Christians should support democracy. This shouldn’t be a shocking statement. It shouldn’t even have to be said. At least US Baptists were pretty clear about that.
But today, when you look around the world and at our own country, it becomes more and more clear that Christians have to stand up for liberal democracy anew. That’s because some of the most ardent proponents of ideological movements that undermine democracy are conservative Christians.
I can clearly remember the day I first discovered that some conservative Christians are not that into democracy.
It was 20 years ago. My oldest daughter was in third grade at a Christian school in West Tennessee. She came home and asked for help with her social science homework. When I sat down with her to see it, I discovered that Holly was taught a Neo-Puritan citizenship curriculum in which God’s plan for human government is ruled by godly Christian men who practice Scripture under the sovereignty of God.
Basically, the political vision of this curriculum was similar to that dominating Calvinist churches – the rule of male elders who are accountable to God and not to the people. God’s power flowed down to the elders, who then exercised them in community for the good of the people, but without their control. It was basically anti-democratic.
These days we are experiencing a burgeoning Christian-conservative flirtation with authoritarianism. We see its manifestations in countries as diverse as Brazil, Hungary and Russia. Some of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century were built on the support of conservative Christians for authoritarian, anti-democratic, or fake democratic governments – think Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, Petain’s France, Hitler’s Germany.
There seems to be a remaining Attraction to authoritarianism from many types of Conservative Christians – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Democracy is chaotic. Its results do not always correspond to Christian preferences. God’s law (as many Christians understand) does not necessarily set the parameters for human law. People get a vote that some Christians would rather not count as an equal voice in the national community. A free press constantly challenges authority.
“Many types of conservative Christians seem to have an enduring pull to authoritarianism.”
The old adage (attributed to St. John of Kronstadt) “In hell there is democracy, in heaven there is a kingdom” seems to resonate with some. I’ve seen it online in this country. Some Christians long for politics that are more like a kingdom than a democracy.
To take a step back, we must recognize that moving from Scripture to democracy is not easy. There is little or no democracy in the Bible. Most of the politics we see there are imperial, theocratic, tyrannical. Jesus himself spoke of the kingdom of God in the monarchical image.
It took many centuries from Rome and Christianity, from state churches and crusades and religious wars, for the West to produce the flawed versions of liberal democracy that emerged from the 18th century. These democracies can be criticized for their blatantly undemocratic injustices, a common theme of the left. But it is easy to forget, at least on the left, that a whole strand of criticism of democracy has long survived on the right. It has a special note on Christian rights, much of which still want a Christian American kingdom.
“We have reached a moment when the foundations of American democracy must be defended again.”
This right-wing Christian authoritarianism was reactivated by Donald Trump, and not just in his devastating attack on American democracy after losing the 2020 election and screaming fraud. He long ago violated democratic norms (and many laws) while seducing Christians with promises of their kind from Christian America. It’s still there, still pulling the unraveling strings of our democracy, and still retaining the support of tens of millions of conservative Christians.
It seems we have arrived a moment when the foundations of American democracy in the Christian sense must be defended again. That requires that we see that what was born in Philadelphia in 1776 (and modified in 1789) was a Western – Christian – Enlightenment goulash. It’s messy. But it’s better than the alternatives.
Nobody has ever guaranteed that our constitutional democracy would survive in the long run. Our generation is only the last to have to decide again whether to continue the flawed but extraordinary experiment of self-government that began in 1776.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and past president of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. He is the author of Kingdom ethics, According to evangelicalism, and Changing Our Minds: The Groundbreaking Call for LGBTQ Christian Inclusion. He and his wife Jeanie live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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