Wednesday, June 28, 2006


I was recently reading the blog Colossians 3:16 and came across a post commenting on comments made by Condoleezza Rice at the Southern Baptist Convention. The post quoted Condi as saying, “If American does not serve great purposes, if we do not rally other nations to fight intolerance and support peace and defend freedom, and help give hope to all who suffer oppression, then our world will drift toward tragedy.” The author of the comment was troubled by this for a variety of reasons. First, they emphasized truly that our allegiance as Christians is first to God and His kingdom rather than to any of the kingdoms of this world. Second, they were suspicious of Rice’s belief in democracy and that other nations need to have democracies. Third, the article noted that we need to judge political issues from a biblical perspective rather than aligning ourselves with any particular party. All of the parties get things wrong from time to time. I have some sympathy with the author’s conclusion that “the last thing we need is continued blurring of the lines between Christianity and patriotism and a pat on the back for political morality jargon. We need to be jarred back into becoming and making disciples. Not until America’s Christians truly understand and live this will we be the ‘force for good’ that America could be.” It is certainly true that we need to become and make disciples. It is also true that we need to avoid being co-opted politically. As many authors have mentioned, David F. Wells for example, it is easy to seek popularity by adopting the ways of the world in place of the ways of God. This is particularly easy in the political realm where popularity seems so important. All that said, I wanted to deal particularly here with the question of democracy.

Many people believe that democracy arose as a result of Christianity. This is not exactly the truth. Democracy of the unorganized village type is virtually the first government known to humankind. The ancient Sumerians practiced village democracy until slowly falling into the rulership of priest kings. Of course nearly everyone who has seriously studied history is aware of the democracies of the Greek city states. While we fault these democracies today for having slaves, they were somewhat remarkable for their time in the level of government participation they gave the average freeman. I think Russell Kirk is correct in spotting the true weakness of the Greek democracies however: Greek religion did not support genuine morality or virtue. As a result, although the Greek democracies did involve the agreement of the populace, the populace was easily led into all sorts of mischief. They engaged in wars of aggression in order to gain wealth and land. They undertook schemes to take away wealth from certain individuals and redistribute it to others by force. They undertook reverse schemes to create temporary dictatorships that superseded the Greek democracies until overthrown. And the Greek democracies were always easily manipulated by demagogues with good verbal skills. The sophists of course, the philosophical ancestors of today’s postmodernists, were always willing to make money by teaching people how to manipulate the masses with oratorical skill. Like today’s marketing executives, they were mostly interested in the practical outcome of obtaining power and wealth rather than believing in any objective moral accountability. Rome was of course not a pure democracy but was a republic with democratic elements until the emperors took over. But it can be said that a large reason for the emperor’s destruction of the republic was that the general citizenry had become uninvolved in the democratic features of the government and relied instead on powerful and influential individuals. At times the Roman assemblies that were supposed to meet and vote on various things would simply have the officials responsible enter in the records that they had met even though they had not.

It is true though that the modern growth of democracy and republican government has largely occurred through the influence of Christianity. The reasons for this are fairly straight forward: they relate to Christian theology.

Most governments that involve aristocracies or autocratic rulers are based on the philosophy that some human beings are inherently gifted or entitled by nature to rule over others. Christianity has always taught that all human beings were the same kind of thing—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve to use C. S. Lewis’ phrase. None of us has an inherent right to rule over others. In fact, Jesus consistently tells us that if we want to be the greatest of all, we need to be the servant of all. Leadership and status come not from being in some way superior, but rather from providing service to others, especially others who are in need. In addition, the doctrine of the fall and human depravity plays a role in this. Because human beings are all fallen, none of us is inherently trustworthy. Not a single human being or group of human beings can be trusted to justly govern others. So we try to decentralize power and create various checks, balances and institutional devices designed to make it difficult for an errant human being or a group of errant human beings to impose their will on the others. This makes it difficult to get things done but it is more important to make it difficult to do evil things than to make it easy to do good things since few human problems can actually be solved by human government. Christians have also traditionally supported the classical notion coming through Plato and Cicero but also appearing in the Bible of the rule of law. The rule of law means the reign of law. That because individual human beings are not trustworthy, we do not allow any human being or group of human beings to be radically sovereign in the sense of making up the law as they go. Such radical sovereigns change the law to match whatever they do. Instead, the rule of law demands that rulers follow the laws. The notion of rule of law presupposes that there is in fact a higher law, a pattern beyond human making that determines whether or not human rules are actually legitimate. The Bible supports this notion. In Romans 13 and in I Peter, God indicates that the purpose of human government is to punish evil and reward good. God provides us with a standard as to the difference between good and evil. In Romans chapters 1 and 2, Paul outlines all the ways in which we are aware of that standard, even though we fail to live by it. All human beings are morally accountable to God in part because they do know what God wants even though they don’t do it. So the purpose of human government is participating in God’s law to restrain evil and encourage good. When governments do this they are legitimate. When they don’t they are illegitimate (I’ve said this almost too many times on this blot but it still applies here). Because we don’t trust human beings, we tend to prefer these democratic or republican decentralized forms of government. Pure democracies were normally rejected by the Reformers and other Christians of history because they recognized that the mob couldn’t be counted on to do the right thing any more than individual human beings or individual interest groups. This is essentially why the United States has a republican form of government. Our founders balanced their fear of autocratic individuals with their fear of the easily manipulable mob. They sought to create checks and balances against all of them.

But the Christian influence on democracy and republican government isn’t the only one. The Enlightement has also adopted democracy as its standard. The Enlightement is not necessarily connected to Christianity. If there were no Christianity, the Enlightement probably never would have been possible. But the Enlightement project starts with the human being at the center and works outward. A Christian worldview starts with God at the center and works outward coming back around to validate human senses and to provide philosophical evidences for the existence of God, but starting with God first rather than with the human being first. The Christian view democracy has always been based upon man’s failings. The Enlightenment view of democracy is mostly based upon trust in human nature.

Some of the adherents of the Enlightenment view of democracy have the notion that the outcomes of human policy making are derivative of human forms of government. They believe that autocracies tend to be inherently war-like and that democracies tend to be inherently peaceful. This is not true nor is it supported by historical data. It is largely based on an erroneous belief that American rebellions against unjust wars have been due to the democratic nature of our government. And coupled with the view that it is autocracies like Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France that have wars of aggression. One need only look back to the Greek city states to discover that it is entirely possible to have an aggressive democracy. What is really determinative of a people’s policies is the goodness of the people and the accuracy of their religious, moral and ethical views. If America were truly and fully dedicated to Christ and properly understood God’s Word and applied it maturely, I have no doubt that American public policy would be better than it is today. By the same token, if American succeeds in transplanting democracy to Iraq, it is unlikely that Iraqi public policy will ever be anything like as good as American public policy so long as Iraq is dominated by Islam. The public policies of predominantly Hindu India are certainly better than the public policies of an autocratic India. But they are definitely not particularly good in contrast to what a predominantly Christian India would produce.

So, I would say that democracy and republicanism are good. Because they are good, we should want them for our neighbors and help our neighbors in that direction. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that democracy and republicanism alone will cause our neighbors to be peaceful and prosperous. The truth is that only truth causes people to be peaceful and prosperous. Democracy and republican forms of government are based upon some of the truth. But they are not the whole truth. To whatever degree a people believe in the truth, they generally flourish. To whatever degree they reject the truth, they generally have problems. I say “generally” because God tests even “good” nations with famines, plagues, wars and other problems. In a fallen world there is no magical remedy for the effects of the fall.

In conclusion then, I think that it is not wrong for us to advocate democracy for others. This is helping them to come to a greater knowledge of truth. But we also need to help them come to Christ. Democracy is better than autocracy, but autocracy with Christ is probably better than democracy without Christ. The reason that we should strive to help our neighbors and fight intolerance, support peace and defend freedom is because we should love our neighbors. Leaving our neighbors under the rule of oppressive tyrants who prevent them from hearing the Gospel, who enlist their children in vicious wars and who enslave both mind and body is not good. It is not loving to let that sort of thing happen to your neighbor. And for the time being, American is available to be God’s tool. Contrary to what Condoleezza Rice believes, if America fails, God is capable of raising another helper from another place. But remember the words that Esther’s relative Mordecai spoke to her concerning her place in the Persian Empire: “Do not think that because you are in the kings’ house you will own of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to this royal position for such as time as this.” God no longer has one chosen nationality. People of all nations can be part of His church of His chosen people. But God is quite willing to use every nation and every people if they will but submit themselves to Him and become His instruments for good. If we do not help other nations become open to the Gospel and live in peace, then perhaps God will find some other nation to do so. But it will cost us. If we are unwilling to be God’s instrument, God will no longer have any real reason to sustain the United States in the position it has become accustomed to. Like Esther’s house, we would not escape. It is likely we would perish if we rejected God’s use of our people. It is important for us not to stick our heads in the sand and miss the opportunities of our times. It is important too not to be arrogant and to suppose that we know everything and can do everything on our own. Nevertheless, we should not be in the business of seeking personal peace and affluence. We should be in the business of seeking to be used by God for His plans both for the salvation of individuals and for the shaping of nations. The fact that some nations may not want to be shaped requires tact, wisdom and skill. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, people do not want to be saved either. But we don’t give up on them. We pray for them and preach the Gospel to them despite their opposition. The poor and homeless are reluctant to give up the bad habits that made them poor and homeless. But we do not think it is appropriate to let them rot on the streets, do we? Why then should we let our national neighbors rot within their autocracies and inhumane laws? We should do what we can while remaining humble, prudent, and realistic. But we should never give up.


Elizabeth Pruett said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, Study.Quiet, and I appreciate your thoughts. My father has written a response to your comment, and you might be interested in reading it. (He is looking forward to reading more about your approach to Christianity and the law.)


Neiswonger said...

Very thought provoking. A great read.

Anonymous said...

Although there are historical examples of democratic governance such as that of Greece, you are correct that the Reformation and the notiion of the "priesthood of the believer" played an important role in the inception of the Enlightment and the modern notions of liberty, equality, and democracy.

The problem, as you correctly state is that the Enlightenment placed human fulfillment rather than a commitment to God and His law at the center.

When God is removed from the relationship of the individual and the state--both in terms of the accountabiity of the state to a higher law as well as a respect for God's governance in the lives of individuals--this will have a profound political outcome. The success or failure of government will be measured by its ability to satisfy the passions of the governed.

This is why Christianity had such an important impact on American Democracy. De Tocqueville expressed this as a major distinction between the French and the American Revolutions. Democratic governments thrive where the common sense understanding of morality derives from our equality before God because of the imprint of His image on us, as well as the fact that we are all sinners.

This is the difficulty with the Democracy project presented by the President in his Second Inaugral Address where he state a commitment to spreading Democracy everywhere and defeating tyrany wherever it might appear (even Wilson only committed to make the world safe for Democracy).

The problem is that the President always emphasizes our equality based on the endowment of our rights from God while ignoring human equality based on our status as sinners.

It is the confluence of the Christian recognition of sin with the Madisonian maxim that "that if men were angels there would be no need for government" that contributed to the success of the American experiment.

Although we should all pray and work for human rights, and the spread of freedom for those in other nations we should do so with the understanding that culture matters. When you have free elections in the West Bank and Gaza you may get Hamas. If you had free elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power. Even though we should all be grateful for the decline in Iraqi violence the Christian minority is suffering great persecution there as both Shia and Sunni have greater religious freedom. The constitution of Iraq provides that Sharia law will be one of the foundations of Iraqi law

As Christians, we should be suspicious about political theory divorced from a proper understanding of human nature and the conditions necessary for Democracy.

Our commitment to human rights should be unyielding and we should promote freedom in other parts of the world. However, that is a very different notion than the Democracy project of the current Administration. Democracy is not an end in itself. As Christians the spread of freedom should be driven by our love of others and our desire to be able to bring them "
"true Truth" (to borrow from Francis Shaffer_. For only those who know that truth shall be truly free.

Kevin H.