The 2020 elections are arguably the most significant in many years.
Given the chaos the current federal administration has created, and the disruptions caused by both pandemic and protests, some have thought democracy may not survive.
The times therefore raise the question for Christians, “Should we, as Christians, care about democracy?” There is a case to be made on both sides.
On one hand, there is no biblical, historical or theological case that Christians have a stake in democracy.
Over the course of history covered by the biblical texts, Judaism tries – and according to the perspective of the authors/editors of the Hebrew scriptures – fails miserably to establish itself as a nation. After the Exile, it therefore turns to the task of being a religious community that faithfully witnesses to YHWH.
Christianity was born in the Roman Empire, which Jesus did not seem to be particularly interested in running when he says things like, “Render to Caesar …” and “My kingdom is not of this world…”
Paul, the most significant early interpreter of Jesus, seems to have advised his readers not to worry much about running the world either, for he says to submit to governing authorities and pay taxes. Besides, Paul says, none of this really matters because Jesus is returning soon.
If we look at early church life in the New Testament, it is hard to see any kind of democracy in church organization, (although I suppose we could take the story of casting lots for Judas’ successor as a kind of democratic vote).
There is, then, no biblical case to be made we have a stake in democracy.
Turning to history, we need to note that as Christianity moves out into the Roman Empire and becomes its official religion, the church does not try to establish democracy, but instead imitates the hierarchical governing structures of empire.
Moreover, democracy is itself a blip in Western history – a roughly 400-year-long human experiment. In that history, democracy has not always been friendly to religious traditions.
Democracies have sometimes demanded people privatize their religious convictions, which has led to what seems to be endless fights about religious symbols in public spaces or the place of religious events in public schools.
More sobering, however, is the fact that democracy is increasingly irrelevant in our world: Major decisions are made by multinational corporations that governments are increasingly unable or unwilling to hold accountable or both.
There is therefore no historical case to be made for Christianity to be wedded to democracy.
Nor is there a theological one. Put simply: Democracy is not God. To be Christian is to be loyal to the God beyond all gods who calls all our other loyalties into question. Democracy or any form of government can too easily become an idol.
It seems then there is no compelling Christian case for a stake in democracy. Biblical texts know nothing of it and warn against trying to run the world. There is no intrinsic, necessary historical connection between Christianity and democracy. In fact, there are good reasons to be suspicious of democracy.
On the other hand, however, Jeremiah advises the Exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have put you in Exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” What might that mean in practice in our modern democracy?
Jesus himself acknowledges that Caesar is due some things. What might that mean for those of us who live in a democratic society?
Loyalty to God does not logically mean we cannot have other, less weighty causes to which we are loyal, to the extent that they can be harmonized with God’s cause.
Moreover, democracy is not necessarily antithetical to Christian convictions. For example, democracy, like Christianity at its best, opposes absolutisms, which is the point of checks and balances and the separation of church and state.
If Christians do then have any stake in democracy, it is at best contingent and partial. It is contingent because we have been born into a democratic polity. It is partial because government is not divine.
At best, democratic practices are tools we can use for God’s purposes. The hard part is remembering they are tools and not the rule of God.
So how should we wield them? I’ll address this question tomorrow.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.