CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Paradox as Our New ‘God’: Social Systems Theory Perspective on Religion and Democratization

by Yu Cheng Liu
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Yu Cheng Liu, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author


This essay examines the relationship between religion and democracy/democratization through social systems theory perspective developed by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. In order to advance our analysis and to make some helpful suggestions, two sides of this have firstly to be emphasized. One is the concept of democracy, and the other is the operations of functionally differentiated systems, such as the political and the religious ones. The origin of the former can be traced back to religion, or “religiosity”, or let say, monotheist tradition. The latter relates to our topic on the theory of social evolution and that of system differentiation. Issues concerning the processes of democratization, the consolidation of democracies, and their discontented consequences need to be reconsidered in the sense that the concept of democracy and its operations within systems utilize a paradox which must be hidden while forming and maintaining systems’ identities. This constitutes both positive and negative sides of the development of democracy, and also results in its crises such as those encountered by so called “matured” democratic Western countries and by some third-wave democratizing ones. Between them exists a similar problem which will be discussed in this essay, that is, the concept of democracy and its development increasingly erodes its own root when the differentiation of subsystems and the evolution of society both go too far. This by no means indicates that there should not be any evolution or differentiation within society. Instead, it is only an observation on our present situations in which attempting at offering some possible, but suitable questions about them.

Keywords: social systems theory, paradox, social evolution, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Niklas Luhmann

  1. How is democracy/democratization possible?

The evolutionary processes of the Western history demonstrate the changing interrelationships between religion and politics, and also effect modern political institutions. We may agree that modern concept of democracy originates from the ebb and flow of the relationships between church and state, or from their differentiation within society in terms of systems theory since the Middle Ages. To some people the question of which kind of evolution and differentiation that renders this modern concept of democracy possible is not very important. They may simply recognize and admit that the separation of the political and the economic systems has sufficed to explicate this concept formation. In so doing, however, the idea they accepted cannot explain effectively why in some countries of the third world the tendency to establish democratic regimes with their economies dominated by political powers had failed or suffered for years. The reasons are twofold: one is about their conventional political institutions. The other is perhaps that despite the liberal market economy might contribute to democratizing processes; its capacity for maintaining and continuing the democratic operations needs to be questioned. The present situations in Taiwan and the future developments of Mainland China will be good examples for our investigations. In addition to the differentiation between the economy and the political, there are other aspects requiring more attention. Although the liberal market economy contributes to democratization, it often contradicts the latter on some important issues. Individualism, for example, provoked by liberalism and its economic impact on private life lead increasingly to a certain political indifference which is indeed necessary for democratic operations. This can also be found that it is not liberal economy, but some religious organizations and movements on which some countries depend in order to set the processes of democratization in motion. These religious organizations and that those political parties are recourse to religiosity, can provide impetus for and play important roles in the democratizing reformations. This by no means argues that religion and democratization are always complementary to each other, or that the former always contributes to the latter. We should also notice that religion sometimes has negative effects on or even hinders the democratic developments in these countries. In spite of this, it should not be good reasons to overlook the relationship between them, and to avoid of researching on them. Quite the contrary, the questions can be such: “how do we understand it?”, or in other words, “who is the observer?”, and “how is democratization possible anyway?”

The proposition of this research starts from the above questions, and its main argument is: democracy needs to be regarded as nothing but the capacity of the political system to observe itself, hence develops as a self-description of the political system. Since the concept of state has often been opposed to that of society, this to some extent can be viewed from another way that the “state” is a contingent formula for the self-description of the political system since the latter differentiates from other functionally subsystemswithin society. That is to say, within society which is characterized by functional differentiation there is no such a single institution or subsystem which can exclusively represent the whole society and speak for it. As a functionally differentiated subsystem it can only thematize those communications which are invoked by other subsystems (=its own environment), or in terms of systems theory, this thematization to a great extent can only be its own operations “from within” the system itself. With regard to our subject, when the political system can be recognized by others as democratic, it must have something which can be described as democratic, whether by the system itself or by other systems. Before it can be thematized by others, it has already to be a self-referential operation repeating recursively the distinction “democratic/not democratic” within itself. In other words, the political system has to produce its own politically “democratic” communications, these communications can then be communicated by other systems in order to understand whether these are democratic or not. Therefore, the political system needs firstly to describe itself as democratic, whether succeeds or not, in doing so it must utilize a paradox and hide it from its own operations. This paradox presents itself in the concept of form, or a distinction. It is this form or distinction, let say “government/opposition”,1 in which the paradox lies, that cannot be solved by itself, unless to which applies another distinction, for instance legal/illegal, morally right/wrong, etc., by other observing systems. Although a traditional, but simple version of “paradox” has been mentioned by Greek philosopher Eubulides in the fourth century BC and then by Epimenides who makes known to us the Liar Paradox, its modern form demonstrates enormous utility to system formations, according to Luhmann.

Simply speaking, the political system, if needing to be democratic, has to repeat the distinction of “government/opposition” within itself, in order to exclude every communication which cannot be included in its “democratically political communication”. The paradox lies in this distinction insofar as the two sides of it cannot exit simultaneously. For example, the government cannot be the governing and also the opposition party. Furthermore, the recognition of this distinction while using it has also to be excluded from its inclusion. It is necessary for the political system to operate like this when attempting at making democracy/democratization possible. As far as the form of this distinction is concerned, it transfers from “theocracy” or external references, through “human reasoning” in the development of societal differentiation and social evolution, to a kind of “system rationality” characterized by self-referentially closed and normatively open operations, emerging from functionally differentiated modern society. Accordingly, the possibility of democracy/democratization lies firstly in the separation of church and state, and then passing to “human rationality” as the legitimacy of ruling, or the secularization of the concepts of equality and human rights, etc. After this, comes the next step which is concerned here will be depicted with the theory of systems differentiation and that of social evolution. It argues that in such a functionally differentiated society human rationality to a great extent cannot be an effective element which covers all operations within society. This task has increasingly been taken by the concept of social system which is constituted of and only of communication. Modern society bases itself on the functional differentiation into several societal systems, and these subsystems are horizontally, but not hierarchical differentiated in the sense that human beings are actually excluded from those social systems. Hence, there is no longer need to consider that society is composed of people. Instead, it is social system which can communicate only “about” its environment while knowing nothing about it through its own operations. Human beings, or the psychological systems, are part of this environment, and also of the other social systems. In other words, every social system uses specific code or distinction to include all of human beings. For example, the modern political system which self-describes as democratic divides the population into voters/non-voters, or the religious system believers/non-believers, etc. To this view, every system is operating within the society, not beyond it. This is also why we have to reconsider the role of the political system (=state) “from within” society, not paralleling with, opposing to, or beyond it. Accordingly, in order to understand the essence of democracy and its operations, it is necessary for us to inquire the operations of “system rationality” and the paradox hidden by the political system. This to some extent becomes the foundation of modern democracy in its developing from theocracy, through human rationality, to system rationality. To what extent can we say this “system rationality” (=paradox) becomes our new “God” will be investigated and answered in this discussion.

That the paradox is hidden from systems operations is the necessary condition when the political system describing itself as democratic. On the other hand, this induces also problems in the course of democratization. We would like to argue that this paradox and its repetitions within the political system firstly produce and then stabilize the concept of democracy, whereas in the sense of its secularized version, this changing form of paradox happens to be the consequence, let say disenchanted “religiosity”, of the differentiation between the religious and the political systems. For this paradox cannot be recognized when the political system observing other systems, its “democratic” content can become the subjects of thematization in other societal systems. A result is that the politics self-describing as democratic and paving the way toward it gradually escapes from its religious roots. This is influenced by the tradition of humanitarianism on one hand, and by the legacy of natural law on the other. Later this also corresponds to the advent of modern liberalism, which leads to the secularized version of freedom and equality characterized by modern democracy. Emphasizing on this escaping from or lacking of religious roots does not suggest a kind of resurrection, nor is it a kind of nostalgia. We are claiming that while relegating to human rationality based on natural law, the semantics of democracy and its structures, e.g. some basic human rights and liberty, gradually lose its self-referential closure and openness, and render its own modern crises possible. The distinction of government/opposition has been on the one hand thematized by the political system itself, of course in some different ways, and then communications invoked by this distinction enter into its environment, including other subsystems, becoming thematized by the whole society. Keep this in mind, we can understand better how democracy and democratization is possible, and think better what this means to our society when facing with consequences of systems differentiation and social evolution.

  1. Martin Luther’s initiating functional thinking

Martin Luther discusses his thoughts on secular regime in his On the Limits of Secular Authority (1523):

The modern concept of democracy dates back to the medieval period, and is influenced by Religious Reform. Liberty of faith comes out first and is emphasized when the relationships between church and state have been changed. To a great extent this stress on liberty of faith constitutes the foundation of modern concepts of human rights and liberty. However, this says nothing but that not all religions are conducive to the politics or democracy/democratization. Contrary to this, the evolution of religious system offers both positive and negative effects on its becoming the basis of political legitimacy. So far as the political system describes itself as democratic, the role played by religion includes both sides. Generally speaking, in discussing the contents of democracy, human rights and liberty are of no possibility to be neglected. However, the concept of “the sovereignty of the people” somehow is possible unless we refer it back to theocracy or divine-based sovereignty. The earliest formation of people’s sovereignty induces mainly from the debates on “the rights to resist”. In other words, it concerns to what extent and under which conditions can the governed have the rights to show resistance to the governors when oppressed by them. To this point, at this time the legitimacy of ruling obviously comes from religion, or relates to it operations.

Hoelzl & Ward (2006) claim that the difference between Luther’s early and late thoughts on church and state perhaps provides a point of departure, when considering the development of modern political thoughts. In his earlier writings, Luther prioritizes religion rather than state or secular regime. However, he also anticipates “modernity in terms of equality, proto-democratic forms of political action, individualism and freedom of conscience” (2006: 64). It is important to note that the Reformation not only presents the tension between church and state, but also influences the Western political thinking. In facing the corruption of the contemporary religious institutions, Luther attempts to clarify the relationship between church and state, the spiritual and the secular regimes. After Augustine (354-430 C.E.) distinguishing the “Kingdom of God” from the “Kingdom of the World”, it has become the focal point lasting for hundreds of years until now. It is the most contestable problem which needs to be solved, although fails. In spite of it, for the solution and its failure will not be our concerns, we argue that this distinction refined by Augustine exactly furnishes the religious and the political systems of society with features of autopoiesis, the possibilities of independence and then interdependence. This is important for our investigations on modern democracy and democratization. The question will be: How do the autonomous but mutually dependent operations consist in the concept of democracy? This can be answered properly with a general theory of social systems and that of social evolution. So far as Augustine’s Two Kingdoms is concerned, they both epistemologically include their own political systems. However, it cannot say that they, the religious and the political systems, are functionally differentiated since they do not present any equality to each other. It only suffices to say that they are hierarchically differentiated. Both have to depend on religion (God) for acquiring their own legitimacy of ruling, either in the Kingdom of God or that of the World. The latter cannot be independent from religion and retain its autonomy. To this point, with respect to the development and management of religious affairs, the Kingdom of the World not only contributes nothing to them, but also should not intervene in them.

Following Augustine, Luther also concerns only religion. What he mainly expects is to establish and to maintain a “Kingdom of God” (Thornhill, 2007).2 However, to him and differing from his predecessor Augustine, the relationship between these two kingdoms should be equal. It is not quite right to claim that the state should be subordinate to the church. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nationality (1520), Luther on one hand rejects the viewpoint that the spiritual regime is higher than the secular counterpart, on the other hand, he also doubts that the Law of the Church should be superior to the secular laws. In his view, the opposition of these two kingdoms was probably utilized by Roman Catholic Church as a lie and a kind of hypocritical tool by which it could avoid of those potential threats to its authority on Earth. For Luther there are no evidences which can be found in the Scriptures denoting their oppositions (Hoelzl & Ward, 2006: 66). To the eyes of Luther, “all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone”, and further, “we are all consecrated as priests by baptism” (Luther, 1520). To divide these two kingdoms indicates that they are functionally differentiated. It says that since all Christians are equal in the sense of the political, whoever becomes the leader of this Christian kingdom, the power he possesses is totally the same with all other Christians. Hence, the Kingdom of God and that of the World do not differ in nature, but are simply realized in different functions. This view is also distinct from those influenced by the Roman Catholic Church in medieval times, for the clergies are only sanctioned by the laws of church, not by the secular ones.

This essay of Luther has been regarded as providing the source of legitimacy for those being governed and oppressed by the Roman Catholic Church in German. However, this right of resistance provoked by Luther does not extend to those laypersons, thus it does not result in a radical transformation of the political regime. As a result, it then becomes the foundation for establishing the Holy Roman Empire. According to Hoelzl & Ward, the later writings of Luther present an attitudinal change of thoughts on the relationship between church and state, which suggests that only those Christians with true faith belong to the Kingdom of God and those are not belong to the Kingdom of the World. Since then, we approach the prototype of the functional differentiation between religion and politics. It is meaningful to note that for Luther these are two kinds of governance. Those belonging to the Kingdom of God need no secular laws, for they just need to follow the spiritual teachings. Somehow this kingdom is so perfect that it cannot be completely realized in the secular world. The reasoning is that since this perfect kingdom cannot be established in this world, then it needs a secular sovereignty to govern the affairs of this secular world. This is Luther’s “theory of two swords”. Consequently, every Christian is divided into two parts, one is baptized Christian belonging to the Kingdom of God, and the other is still sinned, which belongs to and has to be governed by the law of the secular world. Christians can only prove themselves through their own faith; they need no other forms of sovereignty except the spiritual one to govern them. At the same time, Christians are also sinners and have to be sanctioned by the secular laws. The result is that insofar as faith can only be proved through God, religion then becomes a private affair. This is usually called the internalization of Protestantism, referring to Max Weber, etc. For Luther this privatization of religious faith, i.e. individual conscience and religious freedom, constitutes the limits on the secular regime.

To this extent, Luther transforms St. Augustine’s theory of Two Kingdoms into a kind of functionally-differentiated based theory of two swords. This of course is a proto-typical one. Not until combining with Locke’s humanism, following John Calvin, and the law of nature does this functional differentiation reach its possibility in modern society? Despite this, his thoughts on religion and the political thus become the Protestantism’s primary concerns, and religion has also been privatized since then. This associates with the later political deism, constituting in the secularized foundation of modern Western democracy. In fact, the emphasis on the equality among Christians by Luther in his essay forms the modern roots of democratic operations in the Protestant tradition, demonstrating by Puritanism, especially in the constitution of America. The reasoning behind this tendency toward democracy is that since all Christians are also baptized clergies, there should not be any difference among their spirituality. Therefore, there should be no one can claim possessing higher position than others, unless obtaining others’ consents and through election. This later Luther considers church as a kind of “invisible community” (Gemeinde), constituted of Christians. They are sanctioned by faith, not by law. His thoughts reflect the long-lasting views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Generally speaking, the Old Testament stresses on the law which contracted by human beings with God, whereas the New Testament stresses on the faith, the role played by the law becomes not so important to obtaining salvation. However, the Reformation renders this tension more radical and the tendency toward privatization of religious faith after Luther’s writings leads to its successive developments increasingly combining with deism. One of the consequences is the positivization of the law. Those discourses on faith, liberty of conscience, and rights to be equal, etc., which originated from Luther’s writings, find their ways to be secularization, and become the most important concepts of modern democracy.

In spite of this, we can still distinguish Luther’s “Two Swords” from St. Augustine’s “Two Kingdoms”. Borrowing from St Paul’s “body metaphor” Luther argues that there are equal relations among various organs in the body. They can only be functionally different, not hierarchically differentiated. Hence, he suggests that the secular sovereignty has to be seen as a part of Christ’s body. Although it executes the secular power, it also belongs to the Kingdom of God, whereas the church is also part of this body, they only differ in functions, not in statuses. In the essay, Luther does not confirm very clearly whether Christians have the rights to resist the secular regimes or not. Even in his On the Limits of Secular Authority, Luther suggests that when suffering, Christians should “suffer wrongs gladly”, for they have Holy Spirit in their hearts, until death. In this essay, he expresses his views on the secular laws. Luther claims that those belong to the Kingdom of God do not need these secular laws, for they do more than required. Hence, the secular laws are only given to those unbelievers. Thornhill (2007) argues that Luther’s thoughts on these two kingdoms relate to his anxiety about theocracy (2007: 35). Luther believes that theocracy always involves the Jewish religious knowledge of the Old Testament. Therefore, he thinks that obeying the law of the Old Testament will bring salvation is a complete misunderstanding of it.

In his On the Limits of Secular Authority, Luther to some extent gives the modern form of differentiation between religion and the political through his transforming the contents of Two Kingdoms. This transformation becomes the primary resource of thoughts on church and state in the 17th and 18th centuries. He says:

Although church and state are different entities, they have respective laws. This by no means is to say that they have to be entirely divided or separated. Quite the contrary, it is because these two entities are independent to each other, they have to depend on each other in regard to the secular and spiritual affairs. This functional differentiation between them must be established on the basis of their self-referential, close operations. This has been implicated by Luther in his essay. Equal spiritual quality leads no difference in the political or hierarchical positions. Hence, just as Luther has emphasized, the relationship between the Kingdom of God and that of the World is functionally differentiated, no more and no less. Accordingly, with regard to the spiritual affairs, Christians need no secular laws, whereas for the material or secular dimensions they need to be governed by the laws. Nevertheless, since governed by Christians, there should not be one or a few who can be superior to others. Luther claims that “No one can or should lay down commandments for the soul, except those who can point it on the way to heaven. But no human being can do that; only God” (Luther, 1523; edited by Höpfl, 1991: 24). However, people have to decide what to believe by themselves. In other words, people are responsible for their own faith. Salvation cannot be obtained through depending on others or obeying the laws, rather, it requires that people have to affirm their own faith. Luther disagrees that there is need to enforce other people to believe, for “faith is free, and no one can be compelled to believe” (Luther, ibid: 26). Therefore, the governing should not enforce the governed to change their faith in that “faith is something that God works in the spirit” (Luther, ibid: 26). Following this, faith becomes not only a kind of freedom, but also an action without any unwillingness, and hence an individual affair of conscience. This for Luther will not decrease “the authority of the secular regime”. However, in the last part of the essay, he indicates that the rights to resist the given authority can be executed only if the secular regime threatens faith:

Briefly speaking, we can see this prototype of defending religious freedom influenced by the Reformation. Luther’s discussion confirms that Christ is the governor of church. Under Christ, all Christians are equal. Since the Kingdom of God and that of the World are constituted of same elements, this confirmation of Christ as the governor of church indicates that He is also the governor of the World. Luther suggests that if all Christians can recognize this equal relation, and admit Christ the only governor, then “No one desires to be another’s superior, for everyone wants to be the inferior of the rest. …Nature will not tolerate superiors when no one wants to be, or can be, a superior” (Luther, ibid: 33). However, complemented by Luther, this cannot be done in that “there are no people of [the latter] sort, there are no true Christians either” (ibid). Besides, the governing executed by clergies and bishops is simply a kind of “service (Dienst) and duty (Amt)”, it should be regarded as a privilege or power. They are just continuing and spreading the Words of God, leading Christians, and overcoming heresies, nothing beyond these. This functional differentiation between the Kingdom of God and that of the World becomes the prototype of the differentiation between the religious and the political systems in our modern society. Actually, we can see that there exists what Weber calls “elective affinity” between Luther’s thoughts (religion) and democracy (the self-description of the political system). This is not only the foundation of modern democracy, but also the primary element which will hinder its development. The latter will be discussed in the last part of this essay.

  1. The theological thinking of John Calvin and its implications for functional differentiation

The theological thoughts of John Calvin (1509-64) are influenced by Luther. His reform on Geneva would not be so smooth without the great efforts of Luther and Zwingli. Although Zwingli has great impact on the formation of the constitution, we focus only on Calvin and his contributions, since he provides the possible grounds for active political actions, to the form of government/opposition. Calvin’s views on church and state are different from those of Luther. He also suggests that church and state need to be independent to each other; however, he ascribes their authorities to God, instead of Christ as the body metaphor. Therefore, they have to cooperate in order to glorify God. Calvin claims that the secular authority should adopt the opinions of church and should abide by the decisions made by church clergies. In his mind, these two kingdoms have their own laws, however, it will be valid when the secular one has been confirmed and supported by the church. Accordingly, what Calvin claims is a kind of theocracy with the aim to establish Geneva as a theocratic and flawless “church”.

Calvin publishes his first version of Institution of Christian Religion in 1536, in which he discusses the relationships among the freedom of Christians, the authority of church, and the civil governments, and gains great success immediately. However, in the later versions his thoughts on church and state have been changed. Since then, he concerns not the “invisible church”, but the “visible” one. The reason given by Höpfl is that at this time Calvin has obtained important position in Geneva, and drafted Ecclesiastical Ordinances as the foundation of local reforms. When Calvin comes back to Geneva, he transforms his focuses from “invisible” to “visible’, and combines obviously with his political ideals and activities (Höpfl, 1992: xix). Out of these are topics such as education and civil responsibility. Hence, “everyone has the rights to be educated” becomes characteristic of Calvinism. In 1559, he established “Schola Genevensis”, which was the predecessor of the Université de Genève, in which John Knox (1505-1572) was educated and became a Calvinist. The reason to be educated is that Calvin thinks people should participate in the politics, and help preventing church from damages. After 1543, Calvin clearly indicates that the reformed Church should be governed by clergies, and maintains a great degree of independence and authority (Höpfl, 1991: xx). What he prefers is “aristocracy or a mixed polity, compounded of aristocratic and democratic components”, not a kind of pure monarchy. The concept of democracy here indicates not the modern form of it; instead it is congregational in ecclesiastical terms. This so called democracy means making everyone under surveillance, including both higher and lower classes. The reasoning is that the basis of surveillance lies in the equality among all Christians. It is similar to Luther in the sense that their spiritual equality leads to the political equality. Therefore, so far as the principle of equality is concerned, mutual surveillance or reminding becomes an important element in the aristocratic or democratic regime. Of course, this form of church organization established by Calvin in Geneva then turns to be the primary form of organization adopted by reformed Church and Presbyterianism. And it is also the prototype of modern form of democracy. Calvin’s political stance and his attitudes toward political participation have been respected by his followers and churches; to a great extent they are also the primary resources of the rights to resist the secular authorities. Höpfl mentions that the concept of political participation of Christians has not been emphasized by Calvin in his first version of Institutes. However, in the later versions, he not only prefers aristocracy or mixed form of polity, but also makes more clear people’s rights to overthrow the tyrannical governments.

There are two presuppositions in Calvin’s theological thoughts, one is a vigorous and independent Church, and the other is godly magistrates (Höpfl, 1991). He requires that it needs to sanction the power to be evil of the secular authority, while at the same time serving God’s affairs without any limitation. There is only one absolute power, which is the power of God. All other secular powers are derived from this absolute power. Hence, all authorities have to be based on this precondition, and therefore all are limited. Given similarity between Luther’s and Calvin’s thoughts on church and state power is that they consider the secular states are all limited, they cannot go beyond their ascribed duties. Since these duties are given by God, they have to be obeyed by all Christians. As long as these authorities do their “jobs”, they are sharing God’s glory and nobility. However, once they cross the boundaries, they become intruders. In his discourse on the limits of the secular authorities, Calvin goes far more than Luther. Education becomes the means to eliminate the evil inside every human being. Luther’s “swords” turns out to be “schools” in Calvin’s thoughts. The duality of the secular governments (both spiritual and secular) indicates that they have to “discipline”, lead, and put limitations on their people.

The relationship between church and state is not irrelevant; rather, they are mutually connected. However, this connected relation has to be understood in the sense that these two different entities are self-referentially close but operationally open. His contributions on the constitutions of Geneva present another prototype of the differentiation between religion and the legal system. He takes for granted “the government has to be sanctioned by the constitutions”, insofar as the constitutions have to be derived from God or enacted in conformity with faith. To this point, obeying the constitutions by the government means that “the church cannot stand firm unless a government is constituted as prescribed to us by the World of God and observed in the early church” (Kelly, 1992: 13). In Wendel’s discussing Calvin’s thoughts, he concludes that it is always necessary for religion and the political to be interdependent and independent to each other. His views to some extent do not go beyond Luther’s suggestions of functional differentiation. The political is not necessarily subordinate to religion; rather, they have their own boundaries drawn by themselves:

Accordingly, the power of church and that of state have to be complementary. In Institutes, Calvin claims that man is doubly governed, one is civil, and the other spiritual. The existence of the secular governments lies in the foundation that man is essentially imperfect.3 He says:

The consequence is that the secular government must exist, and it has to protect religious freedom, and assures peace of the secular world. Following Calvin’s thoughts and Wendel’s comments, we can find that the distinction of church and state has either been realized in Church, or in the secular state. On Church side, the distinction of church and state repeats itself, and this leads to St. Augustine’s theory of Two Kingdoms. On the side of the secular state, this distinction also reproduces itself in it, and this leads to the thoughts of Luther, of Calvin, and of successive thinkers, including Protestantism, Presbyterianism, and so on. The so called “the foundation of the entire edifice” perhaps can be understood as the unity of the distinction of church and state, which is termed “paradox” above mentioned. In other words, the distinction of church and state cannot be observed with itself, to this extent it can only operates so as to be introduced into one of these two sides. For Calvin, the real Church is simply an ideal, which cannot be realized in this secular world. As far as this is concerned, it needs to cooperate with the secular authority. Through ascribing legitimacy to the secular state, Church or the spiritual world can maintain its own particularity and a kind of autonomy. When we say that authority must come from somewhere, be it sacred or profane, by this means that the paradox, the unity of the distinction, the distinction of church and state, has been repeating within either side. In other words, this repeating of the distinction within itself must hide the paradox which renders this repeating possible, and this makes necessary structural couplings between the religious and the political systems. Hence, the distinction of church and state can continuously be represented within either side. With regard to the later developments of Calvin’s theology, his suggestion that the primary function of the secular authority should be protecting religious freedom and stabilizing external conditions, after combining with natural theology, results in the secularization of the concept of freedom or generally, democracy.

  1. The paradox and its grounds for democracy/democratization

As can be seen, in the last chapter of Institutes, Calvin discusses the civil government and claims that the secular authority has to be sanctioned so as not to intrude in the Kingdom of God. This view represents this distinction of Church and state in the secular world. As German sociologist Niklas Luhmann says, “Die Religion selbst findet keineswegs im Jenseits statt.”4 Put is more exactly, since we cannot obtain a satisfying solution to this distinction repeated within itself, the result is that we can only turn into the secular side, which self-describes as the state (=the political system), in order to search for the representation of this distinction. This asymmetrical feature of the binary code renders possible the concept of democracy such as human rights, freedom, and the like, which can be secularized in the course of social evolution and system differentiation. As Kelly indicates, not only those followers of Calvin, but also many Western liberalists, they do not know very well the one they are following is John Calvin. This means that the processes of secularization have increasingly eliminated the foundations of the modern concept of democracy, hence will endanger it in the future. The mechanism underlying this perhaps can be uncovered through a general theory of social systems and that of social evolution.

After Calvin, those liberalist philosophers and sociologists widely spread his thoughts in the sense of “disenchanted” or secularized form. On the issues of liberty and resistance, the political theology of Calvin turns out to be the most important part embedded in the Western political thoughts, despite of ignoring its theological origin (Kelly, 1992: 31). It should be note that the combination of Calvin’s political thoughts with natural theology is nothing but a historical contingency. And it is also plausible to say that the separating of the contents of freedom and human rights from their religious and theological implications is no more than a chance. In order to clarify these problems and to make provisions to our future, it needs to investigate how the distinction of Church and state represents itself within either side. This helps us know better what the situations are, just as Kelly says:

The danger caused by secularizing the concept of democracy is also eroding its own modern foundation. With the advent of the concept of nation-state, the danger presents itself in the form of “de-differentiation” of the political system. The reasoning is that firstly, the debates of church-state relationships lead to the differentiation between religion and politics, and then become the basis for functional differentiation of modern society. Secondly, since it is possible to follow this form of differentiation, the distinction of governing/governed applied by the early political system can possibly be transferred to that of government/opposition, this further divides it into three subsystems: the politics, the opposition, and the publics. This three-tiered structure constitutes modern form of democracy, and renders processes toward it imaginable. Lastly, once the political system associating with the concept of nation-state, in so doing generates the crises of de-differentiation in that the political system attempts to represent society not from within but beyond it. We can see better and clearer only if we take into considerations this paradox which must be hidden from system’s operations of observations. Accordingly, this article claims that the possibility of initiating democratization lies in the differentiation between subsystems and also in the internal differentiation within subsystems. Furthermore, its legitimacy comes firstly from religious system, and then with secularization transforms to the legal system. However, this transformation indicates one thing that has to be hidden from recognition. It is the distinction of transcendence/immanence used by the religious system, which is also utilized as a paradox which cannot be solved by it. However, this distinction can be communicated by the political system with its own self-referential operations, which means the political system will communicate about this distinction as political one through second-coding processes. By this the political system is capable of understanding this distinction and presents it as its source of legitimacy without referring to its spiritual origin, and then again when differentiating from the religious and the legal systems, the political system can develop its own discourses on initiating democratization or on the consolidation of democracy.

When being devoid of its religious origin, democracy, which now becomes the self-description of the political system, increasingly risks its own stakes. Democracy does not guarantee the conditions which makes it possible. It cannot necessarily reproduce what it needs to secure its operations. As a self-description of the political system, it is not the function of the politics to remain democratic. This can be seen from the cases of Taiwan and the so-called socialist democracy, China. In the case of Taiwan, the possibility of differentiation of the politics and religion occurred in the 1970s. Although it was also the period of rapid growth of Taiwan’s economy under the control of the quasi-Leninist regime of KMT, there were no effective anti-authoritarian movements until the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT). Before that, as we can see, the possibility of democratization cannot be initiated even we had a planned economy and also succeeded in those years. Some may argue that it is the liberalization of economy which brings the democratization of the politics; however, this can be contested if we view from a theory of social evolution and of systems differentiation. Liberal economy did bring the necessary reform required by the people to the government. However, liberal economy does not necessarily need a kind of Western mode of democratization to legitimate political governance. The case of China will be suitable to reflect on this. Until now, after the gradual liberalization of economy since Deng Xiaoping’s (???) bold reformation, China, a socialist democratic regime, tries hard to couple her authoritarian character and one party politics with socialist democracy, and pave way to her own China’s mode of democracy. Although differences may exist between these two cases, from the experience of Taiwan, we can observe how and to which direction China might go.

The initiation of democratization needs not only the liberalization of economy, it requires something else. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT) played a very important role in promoting ‘effectively’ the processes of democratization. Several announcements concerning religious freedom, rights to self-determination, the popular voting institutions, etc. are formally claimed by PCT printed on every kind of propagandas. The 1970s symbolized a period of the differentiation between the politics and religion, and then resulted in the internal differentiation of the political system in 1980s when the opposite political party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was established. In 2000, also under the auspicious of PCT, Taiwan completed the transformation of government from KMT to DPP, and then again from DPP to KMT in 2008, peacefully. The efforts made by PCT cannot be ignored and simply explained with some kind of external factors in analogy with other social movements, of the latter did not succeed in their own actions. Hence, the reasoning will be that what renders democracy/democratization imaginable lies in firstly the functional differentiation within society, and then in the internal differentiation of the political system. Their respective operations as a self-referential systems apply different distinctions as a paradox in order to maintain the boundaries with their respective environments. In the religious system, it is the distinction of transcendence/immanence, in the political system, government/opposition, and then government/opposition/the publics. These two situations do not yet occur in the case of China. Of course, there is a question worthy of contemplating. What we are talking about is always Western democracy, is there any possibility of thinking in other ways? Do we need a Western democracy? Or, is there any option for the future of democracy? This is what China debates now.

Lastly, the danger of de-differentiation occurs in Taiwan since 2008. It emerges from the political system which still describes itself as the state and operates beyond the society. The democracy of Taiwan suffers from being unable to consolidate. To this view, democracy can only emerge from communications within society. The problem lies in the state which still regards itself opposing to the society, thus in tension with it can intervene into other areas. Democracy provides a secular legitimacy for the state to justify its intervention, covered with terms such as modification, adjustment, adaptation, and the like. In order to observe better those situations encountered by our democratic societies, it is necessary to consider those from the theory of social evolution and the theory of system differentiation. These two aspects to some extent co-evolve through the time of world society in terms of Luhmann, but develop toward different social and factual dimensions within those subsystems’ own time. The modern concept of democracy and its initiation in different contexts put emphasis on the secular version rather than the opposite one. This by no means indicates that we have to recover the sacred foundation of this concept. Instead, what has to be noticed is this situation our societies have confronted needs to be reconsidered, or it might be getting worse when the society, or the political system requires democracy but do not know on which it is based. Through the lens of social systems theory, we suggest that there is a tendency toward the resurrection of non-democratic behaviors while still labeling them as democratic. This is what Luhmann concerns the crisis of “de-differentiation” in modern society. And this can also explain that to what extent religion can be the impetus and the source of legitimacy while initiating the process of democratization or pursuing the institute of democracy. Perhaps the case of China and its relation to Taiwan may provide us some insights when the former claims it as democratic in terms of socialism, whereas the latter gradually loses its capacity to self-describe as democracy in Western terms.