Advocating Absolute Power or Democratic Power
by: Gordon Wayne
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A fundamental question concerning power, authority, and religious ideology is whether religion promotes absolute political power or democratic political power. Some people passionately believe that religion should keep its nose out of politics, which is probably true when it comes to running government. However, every religion is a spiritual authority and its leaders exercise that authority, and the way they organize that authority establishes an example for politicians and other organizations. Also, while theologians and clergy probably should not hold political power, they should have an active voice in promoting anything that influences the character and moral integrity of political power.
The first important point is that humans have, hold, and exercise all power, so all authority is subject to the strengths and weaknesses of human nature, including the mortal ego. For example, ambitious egos will always seek power, and they may also seek ways to exploit that power for personal gain, especially if they are incredibly narcissistic. Because of this, every society, every institution, and every political system is vulnerable to the inevitable possibility that somebody will misuse and abuse their position.
Maybe a supernatural entity can handle absolute power but absolute power does strange things to the mortal ego. When the mortal ego has absolute power, it has the nasty habit of exaggerating its virtues and underestimating its vices, which leads to the grandiloquent delusion of infallibility. Whenever somebody believes they are infallible, they honestly believe they can do anything they please, including wholesale genocide. Unfortunately, sensible humans will not protest or demand an investigation because rulers with absolute power will not hesitate to slaughter hundreds, thousands, or millions of conscientious objectors.
Absolute power is a serious problem because rulers with absolute power are notoriously difficult to remove from power. They rarely relinquish authority voluntarily and they usually do not appreciate anybody suggesting they step down and bequeath their authority to another megalomaniac. The only practical way to remove a corrupt or inept ruler with absolute power is through violent, bloody coupes, or by patiently waiting for nature to liberate society. Thus, any society that believes in absolute power and organizes its power to mirror this paradigm has only one option for removing corrupt leaders, namely violence, extreme violence.
Although a democratic political system cannot prevent ambitious megalomaniacs from pursuing power, it has several options for removing corrupt individuals from powerful positions. Depending on the specific circumstances, democratic justice can investigate alleged corruption and pursue criminal prosecution, or citizens can choose new leaders. Although questioning or challenging those with more power is always risky, those risks usually do not involve loss of life, limb, or loved ones in a democratic society. Thus, democratic political systems have civilized, nonviolent protocols for removing corrupt and incompetent leaders.
Another important consideration concerns the expectations and requirements of ordinary people because those with absolute power can essentially ignore the needs of their people. Realistically, anybody possessing absolute authority has the power and liberty to impose their desires on every citizen simply because they have absolutely no motivation to consider anybody else’s needs. Because they have no tangible obligation to address the concerns of ordinary people, their primary motivation is preserving their own power and ordinary concerns are secondary considerations at best.
In democratic societies, ordinary people have the power to choose their political representatives so those representatives must address the expectations and requirements of ordinary citizens. In other words, they have a political obligation to place their personal needs and preferences behind the needs and concerns of their people rather than the inverse. Although democratic politicians can simply pretend they are addressing their people’s concerns, people will eventually realize this and resolve the problem by choosing another leader or representative. Thus, democratic leaders will eventually address the needs and concerns of their people, even if only to secure reelection.
Another important distinction between absolute power and democratic power is that democracy requires political leaders to share power, responsibilities, and culpability. Democracy apportions power between multiple individuals and even across multiple institutions such as courts, municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Distributing power has several important consequences such as encouraging leaders to cooperate and compromise for the greater good.
Cooperation, compromise, and sharing power are alien practices in hierarchal political systems where the person at the top has absolute power. Absolute autocrats typically hoard authority, and they will even capriciously deprive others of their authority by suddenly and inexplicably accusing them of treason. Worse, those with absolute power may become paranoid, irrationally suspecting that their closest colleagues are conspiring to usurp them. Usually, somebody is conspiring to usurp them but absolute autocrats will condemn a dozen people and simply hope they caught a real conspirator.
One of the most important characteristics of democratic power is that the power and authority usually belong to a specific office or position rather than a particular individual. Whoever holds a position of power has the responsibility of managing that power for the duration of their tenure, and they must relinquish their power when they vacate the position. With democracy, especially in a strong democratic tradition, individuals understand they exercise the power of their office for a specific period. Then, they must pass the office and its associated power to their successor, which many do sadly but without violence.
Under absolute power, power belongs to the person, including their ego, which has absolute liberty to exercise that power any way they choose. Unfortunately, absolute power usually seduces the human ego, infusing the individual with delusions of omnipotence and omniscience. With delusions of omnipotence, absolute rulers can exterminate entire ethnic groups, they can plunder everybody’s financial resources, and they can unilaterally declare war on neighboring nations. They can proclaim that everybody must practice a particular religion, citizens cannot sing and dance at festivals, certain humans are slaves and others are second class citizens.
Perhaps in a utopian universe with a utopian world and Shangri-la inhabitants, granting one person absolute power makes perfect sense. After all, perfect beings in a perfect universe will conduct themselves perfectly, simply because a perfect universe has no problems to solve. However, we live on an imperfect planet in an imperfect universe with imperfect endowments so absolute power is not necessarily the wisest strategy. Because of this, we are better off with an imperfect political system, a democratic system that allows us the opportunities and strategies to remove corrupt individuals. We are better off with an imperfect government that must address public concerns, and allows us to choose the people we believe have the best qualifications for handling power responsibly.
No religion should ever form the government because then its mortal leaders would have absolute power and they will become society’s worse nightmare. Although religion should never form the government, we must remember that they are spiritual authorities and their leaders exercise that authority. Because of this, they should think about the way in which they organize their internal power and authority because they can set an excellent example for society’s political institutions. While setting a good example is important, perhaps the most important part is how they handle the misuse and abuse of power and authority. Although our religious institutions are citadels of our highest ideals and champions of our noblest virtues, some human will eventually abuse or misuse their position within those organizations.
Also, although we should never grant absolute control of our governments to any religion, theologians and clergy should have an active voice in politics. Theologians and priests should advocate political systems that require political leaders to place society’s requirements above their own ambitions rather than the inverse. They should vigorously promote political systems where politicians succeed when society prospers rather than the inverse. Above all, religious leaders should advocate political systems that have civilized, nonviolent methods for disposing corrupt, inept political leaders. In other words, theologians, priests, religious scholars, and religious leaders should champion the democratic distribution of power rather than the hierarchal distribution.