On Revolution, and Competing Worldviews

We have got to the point in so much of the West where it actually seems important to start talking about the possibility or even the necessity of revolution. So much of our freedom and democracy is being lost, and so many police state tactics are coming into place that such discussions are no longer just theoretical.

Of course for the Christian at least this is not something we rush into lightly or cavalierly. That is why I already penned a piece looking carefully at the various options available to the Christian in this regard:
billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/
billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-two/

Here I want to look a bit further at this issue. Specifically, I want to demonstrate that there are revolutions and there are revolutions. Not all are the same, in other words. Some may be more beneficial, while some are clearly not too helpful.

Indeed, a very clear distinction can be found when we look at the American and French Revolutions. These two Revolutions make for an interesting study of contrasts. Many have written on the notable differences. Hannah Arendt’s important 1963 volume, On Revolution, is a case in point. She contrasts revolution as restoration (eg., the American) with revolution as radical transformation (eg., the French).

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A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Sowell, Thomas (Author) Amazon logo

US political commentator Thomas Sowell has written much on all this. In his incisive 1987 volume, A Conflict of Visions, he contrasts the constrained vision with the unconstrained. The former sees mankind as limited morally, intellectually and socially, and eschews the push for radical change, either in man or in society. The latter sees man and society as unbounded in potential, and seeks for radical change to bring in utopia now.

The former follows the Judeo-Christian view of the fallenness of man, and the impossibility of changing human nature and society without outside help. The latter sees human nature and society being capable of being moulded into a new man and a perfect society. Says Sowell:

“The great evils of the world – war, poverty, and crime, for example – are seen in completely different terms by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomenon virtually cries out for explanations – and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized. While believers in the unconstrained vision seek the special causes of war, poverty and crime, believers in the constrained vision seek the special causes of peace, wealth, or a law-abiding society.”

It becomes easy to see how the two Revolutions fit into these larger ideological visions. As Sowell notes, “The two great revolutions of the eighteenth century – in France and in America – can be viewed as applications of these differing visions. . . . The underlying premises of the French Revolution more clearly reflected the unconstrained vision of man which prevailed among its leaders….

“The Constitution of the United States with its elaborate checks and balances, clearly reflected the view that no one was ever to be completely trusted with power. This was in sharp contrast to the French Revolution, which gave sweeping powers, including the power of life and death, to all those who spoke in the name of ‘the people’, expressing the Rousseauean ‘general will’.”

Simply looking at how each revolution was carried out, and the political and social consequences of each, shows how very different indeed they were. One sought to raze the very foundations of society and start anew, while the other was very cautious and guarded, keenly aware of flawed human nature and the corruption of power.

The French Revolution was reckless and utopian, while the American was guarded and this-worldly. As historian Paul Johnson says about the former: “The French Revolution was not reformist, it was millenarian. It was, in fact, the first modern millenarian revolt. It looked backwards to the Munster of the 1520s, and the Middle Ages, and forward to Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung.”

It not only sought to create a new society, but a new religion. As theologian Alister McGrath remarks, “During the French Revolution, for the first time in modern history, the possibility of an atheist state was explored.” But it soon fell short of its own ideals: “Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive.”

He continues, “The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose. It might well have a new god, a new saviour, and new saints. But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion.”

Or as historian Mark Noll writes, “A general effort was made to extirpate France’s age-old connection with the Roman Catholic Church. As Alexis de Tocqueville later wrote, the animus against Christianity knew almost no bound: ‘In France … Christianity was attacked with almost frenzied violence, there was no question of replacing it with another religion. Passionate and persistent efforts were made to wean men away from the faith of their fathers, but once they had lost it, nothing was supplied to fill the void within’.”

All this of course stands in marked contrast with what occurred in America, where the revolutionaries were not at all interested in destroying society or eradicating religion. They fought against what they perceived as foreign tyranny and oppression, but worked so carefully to maintain order, foster religion, and stay true to the biblical picture of human nature.

There was certainly no hatred of Christianity or an attempt to establish a secular religion devoted to “reason”. In fact, Christianity was everywhere apparent in the American revolt. Not only were most of those who led or fought in the revolution steeped in Christianity, but they also saw their cause as one undertaken with divine blessing.

The outcome in America was a stable, free and prosperous land. The French upheaval resulted in the guillotine, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon’s coup. Philosopher Roger Scruton says the American Revolution was “relatively pacific, and culminated in the calm and reasonable adoption of a constitution that has sometimes been thought to be the most imaginative piece of applied political science in human history.”

While current leaders such as Obama seem to be doing their best to undo all of this, to destroy the Constitution, and to politicise everything, that was certainly not what the American Founders had in mind. But that was what the French revolutionaries had in mind. As Paul Johnson writes elsewhere:

“The French Revolution had opened an era of intense politicization. Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the dawning of the modern world, and in this respect it was a true child of Rousseau, was the tendency to relate everything to politics.”

Or as he put it in his important 1983 volume, Modern Times, “The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Expand the state and that destructive capacity necessarily expands, too, pari passu.”

That is just one of the bits of the bitter fruit left to us, not by the American Revolution, but by the French. The politicisation of society, the idea that mankind is fully malleable and perfectible, and the idea that the state should continue to increase as it pretends it can solve all our problems – this is the legacy of the French Revolution.

This big picture contrast between two revolutions, and between two worldviews, or ideological visions, must always be kept in mind – especially as we now approach another federal election. One party basically champions the constrained vision, and one the unconstrained. I know which one I much rather prefer.

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5 Replies to “On Revolution, and Competing Worldviews”

  1. At the moment, Christians are “fighting on our knees” – those of us who have not been hoodwinked by the soppy handwringing and the media noise.

    I wonder if the next step is prisons slowly filling with church ministers who refuse to recommend the local baby slaughterhouse business as an option for a desperate young mum, or that Adam and Steve can’t have their colourful wedding at a Christian church; and school principals and teachers and parents who refuse to teach boys that buggery and urinating on each other is acceptable.

    My thinking is that we don’t want to use strident threats – the homosexualists do that far better than we ever could and some would say they are more fashionably dressed when they do it, too. Except for those with the hardware shop of piercings in their faces 🙂

    Forget paying fines with money that should be better used. If we call the government’s bluff by putting our knees to the ground in prayer, and our own bodies at risk, this is a good way to have the revolution we have to have…

    Just some thoughts.
    Jason Porter

  2. Hi Bill,

    Once again I agree totally. But I would go further and say that for Christians it is Christian duty to argue for and vote for small government. By small government I mean government limited to doing only what individuals or their families/friends or businesses or churches or community groups etc absolutely can not do. Why??– because of the danger of big government/concentration of power and hypertaxation.

    We constantly hear Christians demanding that government should educate us, house us, care for us in old age, look after our health care, educate us from primary school to post graduate status, employ us, provide our preschool child care, give us low cost pharmaceuticals, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, fund research into virtually everything, fund the CSIRO, entertain us by among other things funding the ABC and SBS… the list is endless!! This is on top of demanding that government do the things that we cannot do for ourselves like protecting the boarders, providing a defense force, building road and tunnels and bridges and railways and new airports and control the airspace.

    Christians need to understand that the bigger the government the smaller the citizen and the bigger the government the smaller the church and the role of religion in society.

    Paul Connelly, WA

  3. Grimm’s (1965) history of the Christian Reformation notes that “the ultimate consequences of giving to the secularised state complete control of society have not yet been made clear,” but the moral relativism of a pluralist democracy has rendered the Enlightenment values of tolerance, reason and common sense insensible.
    Can the Church in Australia step forward with wisdom, unity and interest to start rebuilding the wall? Can we get a witness? Can more Ministers and Christians write letters to the media? Would they say that they are already fully involved in their own communities? Are we all exercising our gifts? Am I cynical? Can we get over it?

    Russell Guy

  4. Agreed Paul. While docile people are content to look to the State’s teat for their succour and not look to the hand of God, governments will use a politicised economy to trade votes for largesse.
    Jason Porter

  5. We should add to Paul’s good sense the idea that small government can only work in a society that consists of a high portion of self-governed (read ‘God-governed’) people. If the demoralisation of Australians continues, government will claim the need to step in & pick up the pieces. We need to ‘make disciples’ as the urgent task of the Church – along with other culture-changing activities.
    Geoffrey Bullock

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