Every election cycle raises the question of religion and its role in government. This leads many to wonder about the relationship between Christianity and democracy. Is democracy a Christian form of government? Is democracy religiously neutral? Or is it contradictory to the Bible? There is a difference between whether or not ideas can coexist and whether or not they are inseparable.
In short, democracy and Christianity are compatible. Obviously, this means that these are not contradictory ideas. In fact, it has been argued that democracy functions most effectively in a Christian culture. At the same time, democracy is not necessarily a Christian form of government. There is no necessary aspect of democracy that absolutely requires a Christian worldview. Christianity itself does not mandate democracy or any other form of earthly government.
Democracy can be a Christian form of government, and it is probably best supported by a Christian culture, but it is not the only valid form of Christian government, and democracy can exist apart from a Christian worldview.
Politics and religion share overlapping interests. Every law is based on some moral principle. “Politics” in general is a discussion about how much control, freedom, and power individual people should have and to what extent they should be forced to act alike. This is an important detail: religion and politics partially overlap, but they are not the same thing. Just as some senses overlap, such as smell and taste or hearing and touch, politics and religion inevitably cross paths. But they are not the same. A notable exception would be a religion such as Islam, which explicitly erases any distinction between earthly government and religious belief.
Despite what some modern atheists think, the principle of separation of church and state does not mean that religious reasoning has no place in politics. A person’s spiritual stance not only can influence his politics—it will. Scrubbing public policy of religious factors is simply state-enforced atheism. That, of course, is not functionally any different from a theocracy, where rule is given only to those with a particular view of metaphysics.
Separation of church and state is really meant to keep those two institutions from exerting formal control over each other. In the United States, in particular, the original intent of the First Amendment had more to do with preventing the government from interfering with churches than keeping religious ideas out of government.
As noted, the Bible does not prescribe any particular form of government, democracy or otherwise. The system given to the Jewish people in the Old Testament was intended solely for the nation of Israel. Christians are called on to cooperate with the basic concept of government (Romans 13:1–7), regardless of what form it takes. At the same time, we are instructed to obey God instead of man when human laws conflict with the Bible (Acts 5:29). This doesn’t necessarily mean armed revolution, but it does maintain the idea that Christianity considers human government and personal spirituality as two distinct categories.
Democracy and Christianity share several fundamental assumptions that make them natural partners. The 18th-century origin of what we now call “modern democracy” was a nominally Christian culture. So one would expect its political assumptions to echo religious tenets.
A prominent example of Christianity’s influence on U.S. politics is the Declaration of Independence. This document was meant to justify Colonial rebellion against the king of England. As such, it makes reference to ideas such as objective truth, a “Creator,” human equality, intrinsic value, and personal responsibility. All of these, in fact, are found in a single sentence from the Declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Such a statement, in and of itself, is fundamentally at odds with virtually all worldviews other than theism. Atheism rejects a Creator and has no means by which to claim either “inalienable rights” or intrinsic value. Hinduism’s caste system and karma refute human equality. The idea of self-evident truth contradicts all forms of relativism. The basic idea of government independent of overt religious control is foreign to Islam. The point is not to claim that the United States or other democracies are explicitly and irrevocably Christian. Nor that it’s impossible, in practice, for persons of non-Christian worldviews to participate as citizens in a democracy. However, an examination of Christian theology and political democracy shows many commonalities. This is not true of most other worldviews, and, in fact, most religious systems directly conflict with various aspects of democracy.
History bears this out, proving the logical relationship between a culture’s religious beliefs and its political stance. In practice, the “gold standard” for freedom and human rights are nations with a Christian heritage. And, when forces opposed to democracy seek control, one of their first targets is the Christian faith.
Christianity also helps to bolster democracy’s greatest weakness: a dependence on the moral fiber of the culture. Unlike dictatorships or monarchies, where a single person’s moral compass directs the nation’s laws and policies, a democracy goes where the culture goes. That’s good, by and large. It especially means one evil person has a hard time wreaking national havoc. Yet it also means that, as the culture drifts away from good moral principles, it has no defense against “capsizing,” so to speak. A nation that uses democratic power for selfish or irresponsible purposes will cannibalize its own freedom.
As U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said, “Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.” When a culture abuses its democratic power, the result is chaos and ruin. Either a democracy, guided by self-control and morality, keeps itself in check, or it crashes. When the crash happens, control falls to a non-democratic system, either willingly or by force. Cultures that drift from Christianity tend to drift from “true” democracy into other, democracy-flavored political schemes and, eventually, into subjection to tyranny.
This decline away from democracy makes sense from a logical standpoint. Modern democracy grew out of a culture steeped in a Judeo-Christian worldview. It stands to reason that, the further a culture moves from that worldview, the less compatible that culture is with that form of government.
Democracy, in its various forms, presumes that the people, as a whole, are worthy of making choices for themselves. It assumes that the people are willing and able to make morally sensible decisions and will abide by those decisions in a spirit of mutual respect. Democracy presumes the value of human beings and a definition of right and wrong that supersedes the laws of the land. Christianity teaches the same basic principles, making it the most natural cultural fit for democracy.
Other worldviews can cooperate with democracy; however, they don’t have the same fundamental connection as Christianity. Democracy is a naturally Christian form of government, but it is not a necessarily Christian political scheme.