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The Great Charter and the Limits of Power

Eight centuries ago Magna Carta asserted an idea upon which our society depends: religious faith is an important guide and moderator for democracy.

Exactly 800 years ago, in the summer of 1215, King John of England had an interesting exchange of views with his barons and bishops in a meadow called Runnymede. The result was a list of 63 royal commitments and concessions that we know as Magna Carta.

The Great Charter—Magna Carta in Latin—has gone through long periods of being ignored or belittled. Designed to make peace, it resulted in civil war. In its original wording, it was poorly organized and never had the force of law. It survived only a few months and was annulled by the pope. Despite all of this, Magna Carta emerged over time as the cornerstone of English liberties. Its genius is this: It limited a sovereign’s power. It started the process of carving out space for what would become civil society.

The charter said that free men had the right to be judged by their peers under the law of the land. It said that justice could not be sold to the highest bidder. The Great Charter thus holds the earliest seeds of due process. Its impact can be seen on the Bill of Rights of the United States, on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and on national constitutions around the world.

What’s most interesting, though, is this: Magna Carta begins and ends with a royal oath that “the English Church shall be free and enjoy her rights in their integrity and her liberties untouched.”

Our political system presumes a civil society that pre-exists the state. It’s an idea that is already emerging in Magna Carta’s demand for recognition of the rights of the church and the rights of persons. In the American model, the state is meant to be modest in scope, constrained by checks and balances. Mediating institutions like the family, churches, and fraternal organizations stand between the individual and the state. And when they decline, the state fills the vacuum they leave. So protecting these mediating institutions is vital to our freedoms. Alone, individuals have little power. But organized communities—including communities of faith—are a different matter. They can resist. They can’t be ignored.

Liberty Bell on stained glass window

We need to remember that democracy is not an end in itself. Majority opinion doesn’t determine what is good and true. Like every other form of power, democracy can become a means of repression and idolatry. When we divorce our politics from a grounding in virtue and truth, we transform our country from a living moral organism into a kind of golem of legal machinery without a soul.

This is why working for good laws is so important. This is why getting involved politically is so urgent. This is why every one of our votes matters. We need to elect the best public leaders, who then create the best policies and appoint the best judges. This has a huge impact on the kind of nation we become. Democracies depend for their survival on people of conviction fighting in the public square for what they believe—legally and peacefully, but zealously and without apologies. That includes all of us.

The terrain of our lives in the 21st century is very different from the world in 1215. But the power of religious faith even today to limit the power of the state might be very familiar to the men who gathered at Runnymede.

As the Founders knew, and we forget at our peril, the American project of ordered liberty can’t work without the support of a moral people—a people formed by a living faith in a loving God. Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse. And only religious faith can guide and moderate democracy because it appeals to an Authority higher than democracy itself.

Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the archbishop of Philadelphia. This essay is taken from an address delivered at BYU on Jan. 23, 2015. Here is the full address.