First Things, November 1996. Reprinted in Mitchell S. Muncy (ed.), The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics (Spence Publishing, 1997).
America’s democratic experiment has been remarkably successful. Constitutional democracy in the United States has survived a civil war, a great depression, and two world wars. Our nation has assimilated into the mainstream of American life generations of immigrants”many fleeing poverty and oppression in their native lands. We have made tremendous strides towards overcoming a tragic legacy of slavery and racial segregation. We have secured safer conditions for working people and a meaningful social safety net for the most disadvantaged among us. We have demonstrated that citizens of different religious faiths can live and work together in peace and mutual respect. America’s economic prosperity has made our nation the envy of the world. Oppressed peoples around the globe look to our Declaration of Independence for inspiration and our Constitution as a model of free government. In the great ideological struggles of the twentieth century, American ideals of personal, political, and economic freedom have triumphed over fascist and communist tyranny. Two cheers for American democracy!
Why not three?
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope John Paul II reminds us that “fundamentally democracy is a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral value’ is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject.” This doctrine of the necessary conformity of civil law to moral truth long predates the rise of modern democracy. It is present in both Plato and Aristotle, and was given careful, systematic expression by St. Thomas Aquinas. It has been a central feature of the tradition of papal social teaching….