At least since the founding of Rome 2700 years ago, rulers have claimed authority from god. The Roman Emperors were officially Pontus Maximus the head of the Roman religions. Emperor Constantine simply declared himself the head bishop of Christianity after it became a key religion in the Empire.
A few decades later a Bishop commanded a Roman Emperor to do public penance, firmly establishing the belief that the Roman Catholic Church had final authority over the souls of commoners and kings. With that belief established as the ultimate moral authority, no mere king was about to chance eternal hell.
In 800 AD a Pope crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Thereafter the idea of the divine right of Kings hardened into the structure of Western governance. Popes and Bishops crowned Emperors and Kings symbolically endowing their divine rights from God. The divine right of kings became the foundation of secular and moral authority.
Luther’s salvation by grace abolished the power of the Roman Catholic Church over human souls. Within this vacuum of moral authority much of Europe escaped from the power of the Roman Catholic Church, including Henry VIII and his Church of England. But if the nobility could defy the powers of the Pope, then the people could defy the divine rights of the nobility’s power. One of the most cruel and bloody wars of human history then engulfed Europe. The Treaty of Westphalia ended it by establishing nation-states which could each decide the religious question for itself. At least in Protestant lands people obeyed their sovereigns for fear of their mortal soul, not for fear of their immortal soul.
The first shots at Lexington and Concord were fired with no fear of divine retribution. Thereafter democracy became the new moral authority, deriving for the first time ” just powers from the consent of the governed.” Less than 150 years later at the end of World War One, all monarchies had lost their divine right and left with only symbolic power. By the end of World War Two the democratic United States had assumed the mantle of moral authority for the world. By 1989 even the despotic communist countries genuflected as academics declared political history had ended.
What seems to have escaped notice is that democracy has no inherent moral authority. Does the vote of the majority confer it? Should we vote to kill off the Jews? Should we vote on same sex marriage? Or legalizing abortion? This vacuum of democratic moral authority was filled by an elitist establishment and bureaucracy. Like the Kings and Emperors of old, the elite were now crowned in rituals of election, conferring on them a “divine right” to proclaim moral authority and rule.
And like the nobility of old, those elected became infected with the disease of elitist arrogance and began imposing their will without the consent of the governed. The result is the election of Trump, Brexit and numerous other worldwide conflicts. Like the 16th century, conflicts are building everywhere as people realize they are falsely governed, this time by the deceit of self-governing democracy.
Now we are beginning to realize that concepts of nation-states and democracy are constructs that need redress. In addition, there is the growth of Islam which intrinsically believes that the divine right of rule still exists. These are major structural faults in societal organization which are beyond legislative tinkering. Large structural changes are required that neither rulers nor the ruled are prepared to accept. And there is no god to impose them.
The 21st century is destined for major conflicts until a new form of moral authority is crowned. History lessons from the 16th century might make that process less violent and painful, if we were prepared to listen. .