Endorsing Democracy

The extent of Christian endorsement of democracy cannot be understated. Yet there have been few coherent and considered theoretical explanations offered by contemporary Christian thinkers which display the religious basis of what, after all, has for most of the history of civilization been regarded as the worst form of government. Many Christian apologists are content with accepting secular justifications, depicting democratic practice, therefore, as having to do with just social order and with human claims to equal participation in material rewards. It is in this sense that Christian support for democracy has centred on the notion of equality, even though the relationship between egalitarianism and political expertise remains unclear. There have been a few distinguished analyses: R.H.Tawney's Equality (1931), for example. A direct translation from an inclination to regard all men and women as equal before God to the sovereignty of a majority is a very large and dramatic movement, however. The English tradition of Christian Socialism, in the understanding of great nineteenth-century thinkers like F.D.Maurice, was originally extremely insistent that mutual esteem between classes, and social fairness, were quite separable from political democracy—which was to be postponed until the whole of society has been raised to a high level of educational accomplishment. To put it rather bluntly—the people were only to be admitted to political decision-making when they had been conditioned into accepting the rules of the game. That, in renditions of varying degrees of disguise and sophistication, is how democracy in liberal society still operates. Only those political forces are politically acceptable which recognize the essential moral purposes that the democratic political classes who operate the existing system are prepared to tolerate. In a society of rather low ideological division, as much of the Western world has become in recent decades, this restriction of meaning will not seem confining, and many, including many Christians, are quite prepared to go along with the legal exclusion of those ideological groups who resort to force, or whose views on issues (race relations, for example) which are at variance with the consensus, seem to threaten the political status quo. All this is to point out that political democracy as it operates in bourgeois society—in a society whose political terms of reference are laid out by the educated classes and their clients—is actually the form of politics which Christian apologists have come to endorse when they speak about the essentially 'Christian' nature of democratic practice. Democracy, under this interpretation, is really only acceptable so long as false consciousness guarantees a quiescent mass backing for the ideals of the liberal intelligentsia. As the intelligentsia is internally divided into parties over largely superficial differences of emphasis within the liberal set of ideals, there is a deceptive appearance of authentic political choice.

That truth, wise counsel, virtue, ultimate values, or religious knowledge, cannot be derived from the resolutions of majorities, or rest for their acceptance by the individual on mass electorates, does not in itself invalidate democratic practice—provided democracy is understood as a kind of last-resort political mechanism. After two and a half millennia of political thinking the most reflective minds are unable to agree among themselves about the philosophical basis most appropriate to the organization of life on earth; nor does the historical record provide any indicators as to which of the many so far tried political arrangements is most conducive to the cultivation of human virtue, or even, if that is a desired good, of human happiness. Democracy can thus be justified on the grounds that the counting of heads is the safest way of arranging public life since it is arguably the least likely to issue in the imposition of ideological tyranny. That is only true, however, if very large areas are removed from the competence of the State and reserved for the citizens. Hence, Western liberal democracy. All the effective twentieth-century political tyrannies have rested on mass assent, sometimes directly through the ballot box: democracy does not, in itself, provide a safeguard against the exclusivity of ideas whose presentation is within the idealism or the greed of mankind. But contemporary Christian endorsements of democracy do not envisage democratic practice as a low-level mechanism. They regard it, on the contrary, as among the finer fruits of Christian thinking—thereby also ignoring the fact that the roots of democratic theory, like the roots of contemporary liberalism, are not (though historically linked to some Christian ideas, because the culture in which they were first conceived was a Christian one) by nature distinctly Christian. Christian theologians and leaders today tend to refer to democracy as if it was an unambiguous structural expression of the love of neighbour spoken of by Christ. That is to confuse ordinary benevolence with political wisdom. It corresponds to a strong current in modern Christianity which would place human welfare above ideology, which sees the material needs of humanity as more pressing than the ultimate purposes for which life on earth is intended (unless it is intended for its mere survival, as some materialists argue), and which envisages democracy as the most virtuous form of government because it corresponds to what people think they are entitled to receive.

Since existing governments are rarely capable of travelling ahead of public expectations, and since the moral judgements of the educated classes are these days highly attuned to a whole series of issues to which virtually no government could provide satisfactory solutions, and since a heightened preoccupation with public issues has become a kind of surrogate religion, it is clear that the level of criticism now aimed at governments is very high. Christian leaders like to see themselves as independent evaluators, observing and criticizing the morality of government actions from the standpoint of the Gospel. In reality, however, their moral and political sense is very closely related to that of the secular intelligentsia, whose agenda on public issues they largely share. Where Christian moralists are divided among themselves this invariably parallels a division of view within educated opinion in general. That is the reality of the 'prophetic' voice which the leadership of Christian opinion offers. Behind the endorsement of liberal ideals, and the thoroughly proper inclination to regard the existence of a society of plural values (of which they constitute a unit) as a positive gain in the development of human society—in the sense that it recognizes the legitimate diversity of philosophical and moral positions—Christian acceptance of democracy has a further consequence. For individual lives, in a highly organized society, are in some measure moulded by public institutions, and especially by public education. Through frank if necessary acceptance that those institutions may be determined on a majority principle, the leaders of Christian opinion are potentially handing the culture in which the future of society will be shaped to ideological opponents. This may already be seen to be in existence in Western countries. Here the classrooms of schools conducted through public agencies freely teach children views about humanity itself which are plainly materialist: which depict men and women as creatures of circumstance, their lives decisively influenced by environmental, cultural, social, and economic conditioning, to the exclusion of transcendence. Hence, again, the necessity that Christian endorsement of democracy be allied to a limited view of the competence of the State. In practice, as already noticed, this does actually operate within contemporary Christianity when issues of personal life-styles are involved. But when it comes to social and economic arrangements a very different priority exists.

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