Soundings

Neither flawless nor infallible

Dec 2010    

Is democracy the best system of government, according to the Christian view?

IT IS IMPORTANT to state at the outset that the Christian faith neither provides an ethos for, nor does it have a stake in any form of political ideology or order, including democracy. Christianity is fundamentally concerned with justice and would support any political system that could ensure it. Indeed, the Church has survived and functioned in almost every conceivable political environment in its long history.

The Neros, Hitlers and Stalins of history have not succeeded in obliterating the Church or in putting out the flames of the Gospel. Even the Cultural Revolution did not succeed in wiping out the Church. Once the smoke cleared, the Christians who were driven underground began to emerge in large numbers. Not only has the Church survived these regimes, it has also, in some cases, succeeded in humanising even the worst political conditions.

Although the Church cannot be said to have a stake in democracy, it would broadly endorse the ideals and values it symbolises and promotes. This does not mean that Christianity requires a democracy, as some Christian thinkers like Michael Novak have argued. Neither does it imply that, as a political system, democracy is flawless or infallible. The Church could endorse the values espoused by democracy simply because they are not inimical to the Church’s understanding of human beings, and its broad vision of the State and human society.

For instance, the Christian concept of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is best understood in light of the command God gave to the first humans to take care of creation (Gen 1:28). This implies that human beings are God’s chosen deputies in the governance of the world. In political culture, this understanding further implies that human beings are always both subjects and citizens, and that no human being should be treated only as a subject.

Christians of every stripe and theological persuasion must therefore endorse the statement promulgated by the World Council of Churches in 1948 that human beings “must never be made a mere means for political or economic ends”. “Any tendencies in State and society depriving man of the possibility of acting responsibly”, it continues, “are a denial of God’s intention for man and his work of salvation.”

Democracy is a system of government that, as least in principle, assures opportunity for citizens to assume part of the responsibility for the future of their common lives in society. A democratic government makes it possible for citizens to change the course of the State when there is a collective sense that it is on the wrong track, or help to keep it on the right track.

Of course, Christians have, in the course of history, exercised this responsibility and succeeded in bringing about changes even in non-democratic political systems. But the point to be made here is that democracy provides the most direct opportunity for citizen participation – it is a system that makes it possible for everyone to contribute. Democracy is perhaps the best system of government currently available for human beings to discharge their duties in response to the divine mandate in Genesis.

The positive Christian appraisal of democracy must, however, be qualified by a healthy dose of theological realism.

The Christian doctrine of human finitude implies that no human creation is perfect and flawless. In addition, the Christian doctrine of sin insists that no human enterprise or ideology is incorruptible. This simply means that in its recognition that democracy is the best available system of government, the Church must be careful never to make it into an ultimate. In evaluating the merits of democracy, Christians must take heed of Philip Wogaman’s terse but wise assertion: “It [democracy] is a human thing; it is not God.”

It is pertinent to note that democracy does not always guarantee justice. Democracy in essence is the rule of the majority, although in theory the rights of the minority are respected. This means that when the decisive majority of the populace is dominated by greed or mean-spiritedness, democracy will not always ensure that justice or even fairness will prevail. This further implies that the democratic process does not really ensure that policies are directed at the common good, since the definition of the latter is left to the ruling majority.

A realistic assessment of democracy must be cognisant of the sobering fact that in the history of human civilisation, benevolent monarchs and aristocrats have sometimes served their people better than the representatives elected by the people.

ALSO SOBERING IS THE FACT that democracy has sometimes facilitated evil. Historical examples like McCarthyism in the United States and the Nazi period in Germany, where multitudes are mindlessly swept up in tides of hysteria, are stark reminders of the profound flaws inherent in democracy. Democracy and its institutions have not always succeeded in addressing unhealthy competition that destroys the very fabric of society. Neither have they always succeeded in fostering solidarity and cooperation.

It is therefore naïve to think that democracy and its institutions alone are able to ensure justice and the common good. Democracy as a system of government may be superior to other approaches, but it requires a certain kind of society to provide it with the necessary moral ballast. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it so well, “Politics is in largest part the function of culture, and at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

A democratic system that truly serves the common good by acknowledging, respecting and protecting the dignity of every citizen requires the moral compass provided by the great religious traditions, especially Christianity. Secularism on its own cannot provide such support simply because it lacks the multifaceted wisdom and rich moral resources that the great religious traditions can offer.

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