Thursday, March 4, 2010

Christianity and Democracy

Is Christianity the friend or foe of democracy? Were the founding fathers of the United States Christians or deists? What are the facts?

The Greeks and Romans experimented with various forms of government, but when the Roman Empire fell, Europe reverted to monarchy. They also followed this approach in church government, which led to putting the authority of men before the word of God. During the Renaissance there was dabbling in Greek and Roman types of government. But this was confined to a few places. One reason for this is that democracy had not yet become a cause to fight or die for.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. One of the principles of the Reformation was that we have the right and responsibility to interpret Scripture for ourselves (Matthew 15:7-9; Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:8,9). This caused the Reformed branch of Protestantism to put the government of the church in the hands of the people. They also advocated popular civil government. These do not necessarily follow from each other. (Freedom of interpretation is taught in Scripture, but it is questionable whether Scripture prescribes any form of church government, and it says nothing about the form of civil government.) But they do fit together. If we can interpret Scripture for ourselves, then should we not be able to have a say in running the church? And if we can be trusted to run the church, can we not also be trusted to run the state? And the truth of God was something people were willing to fight and die for. This took the democratic political system from an oddity practiced in Switzerland and a few Italian cities to a broadly held principle.

But as Europe became more secular, a number of people (including deists, deism being watered-down Christianity) threw out the Reformed theological beliefs and kept the political convictions. John Locke was a key deist who advocated political liberty, but he got the idea from Protestants such as Thomas Hooker and Samuel Rutherford.

Many people of Reformed theology ended up coming to the New World to worship God as they saw fit. Other colonists were influenced by their beliefs or at least their political convictions. Therefore, on the question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists the answer is yes, some of both were included. But they were following principles that originated from their Protestant heritage.

What difference does this make? The democratic system that originated from Christianity had within it a strong sense of responsibility and a concept of the rule of law. To see what democracy becomes without these, we need look no further than the French Revolution, which followed a completely secular approach. I do not believe the United States, in spite of its rejection of Christianity, has yet totally cast off its tradition of rule of law. But if it does, all that will be left will be anarchy and a tyranny of the majority.


  1. Hi Mike. I've had you blog in my reader since last summer, but now you touched on religion and politics, my two favorite subjects, and wanted to comment. I think I'm just amplifying what you've already said and not disagreeing. :-)

    I think rule of law, in and of itself, isn't what gave our country its strength, but that the law was based on His Law. We can be a nation that faithfully follows and enforces our laws, but as we deviate from God's standard in the making of those laws, we will become just as weak as the nations around us.

    Also, as Christians in the United States, we need to be careful of thinking that a democratic republic is God's form of government. As a human institution, I think it's great at addressing some of the problems of historic monarchies. And, I do think God established us as a nation, for His purposes, for a time. Democracy works well with a population having morals based on biblical principles. However, it can be as oppressive as any dictatorship, perhaps more, when the population is no longer guided by scripture. As Christians, we need to remember Christ's thousand year reign will not be a democracy but a monarchy.


  2. Harley,
    Thanks for the comment. Just to clarify. I agree that the ultimate standard for Law needs to be God's Law and we should in the final analysis not settle for anything less. Nonetheless it is an important concept that there is a fixed law and ruler's as well as subjects should be subject to the law and a nation that accepts this (unless the law is totally corrupt) is better off then a nation ruled by the whims of the rulers. I agree that the perfect government is when the Perfect Monarch institutes the perfect rule. Until then I do not know that any form of government is going to be perfect. My purpose was in showing that the good things about our current democracy comes form its Christian roots.