Does Democracy Need Christianity to Thrive?
Does America need Christianity to thrive?
Paul D. Miller, a historian at Wheaton College, wrote recently in Christianity Today that “the basic freedoms and human rights we enjoy as Americans do not require a cultural Christian majority.”
He’s correct, strictly speaking. Cultural Christianity — the rather bland affirmation that Christian faith makes people nice and civil, and that churchgoing helps families — is not biblical faith. It is the undemanding and, traditionally, socially approved religiosity that, in Paul’s words, “have the appearance of Godliness, but deny its power” (II Timothy 3:5). It’s also deceptive, lulling people into a sense of false security (“Hey, I celebrate Christmas and my kids go do Sunday School — what more do you want?”) when their eternal destiny hinges on whether or not they have decided to trust in Christ alone for eternal salvation.
Miller is also correct that orthodox Christian faith can flourish in dire circumstances. The “faith once delivered” has thrived, and continues to thrive, in the midst of profound persecution.
However, we kid ourselves if we think that grounding in Judeo-Christian conviction is unimportant to the freedoms we enjoy. The American founding was animated by the belief that no one should be governed without his or her consent. Why? Because the Founders recognized that our dignity and value have been bestowed by God, not any earthly monarch or authority. They are woven into our very nature and, therefore, “unalienable.”
The Founders’ understanding of this truth was grounded jointly in their Christian convictions and their belief in discernable and immutable natural law. In the words of the philosopher Michael Novak, our republic took flight “on two wings.”
Miller argues that other nations around the world enjoy various levels of democratic self-rule even though not all of them are Christian. He’s correct. Yet as he concedes, “Most of the countries on the ‘free’ list and a handful of those not on the ‘free’ list have Christian majorities. … But their Christianity is a relatively recent import, dating back one or two centuries at most.” True enough, but their democracies — virtually all new within the past roughly 80 years — would likely not exist were it not for the influence of Christianity in their societies.
All people everywhere have “the work of the law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). The combination of conscience and reason that compose this inner moral compass is accessible to everyone at all times. However, consider the darkness of pagan belief that has enshrouded vast swaths of our world for countless generations. It is only the advent of Christianity that has lifted this veil and brought some light to consciences otherwise clouded by untold centuries of spiritual blindness.
This is not to say that true Christian faith has come to everyone who now affirms human dignity and its expression in self-government. Rather, the principles of Christianity, including the affirmation that each person has significance before God, have, to differing but discernable degrees, infused societies that once knew only oppression and now have at least some freedom and justice, things that for hundreds of years previously had been unknown.
All persons are image-bearers of their Creator, each carrying the responsibility to follow Him. Their ability to do so should not be limited by coercion or repression. Therefore, religious and political liberty go hand-in-hand in fostering the dignity of volitional worship and patterns of life that reflect one’s sense of duty to God. The liberty intrinsic to democratic forms of government makes these things more possible than any other kind of government.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence believed these things. Some of them refused to acknowledge that those they held in bondage were fully human, a shameful blight on our heritage and wholly inconsistent with the principles the Declaration asserted. Yet this makes those principles no less true.
Those principles are under threat. For example, the nascent fascism evidenced by the recent heckling of a federal judge at Stanford Law School is a case in point. Last year, “120 students at Yale Law School disrupted a conservative vs. liberal debate — on campus free speech, of all things — between Alliance Defending Freedom’s Kristen Waggoner and American Humanist Association’s Monica Miller.” The environment became so dangerous that the participants were escorted from the event by armed guards.
This is why so many Christians in our country are concerned about America’s direction. Erosions of religious liberty and Supreme Court rulings that eliminate whole bodies of state law, not to mention honest readings of the Constitution, have joined with popular media and instruction in public institutions to claim that many historic, Judeo-Christian norms are bigoted, ignorant, and hateful.
“Supporting democracy is not the point of Christianity,” writes Miller. “Jesus did not become incarnate to make possible the First Amendment or inspire the US Constitution.” Again, he’s correct (if unduly sarcastic). All human governments are accommodations to man’s fallenness, even the best of them are only darkened glass when compared to the brilliant light of God’s eternal kingdom.
Yet a form of government compatible with biblical teaching should be cherished, nurtured, and protected. Its benefits are only enhanced by its rarity. And since religious liberty flourishes best where Judeo-Christian ethics and natural right are jointly celebrated, it is in the interest of all Americans, and especially those of “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), to support and defend a Constitution that supports those very virtues.
“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” President Washington wrote in his Farewell Address. We trivialize his warning to our grave peril.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.