And Yet, Democracy Remains an Achievement Worth Defending

From “Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies” by David P. Gushee

Many of the problems classically associated with democracy are not exclusive to democracy. They are basic problems of political order, exacerbated by what traditional Christian theology calls fallen (sinful) human nature. They must be addressed by any political system as it seeks to organize human affairs in community: the risk of tyranny (and of anarchy); the abuse of (or failure to exercise) power; acts of wrongdoing by government and governors; demagoguery that appeals to the basest human instincts; arbitrariness in decision-making; the dangers of a leader making decision based on irrationality, passion, stupidity, or prejudice; and the corrosive confusions, divisions, and conflicts that so characterize human relationships.

As Reinhold Niebuhr noted, human beings have both God-given capacities for self-government and such profound flaws that we never fully solve society’s problems, and every way of organizing political communities has its own vulnerabilities. In biblical tradition, we have a classic way of understanding this reality. Genesis 1 and 2 teach believers about our exalted God-given status, responsibilities, and capacities, while Genesis 3 begins the utterly realistic but ineffably sad account of human sinfulness in relation to God and neighbor. This mix defines the human experience. Democracies will always reflect both human capacities and human sinfulness.

I will engage seriously the criticisms of democracy that have been offered by Christians over the centuries and that are intensifying today. I will still assert, however, that in view of the track record of the varied forms of government, democracy is not only the best governance option heretofore developed, but in fact one of the highest achievements of humanity. It is a great advance over authoritarian power structures in which the fates of individuals and entire societies have rested on the whims of a single ruler or a small oligarchy. It took centuries to advance beyond authoritarian government, and we dare not to go backward now.

I believe that, without absolutizing democracy or any form of human government, Christians can defend a modified understanding and practice of liberal democracy as congruent with key Christian theological convictions and moral norms. We can likewise view democratic participation not as rebellion against Christ or as a sidelining of our church commitments but as an expression of both. I also firmly believe that Christian rejection of, or indifference to, democracy in past centuries and today has been one of our greatest and most damaging mistakes. I will attempt to offer a fresh Christian defense of democracy and consider some constructive resources in our faith to support Christian participation in democratic self-government.

Today we are witnessing a sustained challenge to democracy, powerful enough to shake the foundations of many of our societies.