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Kings and the Iconography of Democracy

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Or something like that.

One of the things I have hanging around the house is a tiny litte paperback book entitled Liberalism is a Sin.

I don’t remember the author off the top of my head, but the book was written originally in, I think, French, and published near the beginning of the 20th century.

The “liberalism” it reers to is not the sort of thing President Obama goes in for–although the author probably wouldn’t have liked that either.

“Liberalism” in the context of this book means two things:  democratic government and the lack of an established state church.

Both of these things–and therefore the government and society of America in particular–were contrary to the will of  God and even m ore so, destructive of true religion.

Religious toleration was destructive because it led to “religious indifferentism,” meaning the idea that any religion is as good as any other and it didn’t matter if you were a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew.

Democracy was destructive because, in failing to mirror God’s government of the universe (which is a Kingdom with Christ at its head), it also failed to instruct men and women in their proper posture as subjects of the King of Kings.  By learning day by day the necessity of humility before the sovereign King on earth, we were to learn the necessity of humility before ths sovereign King of Kings.

Believe it or not, this little book is still in print.  You can order it from any of several Catholic mail-order companies, and it shows up every once in a while in those city bookstores run by nuns to provide “religious articles” and all things Catholic to the general population.

I’m not suggesting you read it–it’s silly and annoying and incredibly obtuse–I’m bringing it up because it occurs to me that it outlines, without fuss, what is probably the biggest reason why I am not ever likely to end up a believing  Christian.

For better of for worse, the language of Christianity, and the iconography of the Christian chuches, is monarchical.  Christ is the “king of kings,” we’re told, and “born is the king of Israel.”  He is “the Lord.” 

The Catholic Church–and the Ortohdox churches, come to think of it–are structured monarchically as well, as systems of hierarchy meant to mirror the celestial order.

The problem is, nothing else is structured that way, at least not in the free West–and not only is nothing else structured that way, but the idea of having a relationship with any other human being as lord and master is generally assumed to be a bad thing. 

Even in situations where the structure of the relationship seems to call for that kind of thing–say, the relationship of a worker to his boss–the general assumption is that the “lord and master” thing shouldn’t be true, and if it is, then something has gone wrong. 

But it’s not that I  react negatively to such imagery.  Rather, I react uncomprehendingly.  It just does not compute.  That is, I think, why I have such an inordinate amount of trouble with Tolkein–“you are my king,” they say to Aragorn, and my head goes, “yeah, so what?”

Actually, I think the problem goes deeper than that. I think there’s something in me that finds expressions of kingship and of “fealty” and subjection to kingship faintly silly.  I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, but every time we get to the kneeling parts I look at the screen and all I see are a lot of grown men inexplicably playing dress up.

I have no idea whether the iconopgraphy of Kingship is central to Christianity, or just an accident of history–having come to prominence in a monarchical age, perhaps it just adapted the imagery of the world around it to explain itself.

I do know that the iconography of kingship is not going away.  The least impressive backwoods preacher, belting out a sermon in a tarpaper shack in the Smoky Mountains, has just as much to say about kingship as does the Pope.  And he’s speaking to a congregation that not only has no use for kings in real life, but isn’t even sure it approves of Presidents.  You give some guy all that power in one place and, you know, he gets ideas.

I wonder how much of the decline of Christianity in Western democracies is the fulfillment of the vision of the man who wrote Liberalism is a Sin–that is, is a result of the fact that they are democracies, and the people in them can no longer be reached, intellectually or emotionally, with a narrative couched in images of Kings and kingdoms, sovereigns and subjects.

A couple of days ago, I  had an e-mail exchange with someone who had also read an article on immigration and Europe posted to Arts and Letters Daily.  It included a quote from Jurgen Habermas saying that Europe didn’t realize that its very ideas of freedom and democracy derived from Christianity.

I’ll say here what I said there–I think our ideas of equality derived from Christianity (back to St. Paul, and there is neither Jew nor Greek), but our ideas of democracy derived from the Greeks and the Roman, and the great genius of Cristianity was in the way it managed to embrace and incorporate those cultures.

And I think that the people out there who have dedicated themselves to converting me–and there are quite a few by now–are going to have to find a system of imagery to explain themselves that bypasses the Kingly one.

Because it’s not that I’m rejecting that imagery.  It’s that I literally can’t make it make sense to me.

And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

Written by janeh

September 21st, 2009 at 7:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Kings and the Iconography of Democracy'

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  1. Is it possible that this issue is yet again not and either/or one but something on a continuum? Let’s say, one with the author of “liberalism is a sin’ at one end, me (who doesn’t believe in the divine right of kings but can use the related Christian symbolism) a bit over, and at the other extreme of the continuum, you have the radical anarchists whose political philosophy can be summed up by ‘no one’s the boss of me’, a bit over from them the people who are highly suspicious of presidents, people with power, all those educated folk with weird ideas. Somewhere in the middle you have the people who are quite comfortable in a hierarchical work setting without getting into kings at all and those who like a more communal and cooperative work setting, but do think that someone with a lot of education in medicine probably has better advice than someone who doesn’t, and someone who’s got 10 or 20 years experience running things makes a better leader than someone who never ran anything.

    I’m afaid I tend to take a lot of imagery as rather optional. The Christ the King imagery doesn’t bother me a bit, in fact, I enjoy it; but there are some things that, well, I have to grit my teeth and tell myself that I can’t have it all my way all the time. I’d *expect* people to have some imagery make sense and some not, and I suppose many people reject ideas that are expressed in ways that baffle them. Others just pick a different symbol. (And yet others, are baffled by all the symbols and accept the underlying premises, like me and the little flags and bunting and fireworks on national holidays).

    What sometimes surprises me is the number of people who don’t seem to operate with symbolism at all, and aren’t interested in learning about them. I’m thinking here of Christians who regularly attend a church with a quite traditional structure – and have no idea about the symbolism built into the very bones of the building; who don’t see how various bits are where they are and set up the way they are to direct the people’s attention in certain ways. Some of them aren’t interested, either. For them, a church keeps the rain and snow off, and the architecture is only important to the extent that it has room for people to move around, or looks good in the wedding pictures. That seems like such an impoverished view.


    21 Sep 09 at 8:59 am

  2. Jane, does it help to substitute Captain of a ship for King.

    There can only be one Captain for the good reason that there should only be one person giving commands in an emergency. Two commanders leads to conflicting orders and confusion


    21 Sep 09 at 3:38 pm

  3. Yes, Nikky van Rijn made the same point regarding Christian ceremony and forms of address 45 years ago. (It’s “The Master Key” by Poul Anderson.)

    Yet while many of the Euros have ditched Chrsitianity, their respect for authority and their belief in the wisdom and and benevolence of those above them would often do credit to a subject of the Sun King.

    If you want to find people who have no use for their “betters” and don’t confuse riches and power with wisdom and goodness, you want that Smokey Mountain congregation–or their urban equivalents. Even the Euros–even a Guardian writer, if you gave one long enough–can eventually figure out that religion and a deep suspicion of government are usually found together.

    Read Poul Anderson’s “No Truce with Kings.” Anderson lived and died a devout Lutheran. And read “The Scouring of the Shire” (LOTR Book 6, Chaper 8) before you think of Tolkien as a monarchist again–yet Tolkien paid a considerable price for his Catholicism.

    Some of us, you see, watch some philosopher or politician rewriting morality by whim and fashion, and we know that the idiot is sitting in God’s seat.


    21 Sep 09 at 5:25 pm

  4. “The Master Key” can be found in a Poul Anderson anthology “David Falkayn: Star Trader”

    Thanks for reminding me of it Robert.


    21 Sep 09 at 8:36 pm

  5. Never thought of it that way before. (You must also loathe Tweleve Step programs…) I guess some of the Old Testament worship of God doesn’t sit well with me, but NT King of Kings doesn’t bother me so much, probably because the image of the parent is included.

    Orthodoxy is somewhat less hierarchical than Catholicism. No notion of infalibility. A synod of bishops who vote. Parish priests who advise parishoners very individually. The idea is that “the church is right, but individuals may not be,” including the patriarchs. So if the bishops vote for, I dunno, pews in churches and after a generation or two parishoners are still standing, everyone comes to the conclusion that “the church” (ie all the Orthodox people in the world) doesn’t want pews. Okay, it’s mumbo jumbo (leaves habit out of the equation), but the idea is basically democratic.

    On the other hand, historically the church and state have been intertwined. My human rights friends in Russia are being driven mad by the church’s emphasis on “patience” these days. They believe it is profoundly anti-democratic and encourages people to be “patient” with whatever economic or social crisis the powers that be are causing. Real opiate of the masses stuff.


    22 Sep 09 at 4:43 am

  6. Do Europeans really have that much respect for those above them? They may have kings, and they may have customs which allow quite a wide range of people to act in ways that scream ‘Look at me! I’m important!’ They’ve also got lots of revolutionaries and are the spiritual home of the modern revolutionary movements. Even their non-revolutionaries often range from blase to downright cynical about the people with real power and authority, like politicians. (We do that here, to a certain extent. There’s a divide somewhere in central Canada between those who, on hearing that a politician has been having sex with someone he shouldn’t or spending money he shouldn’t, react with shock and horror at the feet of clay of someone who should be ostracised forever, and those who react with, well, they’re all human, was he a good constintuency man at least?” and if he was, let’s vote him back in.) In other words, one group respects the person because of the office, and the other may respect the office, but doesn’t see that they have to respect the person so long as he’s good at his job.

    Although there are of course cultural differences, I sometimes wonder if sometimes culutural differences are assumed because of confusion over cultural cues. I once read something I am probably mangling in my memory about an American who was shocked at the deferential terms used by an employee to an employer & vice versa in the UK. The response was that the American employer/employee might phrase things differently – ‘Would you mind doing X?’ ‘Sure, John!’ but in both places everyone involved knows what the power relationships are and what’s an order and what’s really just a polite request. I think that’s true. Some North American workplaces can be very informal, everyone on a first name basis, no “sir” and “Smith”, but it’s probably not more equal than the UK example – people always know who is making a request and who is giving an order regardless of whether the order-givers carry their own luggage or not.


    22 Sep 09 at 8:58 am

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