The Catholic systematic theologian William J. Hoye, who teaches at the State University in Muenster (Westfalia), has rightly emphasized that candid rational discourse between all parties involved in democracies is based upon inviolable ‘truths’ [William J. Hoye. Demokratie und Christentum: Die christliche Verantwortung für demokratische Prinzipien (Democracy and Christianity: The Christian Responsibility for democratic Principles]. Aschendorff: Muenster, 1999. pp. 29-33, 47-49).
The German constitution “commits itself” to human rights, and the preamble of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 speaks of “recognition” and even of “faith” when it says: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” Similar formulations, which presuppose the recognition of a prescribed, manifest and incontrovertible truth, are found in many human rights and constitutional texts, according to Hoye. German state constitutions speak of “esteeming” the “truth” and of an “attitude.” In the Constitution of Bremen (Article 26.3) mention is made of “education towards esteeming truth” and in the Constitution of the Rhineland Palatinate of “a freely democratic attitude” (Article 33).
The thought that all people should share truth (Hoye, ibid., p. 39) is inherent to democracy. This is due to the fact that “unlike all other political systems, democracy is, in its essence, not reliant upon philosophical thought” (ibid., p. 53). Even if the least democratic systems seek to impose their structure upon other countries, democracy is a strongly missionary model that by no means is based on randomly gained votes but rather on final truths. And if a person scrutinizes these final truths, that individual is ‘undemocratic.’ One can see with what sort of final commitment the superiority of democracies is presented by politicians, how the word ‘democratic’ is treated as the ultimate mark of quality, or for instance how radically Muslims are called upon to subordinate to the constitution.
Does not the erection of an international court for genocide, before which heads of state have to answer, amount to a situation where there is an ethic that transcends all countries and all positive law? Is there not too little discussion about whether from a secular point of view there is just as much a presupposed comprehensive and universal ethos as there is from religious standpoints? Is not the secular point of view similar to what Christianity has known with the Torah from Judaism or what was once known as prevailing natural law? Or what Islam has known with the Sharia in a much more concrete model and with a completely different meaning? And wouldn’t such a global ethic need to be as much subject to an intensive discussion about its final justification as Christianity has been subject to in its history? Do not many hide their lack of a final justification behind the pretext that they alone want to avoid arguing religiously or even fundamentally?
People often behave as if religions, with their truth claims, are per se not capable of being democratic and are subordinate the state to their own truths. However, is it really any different with secular humanism – if one were to contrast these opposite poles rather boldly and simply? Is not the dispute all too often one of the respective final truths held by both sides, that is, which ones should bind the state with respect to human rights?
Does not German and European law correctly place religious and non-religious world views on one plane when it comes to religious freedom and freedom of expression. Does that not also mean at the same time that non-religious world views are just as lacking in neutrality as religions and should be so honestly described, as far as what they have as final, non-scrutinized foundations? In everyday life as well as in the academic world it has been observed for a long time that non-religious people – on account of their non-religiosity – are automatically viewed as more neutral, more committed to truth, and more rational, and who do not even have to disclose their foundations of thinking, while religious people have the buck passed to them for being narrow-minded and biased. How fair, rational, and capable of dialog someone is, and how much he or she is committed to true research, is not to be found in whether the individual is religious or not.
Let us take the example of the admissibility of abortion. Both sides argue with rights that transcend the state, if for the moment we overlook the large spectrum that seeks a compromise. The magisterium of the Catholic Church and the large majority of the Evangelical movement view unborn children as individuals with full human dignity and do not grant the state the right to infringe upon this human life (the classical presentation is found in Defending Life. A moral and legal Case against Abortion Choice, Cambridge 2007 by the Evangelical who converted to Catholicism, Francis J. Beckwith). The state is actually measured by religious truth which, however, according to the understanding of its proponents, should actually be understandable to every reasonable individual.
However, its opponents do not only refer to positive law which rests upon the parliamentary majority decision in favor of the freedom to abort. Otherwise, they would have to accept that in Ireland, Poland, or in many non-western countries it is just as legal on the basis of laws based on decisions made according to parliamentary procedure or by referendums that abortion is not permissible. Here they argue with rights for all individuals that transcend the state, such as the right of the woman to choose, or directly with a human right to abortion. To a degree, both sides measure the state in a fundamentalist manner on rights they will not give up or that bind democracies with ‘eternal’ values. They assume furthermore that there are some who do not want to understood these values in spite of all reason.
Alternatively, let us take the cultural war raging in California around the introduction of marriage for homosexuals and the current vote under the catchword “Proposition 8.” Surely there is a coalition of people unwilling to compromise – both religious (primarily Catholics, Latinos, Mormons, and a portion of Evangelicals) and non-religious (otherwise there would not be such majorities!) – who are against the introduction of such a measure, but their opponents are just as unwilling to compromise and are fighting at the level of final truths. It does not matter to the one that a vote in November 2008 showed that 52% were against the introduction of homosexual marriage: Nor does it matter what the state legislature or judges decided. Rather, democratic mechanisms are for both sides the tools used to implement their own truth, which in a certain sense lie ‘fundamentalistically’ above the state. Democracy can often produce a balance between ‘truth’ and interests, but sometimes the verdict comes only through the decision of the majority or even only arises on the basis of randomly available mechanisms (the mode of voting, referendum, validity of court decisions).
In the final event, democracy does not, however, get along without binding itself to such higher values. Democracy is not an end in itself. It can conspicuously use its own mechanisms to vote itself out of office. Only if and when democracy is able to better ensure higher values such as the dignity of man, the constitutional state, minority protection, justice, or social state procedure is it in a position to be superior to all other states forms. For instance, how would a democracy practice the protection of minorities if the opinion of the majority and of the voting majority were holy and incontrovertible?
It would be better if all proponents of democracy would lay out in the open which values and truths are highest and which ones democracy should defend. This is preferable to a situation where some individuals act as if they were neutral while really only wanting to impose their truths of democracy.