I first met Daniel Pipes as a college student in Rome, though he wouldn't remember me from among the wide-eyed throng. I followed him back to Philadelphia, where I was given an opportunity to intern with MEF, an opportunity I gave up for my Marine Corps marriage and out-of-state move. I have remained a devotee, however, over the past several years, and have only now, in 2011, found my first point of disagreement with my cult hero.
Pipes argues in the National Post that Islam, though currently correlated more strongly with tyranny than with democratic progress, is not inherently incompatible with the latter. Christianity, too, he says, had to bend to fit.
Pipes writes, “A half millennium ago, democracy reigned nowhere; that it emerged in Western Europe resulted from many factors, including the area's Greco-Roman heritage, rendering-unto-Caesar-and-God tensions specific to Christianity, geography, climate, and key breakthroughs in technology and political philosophy. There was nothing fated about Great Britain and then the United States leading the way to democracy. Put differently: of course, Islam is undemocratic in spirit, but so was every other premodern religion and society. Just as Christianity became part of the democratic process, so can Islam.”
I take no issue with the face of these assertions. I think there is more at work in the ability of Christianity to bend, however. Pipes attributes this to the “evolution of the Catholic Church” over time. Here, I disagree. While certainly that church has transformed from its oppressive medieval role into a civil (and social) institution within a political system, this is not the whole story of its compatibility with democracy.
Christianity, if we define it as adherence to the teachings of Christ, is the source of the values from which we derive democratic principles. Many concepts of liberty, of human dignity, of the dignity of women, were radical when they were expressed, explicitly or tacitly, in the New Testament. The founders of American democracy thus attributed the inalienable rights on which they built their political structure. Perhaps these are the “Caesar-and-God tensions” Pipes cites as a crucial factor.
The reason, then, that the Catholic Church had to evolve to fit with a political system rooted in Biblical values was that it had strayed from these values itself. I do not say that Islam cannot be interpreted to jive with democracy, but instead suggest that its path will follow an opposite course. The Catholic Church’s 700-year journey is to some degree a return to Biblical notions of individual liberty (try Gal 3:28, Acts 10:34, 1 Pet 2:16) from which it had strayed in the centuries following the early church of Acts 2; Islam’s journey will involve the slow erosion of its original values in exchange for political ideas rooted in…Christianity.