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Christian Truth in a Democratic World


by Alton J. Pelowski

An interview with Prof. Ryszard Legutko about reconciling faith and politics in the secular West

A man with a map of Poland in 1982

Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement, stands by a map of Poland in 1982. Two years later, he was kidnapped and murdered by officers of the communist secret police. Photo by East News/Getty Images

Born in 1949, Ryszard Legutko spent the first four decades of his life in communist-controlled Poland. Like many, he came to idealize the freedom and political structure of liberal democratic societies, particularly the United States. Following the collapse of communism in 1989 and Poland’s democratic transition, he experienced disillusionment as political problems persisted.

Today, Legutko is a professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and he has been a member of the European Parliament since 2014. He is the author of several books, including The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter, 2016).

Columbia editor Alton J. Pelowski recently had the opportunity to talk to Legutko about his book and about the role of faith in the public square today.

COLUMBIA: Thomas Jefferson spoke of “a wall of separation between church and state.” Many people in the United States have taken this to mean that a person’s personal faith does not belong in the public square. What is your opinion about the proper role that religion should play in the political sphere?

PROF. RYSZARD LEGUTKO: The effect of the Reformation in Europe was that religion was under the control of the throne, whereas in the United States there is this separation. Until recently, this was widely believed to mean only that there is no established religion. The idea that religion has no access to the public square is a recent phenomenon.

From the beginning, it was assumed that the United States was founded on Christian principles and that people who are elected to the public functions are religious people, sometimes with very strong religious views, and that these views affect their political opinion. It’s not that religious truth is to be translated literally into policy, but it has a role to play. If you are a Christian, you cannot totally abstract your religious views from your public life. That’s why the Bible is considered to be a sacred document in courts, such as for swearing oaths. Only recently has this been seriously contested, with calls for the removal of crosses and of the Ten Commandments, for example.

My opinion is a simple one: You cannot just distill or separate politics from your religious or philosophical views, in an effort to create a “pure” politics, deprived of metaphysical content. It’s simply impossible; such human beings do not exist.

COLUMBIA: How are we to understand the marginalization of Christianity when secular culture espouses the importance of tolerance?

LEGUTKO: What we see nowadays, not only in the United States but also here in Europe, is that a certain type of ideology is considered to be no ideology at all. It is seen as civil neutrality, which is a version of liberalism. If you identify as a liberal, you imply that you are neutral, that you are free from metaphysical or religious presuppositions. This is untrue, of course. Liberalism is a very philosophically loaded point of view, and there’s a whole package that you put into the public square.

With respect to abortion, for example, what liberals today have tried to do is make people believe that an objection to abortion is a religious issue — that the civilly neutral position is to make abortion legal. But it’s not simply a religious issue; it’s primarily an anthropological and philosophical one.

Christians, particularly Catholics, traditionally have a non-liberal and non-democratic concept of human nature. The human being is defined metaphysically, not merely in terms of utility or as a creature that seeks pleasure and avoids suffering.

Christianity places one in contact with the breadth of the Western cultural and philosophical traditions. What I call “politically imposed amnesia” is the tendency to get rid of the perceived burden of Western culture.

In all of this, we must depend on the culture of civility. That is, I know what you are and you know what I am, and we can somehow come to a political compromise. But do not make the assumption that you can put forward everything that you stand for if you do not allow me to do the same.

COLUMBIA: In your book The Demon in Democracy, you make the bold claim that, despite their great differences, liberal democracy and communism retain important similarities. What are these similarities?

LEGUTKO: I try to be more specific in the book and enumerate various levels of similarities, but generally I would say that what makes these two systems similar is that both liberal democrats and the communists politicized the entirety of social, individual and communal life. The communists believed the entire social life, even the arts and philosophy, should be permeated by the spirit of communism. The liberal democrats do exactly the same. That is, they believe that everything in the liberal democratic society should be liberal democratic.

This aggressive attitude aims to imbue the entire human existence with one set of ideas. In both cases, it implies that you must cut off human heritage and everything that came before in the realm of ideas. Forget about the philosophers and thinkers of antiquity; the less you know about them the better, because they contaminate your mind with the incorrect ideas.

During the last decades, deliberate policies of governments and institutions have also dismantled and redefined the family in order to create a new type of society — a new man. This, too, is something that reminds us of the communist regime. To establish a new communist society, the family was the first object of attack.

COLUMBIA: In The Republic, Plato warned that democracy can degenerate into “tyranny.” Much later, in Democracy in America, Tocqueville talked about the rise of “democratic despotism.” More recently, in Centesimus Annus, John Paul II argued that a democracy without values can become a kind of “totalitarianism.” Are these different ways of expressing a similar argument?

LEGUTKO: Yes and no. These are different thinkers, but for each of them democracy was problematic. Democracy was not something ultimate that should provide the platform to evaluate everything else. Rather, it’s the other way around — that is, you should identify some timeless or more reliable criteria and then try to evaluate every political system, including democracy. Democracy can give people an excessive sense of certainty and confidence. If the enlightened majority agrees on something, then it must be true. If something is accepted as obvious to everyone around you, then you just believe it and stop questioning things.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in American society people like general concepts such as “freedom,” “equality” and “justice,” but these lose their strength when they are not grounded in tradition. So, we use these concepts very often, but we no longer ask what we mean by them as we adapt them to changing needs and circumstances.

In Plato’s Dialogues, the initial impulse of Socrates was to elucidate the meaning of the general concepts that are largely used in democracy. He analyzed these concepts and tried to find a definition.

For example, everybody talks about freedom. “I stand for freedom, and you are the enemy of freedom.” The word “freedom” has a positive connotation, but we no longer understand what we are talking about. Only when we discover what words mean will our debates make any sense.

In this context, we can observe how language has deteriorated in recent decades. It’s no longer a tool for communication, but rather a weapon with which you wage war against your adversaries.

COLUMBIA: Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict spoke about the role of Poland in preserving the Christian identity of Europe and re-evangelizing the West. Is it true that Christian identity has been preserved here in a particular way?

LEGUTKO: The more time I spend in the European Union, the more truth I see in these statements. Poland is practically the only Christian country left in Europe. In places like Spain, for example, there are almost no new vocations and very strong anti-Christian sentiments.

I don’t know how many Poles are aware of it, but we are nearly the last vestige of Christianity of Europe. In Poland, about half the Christians, mostly Catholics, are still regular churchgoers, and we are Europe’s main exporter of Catholic priests.

But it is in the nature of democracy to become like everyone else; if you are an exception, there must be something wrong with you. Some think there must be something wrong with Polish society if there are so many Polish Catholics and the churches are full. No, there is something wrong with the countries in which the churches are empty.

COLUMBIA: You’ve spoken on behalf of the persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East. What in your opinion should be done in the West to aid Christians and other minority groups who are targeted for genocide?

LEGUTKO: Christians are suffering persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere — such as in North Korea and places in Africa — yet there is also discrimination of Christians in Europe, and these two things are somehow correlated. European politicians are very reluctant to talk about the persecution of Christians. When they do, they use abstract terms like “freedom of religion.” They evade the issue when they use this weak language. They should be defending Christians as Christians in the same way as the Israelis defend Jews as Jews, not because it contradicts the abstract idea of nondiscrimination.

These same politicians don’t escape into this neutral, abstract language when defending homosexuals, for instance. Almost every document that comes out of the European Parliament contains clauses where the rights of LGBT people are stated explicitly. You never find such language in defense of Christians. If we Westerners do not defend Christianity, nobody will, but we are somehow reluctant or unable to do so.

There are many things that can be done to help ensure that the Middle East is not further de-Christianized. There were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, and now it’s around 200,000. This is not only about Christianity but about the presence of Western civilization in the Middle East. This is also about peace. Christians were the people who stood for peace there. Now, with them nearly gone, you have what is taking place today.