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How the Catholic Church created democracy

24 December 2016

12:00 PM

24 December 2016

12:00 PM

Going to spend Christmas with relatives you don’t really like? Well, you can thank God you only have to see them once a year rather than living as an extended family. Or more precisely you can thank the Catholic Church, without whom you’d all still be in the same house as your uncles and aunties and marrying your cousin. It is reasonably well known that the medieval Church’s ban on cousin marriage helped to make western Europe less clannish; but according to an interesting new paper from Nottingham University, by doing this the Catholic Church actually laid the foundations of democracy. The author, Jonathan F Schulz, argues:

‘The role of the family as one of the most fundamental institution for human society is unquestionable. The family is traditionally seen as individually beneficial providing emotional and material security. However, strong kinship ties can have a perverse negative effect for society as a whole. It can foster an in-group mentality preventing large scale cooperation beyond the confines of the kin-group. As a key consequence, a narrow focus on the interest of the extended family may undermine the essence of democracy – playing by the rules set by the whole society.’

Christianity in our minds is linked to ‘family values’ and all that, but from the beginning the religion was almost anti-family, with disciples told to leave theirs. And Christ suggested that the noblest thing a man could do was lay down one’s life for a friend. Compared to the kin-centred Old Testament, this was revolutionary stuff. Once established, the Church was jealous of rival loyalties, such as could be found in the extended family. Consequently, the growth of the nuclear family led to individualism, because once a son was no longer considered the property of his father, the next logical step was that he would have more power to choose whom to marry. And so Europe underwent what Samuel Huntington called the ‘Romeo and Juliet revolution’. A good example of how mores have changed is illustrated by the 13th century biography of the knight William Marshal, in which he comes across an eloping couple and robs them, the clear understanding being that this is the right thing to do as they are committing a terrible offence. By Shakespeare’s time, people were sympathetic to the idea that a man and woman might wish to marry against their parents’ wishes. The decline of clannishness lead to all sorts of societal change. Schulz says:

‘Prohibition of kin-marriage has a direct effect on economic incentives and behaviour that is shaped by kin-selection: biological relatedness within the kin-group decreases (while it increases with outsiders) and incentives to indirectly benefit one’s own offspring by benefitting extended nieces and nephews also do not exist anymore. Further, the increased interaction with individuals outside the kin-group (people were forced to distantly relocate to marry) may change values towards a more general morality.’

The difference family structure makes can be seen in the contrast between southern and northern Italy, where the rate of historic cousin marriage correlates highly with the Mafia index, corruption levels and even how much people cheat at school tests. This is why Sonny Corleone berates his brother for joining the army, those signing up being ‘a bunch of saps because they risk their lives for strangers’. As he tells his sibling: ‘Your country ain’t your blood.’ Millions of Germans, Britons and Americans fighting at the time would have strongly disagreed.


The author of the Nottingham study estimates that a 10 per cent increase in cousin marriage is associated with about a 3 percentage point lower democracy score, which has a huge implication, most of all for the Middle East. Many people have noticed a pattern between Islam and the failure of democracy but he concludes that religion is not the essential problem, rather it is the prevalence of cousin marriage. This is not the first paper to make this link between family type and religion. Avner Greif of Stanford University wrote in 2005 that:

‘Among the anthropologically defined 356 contemporary societies of Euro-Asia and Africa, there is a large and significant negative correlation between Christianisation (for at least 500 years) and the absence of clans and lineages.’

And back in 2003, a piece in the American Conservative magazine warned that democracy would not flourish in Iraq because of its high rate of cousin marriage. However, at the time there was certainly a sort of a priori idea that democracy must be replicable anywhere, because to say otherwise would be racist. David Cameron made that exact argument around the time of the Arab spring. A rather wiser minister, the United Arab Emirates ambassador Oma Saif Ghobash, explained in a 2014 lecture that Arab democracy was vulnerable, not just because of Islamism, but ‘also because of the lack of institutions that can rise above partisan politics’. He said:

‘Given the social, cultural and educational realities of our part of the world, many of us recognise that an introduction of electoral democracy that precedes the development of effective, impartial institutions may exacerbate tribal and sectarian divisions’

One of the reasons that Islamism emerges so quickly in clannish countries is that it is the only force that can overcome deep-seated tribal divisions. One of the attractions of religious movements in politics is that Islam is seen – with good reason – as being a force for reducing corruption and raising public morals. Hardliners such as Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt appeal to people sickened by corruption and clan-based nepotism, so that given a choice of a crook or a fascist they will opt for the latter. The Brotherhood’s economic platform upon taking power in Egypt was simply ‘more virtue’, which unfortunately didn’t produce quite the economic miracle they might have hoped for. This is why the idea of trying to spread democracy everywhere is not a wise one; it’s why I despair when I hear western politicians talk about installing democracy in Syria (cousin marriage rate: 35 per cent).

Considering Europe’s history, and the current situation in the Middle East, it seems that the encouragement of monarchy seems likely to produce the most future prosperity and happiness, and in the long term, democracy. And the first thing any sensible monarch should do is ban cousin marriage. So, when your normie new atheist cousin tells you over Christmas that ‘religion poisons everything’, be thankful for the Church that you don’t have to live with him the rest of the year.

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