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A History of Modern Democracy and the Christian Ethic
By Page Smith
St. Martin's Press, 1994, 212 pages

Page Smith believes that the end of the Cold War and the so-called "triumph" of capitalism has bestowed a false legitimacy on capitalism, in part by equating it with the ideals of democracy, equality and world unity. These ideals, he says, are rooted in a long-standing Christian tradition which has always been fundamentally hostile to capitalism.

In this stimulating intellectual history of Christianity and the democratic ideal, he traces the belief in the equality and unity of all people — before the law and in the eyes of God — back to the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. For a thousand years, he says, the Catholic Church nurtured St. Augustine's inspiring vision of a "city of God" and a "city of man." Throughout the turbulent Middle Ages, it fostered a belief in the dignity of human life and elevated the status of women far beyond that of non-Christian cultures. With the Reformation, Protestantism, and American Puritanism in particular, took the lead in the cause of human rights, promoting "covenanted communities" that, according to Smith, represent "the high point in the American dream of equality and democracy."

Borrowing a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, he observes that "Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other." He maintains that many of the pivotal moments in the history of American democracy were spearheaded by devout Christians who provided not only moral leadership but also a vision for the future based on equality and solidarity.

Max Weber, in his famous work "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," suggested that Protestantism, with its emphasis on the virtues of thrift, piety, and hard work, was conducive to capitalism. But Smith strenuously disagrees. Protestantism and the Christian ethic in general, he says, "not only did not create or encourage capitalism but instead did all in its power actively to discourage it by preaching continuously the dangerous temptations of the world." Christianity has always understood that the accumulation of wealth places "the soul of the accumulators in extreme peril," he writes. "Since capitalism clearly involves such accumulations, it is just as clearly an enemy of the city of God. Since democracy is the offspring of the city of God, democracy too is, at best, in an uneasy alliance with capitalism."

There is plenty to argue with here. For example, Smith's claim that Christianity elevated the status of women misses the mark by a wide margin. Countless studies in recent years have made it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the Church systematically denigrated women. That the "spirit" of Christianity should somehow be inherently egalitarian is to conflate the orthodoxy of the Church with the teachings of Christ. That a scholar of Smith's rank should pass over such details throws the historical accuracy of the whole study into question.

Even so, I liked this little book and would be prepared to recommend it on the strength of its narrative sweep and the obvious delight Smith takes in the history of ideas, controversy notwithstanding.

Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.