By Dr. Dennis W. Hair

The Philosophical and Moral Basis of American Democracy

The entire world watched with expectation as thousands of students exercised their constitutionally-given freedom of expression in the heart of Beijing at Tian an Men Square during June of 1989.

As the world learned about the events of June 4, 1989, eager expectation was replaced with agony, grief and weeping as many students were killed during the clearing of the Square by the People's Army. Suddenly I found myself searching for understanding in the swirl of events immediately following the massacre. How could such a horrible incident happen before our eyes? What led to such chaos? What were the philosophical foundations that underlie fair government systems?

Immediately after the massacre, Chinese students in other countries met to decide what their response should be and what action they should take in trying to continue the process of democratization in China. In a meeting at a major university in Los Angeles, one student leader read a long list of things they needed as a student organization: a fax machine, money and phone costs for faxing information to China.

The most important thing listed was a theoretical understanding of democracy. As he said it: "Most of us who are studying in this country are physicists or chemists or computer scientists but we're not really good political scientists. We need to understand the theoretical basis of democracy."

As a scientist myself I immediately understood his statement and identified with it. Scientists understand that fundamental principles underlie the observables of the physical universe. Similarly, there must also exist fundamental principles that underlie the social and political observable world.

Why have I chosen to specifically discuss American democracy?

First, I am discussing democracy because that was the form of representative government the Chinese students were looking for in 1989. Specifically, they desired real freedom and representation such as we enjoy in this country.

Why American democracy? How can we forget the glorious entrance of the Goddess of Democracy, obviously modeled after her inspiring cousin in New York harbor? For multiple decades the Statue of Liberty has been an awe-inspiring sight for the masses that embrace freedom for the first time in her shadow. American democracy rose from the rubble of conflict and tyran­ny to be a distinctive form of government on the earth...a gov­ernment "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Rather than describe the specific details of how our repre­sentative government operates, I have deliberately chosen to examine why our government operates, because it is ideas and beliefs that determine our behavior. Our way of perceiving man, God and ultimate reality determines how we relate to each other and ultimately how we form political systems. And how we treat each other influences human rights.

The starting point for this discussion is to provide clarifica­tion regarding the definition of American democracy. The term "democracy" is used quite loosely; the actual form of government in America is a constitutional republic. We do not tech­nically have a democracy because democracy is a process of government where decisions are made by anything greater than 50% of the populace, where the majority is completely sovereign. There are at least four advantages in a constitutional republic over a democracy.

Representatives Stand for the People

The first advantage is that a republic is government by repre­sentatives, where representatives stand for the people instead of with the people. States and districts elect congressmen and senators. We expect these elected representatives to do our think­ing for us. If we don't like the decisions they make, we elect someone else. In this sense, there is an element of a governmental system called, "sopharchy" which dates to Plato. [Reference 1] Sopharchy is defined as "government by the wise." In this framework, the people elect those who are wise and rely on their ability to make wise and good decisions. If an elected represen­tative demonstrates through repeatedly making bad decisions that he is not wise. We elect someone else.

Restricts Majority Rule

The second advantage of a constitutional republic is that it places a restriction on majority rule. The American founders of this country knew that if the majority could have ultimate power, the majority could become a tyranny. The majority could be just as cruel as a single dictator. To prevent this, a constitutional republic restricts majority rule.

Respects Individual Rights

The third advantage is that a constitutional republic respects one's individual rights, whether or not the majority agrees. The rights that we enjoy in this country are clearly delineated in our Constitution, and those rights are guarded whether or not the majority opinion changes over time. This happens because as a constitutional republic, we have collectively agreed to submit ourselves to the Constitution.

An Empire of Laws

The fourth advantage is that a constitutional republic is an empire of laws, not an empire of human beings. The distinctive concept here is that all humanity must be under the law, and that includes even our highest leaders.  The classic example of this was the near impeachment (removal from office) of President Nixon in 1972. It is significant to note that even though Mr. Nixon held the highest position in the country, he was nearly impeached because of his participation in illegal activities related to the Watergate incident.

The two most important documents in our country are the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. These two documents are very much related. The Constitution is very structured, orderly and detailed. It contains many of the spe­cific details about running our government.

By contrast, the Declaration of Independence can be viewed as the foundation for the Constitution. It expresses ideas, val­ues, visions and beliefs that we as American people have agreed upon. Picture the constitutional government as a large flowering tree. The Constitution represents the branches; the Declaration of Independence is the trunk upon which the Constitution depends. The ground which the Declaration of Independence (as the trunk of the tree) is sunk into is a bank of ideas which originated in Protestant Christianity.

Infinite Worth of the Individual

We will now examine several of the most important of these ideas, which I have called philosophical and moral bases. The first philosophical presupposition is the infinite worth of the individual. This is expressed in The Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created." The importance of this point was expressed by Dr. Dallas Willard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He said that it "cannot be denied that the keystone of American democracy was in its conviction that God is a per­son of complete justice, goodness and power, and that God holds each individual person to be of extremely great worth." [Reference 1]

How are these ideas related? In the American tradition one of the first assumptions leading to our form of government was that all human beings are created by God. In that we are God's creation, we have infinite worth in this life. One of the implications of this is the tremendous difference in the amount of killing, violence and blood shed in the American Revolution versus other revolutions that have had good motives.

For example, the French Revolution was not to be modeled after the American Revolution. [Reference 2] The French Revolution ended in a blood bath and reign of terror. The most representative symbol associated with the French Revolution was the guillotine, because so many heads were cut off during and after the Revolution as control changed from one person to the next. This type of slaughter did not occur in the American Revolution. The Revolutionary war was fought for several years, and after the war was over, there was no slaughter of the British soldiers or their officers. This was prevented because of the commonly held belief in the infinite worth of the individual. We believed that blood should not be shed for retaliatory reasons. The protective power of this idea cannot be overstat­ed, particularly in the implications that it holds for human rights.

Inherent Human Rights

A second philosophical assumption which led to our form of government is that of inherent human rights, which is also expressed clearly in the Declaration of Independence. It states that human beings are endowed by their creator with "certain inalienable rights:' Harold J. Berman, a former professor of law at Harvard, further clarifies this concept by stating that in the United States the fundamental rights of individual persons exist independently of the states. Under Marxism, by contrast, all rights are granted by the state and are inevitably subordinate to its power. [Reference 3]

Human rights reflect what a country's culture and govern­ment believe about the value of human beings. This belief can be strongly influenced by science in that a culture's view of humanity ultimately decides the amount of dignity that we give to human beings. One definition of human rights is: the legal and political manifestation of a culture's perception of human dignity. In the American tradition of human rights, we believe that rights are given by God to every person when they are cre­ated. They are not given by the state.

One implication of this is that since rights cannot be given by the state, they cannot be taken by the state. In this frame­work, human beings always have those inherent fundamental rights.

A second implication is that the state can only acknowledge or at best protect and secure those rights. The founders of America's government felt that one of the only legitimate rea­sons for government was not to give people rights, but to secure those rights, and to allow us to enjoy those rights.

The third implication is that if it is true that there is a Creator and that he has given us inherent human rights, then we have those rights, regardless of sex, age, race or religious beliefs. America's Christian-based worldview would assert that people who have atheistic or agnostic viewpoints have the same inher­ent rights as those who agree with the Christian worldview.

In contrast with that, the modern, atheistic evolutionary worldview proposes that human beings are merely the present stage of evolution: unguided, without an overarching purpose, and with no direction to it. Human beings are literally merely the result of untold numbers of chance, random collision and reactions. This framework provides absolutely no purpose for our lives, no reason for our existence, and has inevitably led to pessimism in modem philosophy. [Reference 4]

The twentieth century has been a century of unprecedented scientific advance. It has probably also been the worst century in history in terms of human rights violations. This leads to the conclusion that science in all its advances has done little to ele­vate the modern view of humanity. A positive proclamation for the observance of human rights must be based on a shared con­viction that human beings have dignity and worth. Further, that conviction must be based on a worldview which provides a basis for that belief. Without such a source of beliefs, there is no theoretical or philosophical basis for demanding that human rights be observed.

Equality of All Human Beings

A third philosophical assumption which led to our form of government is the equality of all human beings. This belief also finds expression in the Declaration of Independence, in the phrase, "all men are created equal." This principle is explained by Dr. Harry Jaffa through analogy. [References 5 and 6] When we as human beings see a dog or a cat, it is immediately self-evident that we are the rulers of that dog or cat. There is no question as to whether we should rule the animal, or whether the animal should rule us. He explains further that it is also immediately evident that the distinction between human beings and dogs is qualitatively different from distinctions between human beings. Stated another way, there is no inherent, obvious reason why any person or group of persons should rule another person or group of persons, without their voluntary consent.

Carrying the analogy further, there is also no distinction between people such as the one that exists between human beings and angels, or between human beings and God. The Declaration of Independence makes the essential point that all human beings are created equal, which was merely the expression of the American mind at that time.

Evil Nature of Man

Let us now consider the last philosophical assumption. The first three beliefs have been positive and encouraging: the infinite worth of the individual, the existence of universal inherent rights, and the equality of all mankind. The fourth assumption that underlies American democracy is the propensity for evil nature in man, or man's evil nature.

Consider an extract from a series of essays by James Madison, written to delineate the advantages of constitutional government: "But what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be nec­essary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a gov­ernment which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to con­trol the governed and in the next place oblige it to control itself." [Reference 7]

Jefferson makes the point that we have government for two rea­sons: One reason is to protect us from without, from invading countries; the second reason is to protect us from within, from each other. That practical reason is certainly a very pessimistic and depressing statement about reality. It is sobering to reflect on the fact that we must allow the government (and to allow police) to protect us from each other, from the loss of our worth and our possessions. We must give government enough power to protect us from external forces, as well as from ourselves.

But we must also limit government's power so that it cannot control us. The bulk of the constitution is written specifically to limit what our government can do. It does set out what govern­ment can do, but most of the document is dedicated to specifying what the government cannot do. In fact, the thirteen colonies at that time would not ratify the Constitution until the Bill of Rights, the first Ten Amendments, were added to the Constitution. These Amendments very specifically limit the government in certain areas. In summary, the very fact that we allow government to exist is an expression of our acknowledgment of the evil propen­sity of human nature.

This article has attempted to show you that American Democracy arose out or a very specific set of beliefs, values, traditions and ideas. The origin of those ideas was in the Judeo-Christian framework, which began with Judaism expressed in the Old Testament, then through Christianity in the New Testament, and most recently through the Reformation in Europe. The people who founded the frame of our government had those particular ideas in mind. That was their worldview.

This is not to say that a free democratic, representative government could not arise out of a different worldview. But that it could only arise out of a worldview which has some philosophical basis for providing the ideas and beliefs that I've discussed above. The Judeo-Christian framework has provided those philosophical suppositions for American democracy.


  1. Lecture given to Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Fall, 1989.
  2. Benjamin Hart, Faith and Freedom (San Bernardino, California: Here's Life Publishers, 1988), pp: 301-316.
  3. Quoted in an article by C. B. Thaxton and S. C. Meyer, Human Rights: Blessed by God or Begrudged by Government, Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1987.
  4. See Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Llve? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1976), pp. 144-166.
  5. See What Is Free Government? A Conversation With Harry V. Jaffa, The Asia Column (A bimonthly publication of The Claremont Institute's Asian Studies Center), November-December, 1989.
  6. Harry V. Jaffa, American Conservatism and the American Founding (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1984), pp. 20-23.
  7. James Madison, The Federalist No. 51. The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), p. 322.

Dr. Dennis Hair has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California and has started his own non-profit company, The Polaris Resource Network. He lives with his wife and two children in Norman, Oklahoma.

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