation on religion, but one that benefits the minority religions. Furthermore, this limitation is necessary because religion plays such a powerful role in democratic voting.

Freedom of religion also gives the religious person the right to practice their faith in the way they think God wants them to. Religious people often take this for granted, but when they think about it they realize what a great privilege it is. Of course, there is a limitation. If a key element of your religion is using the power of the government to persecute other religions, you can't do that.

Turn out as some religious events is probably not as high as it would be in nations where the government required attendance, but attendance sends a more powerful evangelical message when it is free. When you are required to profess the faith or face punishment people will naturally harbor doubts about whether your profession is sincere.

The same is true with church buildings and other expensive church projects. In America the church building and more broadly the church budget is a reflection of people's faith because the contributions are not forced by the government.

In the Christian tradition God seems to favor freedom. We explain the difficulties of our lives by saying that God gave us free will and we turned away from him resulting in various problems and difficulties. We say that God remains somewhat hidden because he wants us to freely give ourselves to him in faith. Why should we have our governments take away the freedom that God gave us?

Governments can compel religious acts through force, but it is widely believed that these acts done, not from faith or love, but from fear of earthly governments are not pleasing to God.

So there are many reasons why religious people can and usually do see religious liberty and more generally freedom as a blessing.

Some of the more extreme religious groups illustrate how much freedom of religion we enjoy. The Amish are a great example of this. They not only live in the United States, their numbers are rapidly increasing.

The Market Economy

The market economy provides many different ways religious people can earn a living. So the religious person can choose between many options to find something that is not contrary to their faith. Then the market economy allows them to pursue the options that are allowed by their faith.

Once again the Amish illustrate how this can work even for rather extreme and impractical religions.

In fact it has been noted that the extreme religions often seem to thrive in market economies. They often become brands. No one tries to use the Methodist, Anglican, or Lutheran faiths as a brand. It is the less popular, more extreme religions that seem to win the trust of the consumer, for example, Quaker Oats, Puritan Vegetable Oil, and Hebrew National Beef Franks. It should be noted that Quaker Oats and Puritan Vegetable Oil were not set up by people from those denominations, they were marketing strategies.

Of course religious people and many others have long regarded the Market with suspicion because it is held that it driven by greed. However, Jevons, a late 19th century economist, pointed out that the market can harness both the greed of the capitalist and St. Paul's desire to work for the Kingdom of God. The market can harness a wide variety of motivations and people with diverse religions and ideologies.

Both the opponents and the defenders of the market think it is run on greed. However, employers in the past generally prefered married men, thinking that they were more reliable than single men. Yet because the single man is able to keep his pay for himself, instead of sharing it with a family, the single man should be better motivated by greed. To a large degree the market is motivated by the desire of parents to provide for their family. This desire is not a vice. The desire to care for your family is a common virtue, but a virtue none the less.

But beyond that in the larger system of Western institutions the market economy is regulated by a democracy, and that democracy is in turn subject to the values of the people which to a large degree are determined by religion.

Empiricism

Empirical science is often seen as the deadly enemy of faith and vice versa. There is supposed to be a particular conflict between miracles and science. Actually miracles are based on scientific knowledge, or at least the idea that there is a normal order to nature.

Religious people frequently see miracles as a way that God communicates with humans. For communication to occur you need contrast. For example, the white background of this web page and the black letters I am typing, or white chalk on a blackboard.

Christians see the Resurrection of Jesus as a central miracle that confirms our faith. This is not because Christians today or in the time of Jesus did not understand that death is normally a one way event, but precisely because they were well aware that people did not normally come back from the dead.

Communication requires contrast, the miracle contrasts with science and the normal order of nature, that is how it is recognized as a miracle. Science is the paper and the miracles are the ink which God uses to write his love letters to humanity.

The resurrection would not have been so impressive in the world of Marvel and DC superhero comics. Superheros coming back from the dead are a normal occurrence in superhero comics. The Christians of the Marvel or DC universe would proudly proclaim, He is risen. The doubters would reasonably retort, so what, Jesus is a superhero, they all do that. The science in these comic book universes is rather fluid, which would make miracles largely impossible. Sort of like trying to write on liquid paper.

In the real world science is used to test the authenticity of miracles, which allows religious people to discover the false prophets who are faking miracles. This gives religious people one more reason to value science, beyond the many other reasons religious people share with everyone else.

Religion & the Post Modern World

The secularists have in recent decades frequently been surprised by the persistence of religion. Because most atheists were part of the failing and fading communist movement and because religious people have more children the religious portion of the world's population has actually been increasing, and the non-religious portion decreasing.

What's more religion that the secularists thought was safely banished to the private sphere has proven to very politically potent. Religious opponents of abortion and the sexual revolution have allied themselves with the Republicans, allowing the Republicans to take America from the most equal income distribution in American history in 1973, to the least equal income distribution in American history.

In 1973 the portion of American population officially below the poverty threshold was the lowest on record. Almost fifty years have passed and in each and every one the portion of the American population in poverty has been higher than in 1973. This was not something that was desired by religious people but was largely a consequence of their movement from the liberal Democratic Party to the conservative Republican Party.

Many recent presidents have been more openly religious than they were previously. Jimmy Carter was perhaps the most religious president in American history.

Many in the West hoped that the Arab spring would produce liberal western democracies in Muslim countries, but the conservative Muslims won the elections.

One reason for this is that democracy, civil liberties, the market, and empiricism are not the anti-religious institutions people, including many religious people, imagined them to be. These institutions provide opportunities for religious people. We need to take advantage of those opportunities, instead of making these institutions an excuse for our failures.


The above thoughts on democracy and the market are part of a much larger theory of how the Western institutions came to be. I have now put this on line.

I also have a collection of other web pages that are based on this larger theory of how Western institutions developed. These are shorter and easier to understand and therefore can provide preperation to reading the larger theory. Here is the link to my index to Western Institutions, Democracy, Freedom, Market, & Empiricism

There is another index page on politics and the Catholic faith. Many of those page address issues related to this one.

Here is an index to my other pages on economics, and a short review of my qualifications in this field.

Tell me what you think. Here is my contact information..

Created April 11, 2020

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