Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a political theologian with interests in public religion, state, democracy, civil society, justice, secularism, pluralism, multiculturalism and environmental political theology. He is a member of the Cambridge Divinity Faculty where he supervises graduate and undergraduate students, a Research Associate of the London-based think tank Theos. He was Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, based in Cambridge, from 2006-2017, and Senior Fellow of Canadian think tank Cardus from 2006-2018.
The Centre for the Future of Democracy in Cambridge recently offered a depressingly bleak diagnosis of the future of democracy. Its report, Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020, warned that democracy worldwide is in ‘a state of deep malaise’:
In the West, growing political polarisation, economic frustration, and the rise of populist parties, have eroded the promise of democratic institutions to offer governance that is not only popularly supported, but also stable and effective. Meanwhile, in developing democracies the euphoria of the transition years has faded, leaving endemic challenges of corruption, intergroup conflict, and urban violence that undermine democracy’s appeal.1
Last month, addressing the US Aspen Security Forum, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab voiced parallel anxieties about democracy’s global retreat, predicting that the total wealth of the world’s autocracies would soon exceed that of its democracies. We face the alarming prospect, he said, that ‘tyranny is richer than freedom’.2
Christian voices have joined the fray. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis lamented that terms like ‘democracy’ have been ‘bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action’.3
Readers familiar with contexts such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Iran, Brazil, Philippines, or even post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, daily confront the brutal, sometimes murderous, costs of the absence of democracy or, where it notionally exists, of its failures to live up to its promises. But those in relatively stable liberal democracies now also reel under multiple threats to democracy’s future: an authoritarian populism which pits ‘real people’ against the rest of the population, a consumerist liberalism which feeds self-interest and cynicism, and unaccountable tech giants creating powerful digital social media tools easily exploited to poison democratic communication. Democracy is under the severest strains it has experienced since the hopeful ‘third wave’ of democratization reaching its peak in the 1980s.
Democracy needs all the help it can get from people of faith and many others who care about its health. Let me suggest seven implications of a biblically-inspired vision of democracy that might inform Christians anywhere in the world however different their contexts and challenges. Oriented by such a vision, I will propose two things: that effective representative and participatory structures are an indispensable political good; and, equally, that they must be framed within a larger model of just constitutional democracy. In such a model the will of both governors and people is properly restrained and channelled towards the proper purpose of a political order.
First, the fundamental claim of a biblical vision of politics is that government exists in order to promote the ‘good of the people’ not to secure power or impose order. That is their ‘proper purpose’ – their divinely-assigned vocation. They are to pursue it by establishing institutions, laws and policies that promote peace, order, justice, liberty and other necessary conditions for a flourishing – or at least a bearable – social order.4
But for governments to be able to attempt this (even to acknowledge it as their vocation), some basic conditions are necessary. Perhaps the most fundamental is an ethos of self-limitation on the part of governors. This in turn requires a humble recognition that they exist to serve a purpose outside of themselves – the common good – rather than self-aggrandizement, self-perpetuation or national prowess. Note that the ‘common good’, understood biblically, is very different to what modern states typically call the ‘national interest’, an idea frequently invoked as a cloak for the pursuit of the narrow interests of rulers or their ‘tribes’. The overriding priority of the good of the whole people is the repeated refrain of biblical reflections on government in Old and New Testaments.
Second, this ethos must be entrenched in a deep commitment to the principle and practise of ‘the rule of law’. This is a lesson that has been painfully learned throughout history (for those willing to listen) but is still far from embedded in many parts of the world. Even in the so-called ‘mothers’ of democracy like the UK, it is maintained only with the greatest of vigilance – as the UK government’s attempts to circumvent the rule of law during the Brexit process showed. The rule of law goes beyond mere voluntary self-limitation on the part of governors, an optimistic prospect at the best of times. It demands the establishment of enforceable constitutional limitations on what state institutions and officials are permitted to get away with.
Note that ‘law’ here means not whatever laws (still less decrees) happen to have been posited by governors, or even parliaments, both of whom can, as the psalmist warns, ‘contrive mischief by statute’ (Ps. 92.20 NRSV). It means the rule of just law. For example, the principle requires the rule of laws which effectively bind all state institutions and officials to principles of fairness, equality, consistency, transparency and accountability. For this, a truly independent judiciary is an essential requirement, which is why one of the first targets of authoritarians everywhere is eroding it.
Where the rule of law is lacking or fragile, the first task of the people – and of Christians as part of the people – must be to work long-term to establish and defend it, even while shielding themselves and their fellow citizens against its present violations as best they can. There are no quick fixes.
Third, democracy is not, then, the most fundamental feature of just government; that is the rule of just law. A biblically-inspired vision does not just affirm democracy but just constitutional democracy. Democracy is not the name of a whole political system but only of one of its parts. It refers to the representative and participatory structures and processes through which the people – the body of citizens – choose their elected officials and exercise continuous influence on state institutions.
Certainly, experience certainly shows that effective democratic institutions are by a long shot the best way to sustain the rule of just law. But absent the rule of law, and an ethos of self-limitation (on the part of both governors and citizens), such institutions can easily be manipulated for oppressive purposes. A charade of elections may be performed, but unless they are ‘free and fair’, they merely serve to consolidate illegitimate power.
That is palpably true in ‘façade democracies’ such as China, Belarus or Zimbabwe under Mugabe. But the succumbing of the USA to Trump’s – fortunately incompetent – authoritarian populism shows that it is a vulnerability also facing historically strong democracies (note that Trump was, procedurally, ‘fairly’ elected). And who knows when a competent authoritarian might arise in such settings? Many European states are also desperately trying to contain similar populist uprisings on their own turf. In Poland and Hungary, populist parties have won office and are progressively eroding the rule of law through assaults on the independence of the judiciary, a plural civil society and a free media. Democratic structures and processes are conducive to justice but cannot guarantee it.
Fourth, the abstract modernist doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ sheds little light on what a good democracy looks like. A biblical vision of politics speaks rather of the existence of distributed and mutually restraining authorities (plural), not of some single fount of sovereignty from which all authority proceeds, be it the state or the people. There is only one such fount, and that is God. God has entrusted diverse human authorities with specific and limited tasks for the sake of the common good and holds them accountable for their discharge. This is why a vigorous civil society of independent associations is so vital for democracy.
Fifth, having entered all those qualifications, it is nonetheless essential to assert that effective democratic structures and processes are, nevertheless, almost always indispensable to the realisation and sustenance of just government. While the Bible itself does not specifically teach what today we call ‘democracy’, Christian thinkers reflecting on the Bible have proposed at least three distinctive theological grounds for defending democracy.
One is the ‘consent’ theory. On this view, God not only confers a right to rule on (just) governments but also a right to share in the activity of governance on the people – a ‘divine right of citizens’. Because the people stand under the same obligation to pursue the common good as do rulers, they must be entitled to a voice in determining what the common good requires and how it is to be promoted by government.
Another is the ‘participatory’ theory. Humans are not only entitled to share in just governance but empowered to do so. As those made in the ‘image of God’ – meaning the vocation to exercise a just ‘dominion’ in creation – they also have the capacities to participate in political debate and decision-making at all levels. Governments must, therefore, not merely tolerate the people’s voice but actively solicit it, even in all its raucous and unsettling diversity.
Yet another argument is the ‘defensive’ theory. Here the focus is not on the people rights or capacities but on their vulnerabilities. For all the reasons listed above, people need to be protected against the predations of unjust government (or other bodies). The structures and processes of democracy are one essential means of such protection, forcing rulers to be responsive to the views and interests of the people, on pain of ejection from office if they consistently fail to do so.
There is, then, a weighty body of Christian political wisdom compelling Christians today to affirm and, where possible, strive for, democratic structures and processes – yet placed within a framework of wider constitutional restraints.
Sixth, such a Christian conception of democracy demands a radically inclusive understanding of ‘the people’. In the Old Testament all twelve tribes, and every member of each tribe, were full members of the covenant, equally enjoying the protections given by torah as well as equally bound by its demands. Equally, torah – divine instruction in the pathways of wisdom and justice – was a gift to all and was intended to promote justice for all, especially the most vulnerable, namely those at risk of exclusion from the community: widows, orphans and, crucially, ‘aliens’. While ‘the people’ was overwhelmingly ‘Jewish’ it included any who embraced the covenant, even foreigners. Any ethnic or racial nationalism is already emphatically ruled out.
This inclusive conception of the people is radicalised and globalised in the New Testament. In biblical Israel, while ‘the people’ is not an ethnic or racial category, it is indeed a religious one. The covenant itself included the obligation to confess the faith of Yahweh and to turn away from all other gods. Yahwist monotheism was the only permitted public faith.
But in the New Testament this injunction is upended in an epochal way. The new covenant inaugurated in Jesus Christ is thrown open to all humanity. It is no longer offered exclusively to one ‘chosen’ people, the Jews, but made available to Gentiles – to ‘all nations’. Crucially, the ‘people of God’, and the requirements of the covenant, are no longer confined to any territorial political community. All may enter the ‘chosen people’. Particular national or political loyalties are radically relativized against the church’s overriding loyalty to Jesus Christ.
We can say, then, that in this sense Christianity is indeed radically ‘populist’. But unlike the contemporary wave of nativist and tribal populisms, it calls for states to defend the just claims of all the people, not only the grievances (even if just) of the so-called ‘real’ people cynically exploited by today’s populist leaders.
Finally, and consequently, under the new covenant the state’s divinely-assigned responsibility towards religion changes fundamentally. The state is no longer bound to require the practise of the true faith within its territory but must accept its ‘religious incompetence’ and be committed to securing equal standing for and protection of people of all faiths and none. Strictly speaking, then, there can never be a ‘Christian state’ or ‘Christian nation’, even when the nation over which a state happens to preside has historically been substantially formed by Christianity. Any hint of Christian nationalism is thus emphatically excluded. Indeed any constitutional establishment of Christianity stand in tension with this claim.
A biblical vision of politics, then, yields a powerful defence of a form of democracy in which the voice of the people is effectively and continuously expressed. This will inevitably be a diverse, and at times a deeply conflicted, voice. It will also often be a critical, dissenting voice that calls attention to profound injustices, or just sheer governmental folly. Governments that are at all cognisant of their duty to promote the good of the whole people will be attentive to these popular voices. They will protect the people’s freedom to speak, organise and mobilise, even while also critically assessing them. It cannot always heed the voice of the people, but it must demonstrably hear it.
1) (Cambridge: Bennett Institute for Public Policy, 2020), 3.
4) God and Government
Although IBAC exists to foster conversations on Bible advocacy-related issues, the views or opinions represented in this blog are solely those of the author