Now that a new generation of leaders are taking the helm in China in March and talking about reform, at least some Chinese are looking at the US and wondering if religion is the key to constitutional democracy.

Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:

Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.

That’s from The Atlantic’s site. Isn’t that astonishing? That these citizens of a non-Christian communist country can see what so very many Americans teaching on college campuses and working in US news and entertainment media do not.

George Washington:

“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

John Adams:

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

We lose the Judeo-Christian religious roots of our democracy, and we will lose our democracy. We may have the rule of the people, but it will look very different in time compared to what we have known.

In the current edition of Mars Hill Audio Journal, the Anglican priest and academic Andrew Davison talks about the Christian approach to reason, and how the interpretation of the world can look very different through Christian eyes. He recalls seeing a leper begging in India. If one is a Christian, he says, one’s Scripture and Tradition tells one how one is to respond to that suffering person — and how one is not to respond: one must help the suffering man, as if he were God himself. If one is a Hindu, says Davison, one’s Hinduism may require a very different response. Reasoning from Hindu first principles, one may be required to walk past the leper, as he is suffering from sins of a past life, and needs to do so to make his next life better.

From a Christian point of view, this is cruelty. But it may be kind from a Hindu point of view. The point isn’t that all Christians would respond kindly, and all Hindus would respond callously. The point is that the basis on which we call a response “compassionate” or “cruel” depends on our fundamental belief system. And these belief systems are not merely about personal piety, but have far-reaching consequences for the way we organize our common life, including, of course, our politics. Ideas, as we know, have consequences.