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A Search for the Roots of Modern Democracy

by Page Smith

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-312-10531-2
Publisher: St. Martin's

 From prolific historian Smith (Killing the Spirit, 1990; Redeeming the Time, 1986, etc.): a genealogy of democracy that rejects Max Weber's ``Protestant ethic''--which equates democracy, Christianity, and capitalism--and instead places the democratic impulse squarely in the Christian communalist tradition. Christian doctrine, says Smith, is the basis of our American belief in the equality and unity of all men and women before the law, and in the eyes of God. These ideas first erupted into human consciousness in the Hebrew Bible, and found their clearest expression in the teachings of Jesus. For a thousand years, Smith says, the Catholic Church nurtured the dignity of human life and elevated the status of women to heights unknown in non-Christian cultures. With the Reformation, Protestantism--and American Puritanism in particular--took the lead in the cause of human rights, promoting ``convenanted communities,'' quasi-socialist societies with no room for such capitalist practices as unbridled competition and monopolization. The Reformation left its stamp on many pivotal American events (``radical Protestants freed the slaves''), and the New Deal, Smith argues, was a ``Christian socialist revolution'' led by devout churchgoers, including FDR and Henry Wallace. Today, America's moral leadership lies with black Protestantism and a revitalized Catholicism, which may restore Christianity to ``its classic role as the critic of capitalism.'' Smith's attempt to divorce Christianity and capitalism is only half-successful (see Michael Novak's The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1992, for a pro-capitalist Christian argument); still, a forceful and elegant demonstration of the close alliance between Christianity and democracy on American soil.