23 December 2008

What Is Christian About Democracy?

Over at the Huffington Post Robbie Gennet has made some interesting remarks about the impossibility of a democracy being Christian. In his words,
“There is no such thing as a Christian…Muslim… or Jewish Democracy…(or a solely Heterosexual one, for that matter).”
“True Democracy,” he says,
“Means True Equality and no religion sees itself as equal to all the others (and they feel especially unequal to secularism and atheism)...In this country, the vast majority of them (the religious) feel that the USA was founded as a Christian nation and should be run like one, which is anathema to the true Democratic ideals of our founding fathers.”
The truth is we actually could have a Christian democracy. We don’t have one now, we never have had one and if the opportunity arose to establish one I would vote against it in a heart beat. There isn’t much difference between a Christian Democracy and a religious state. But, even though we are not a Christian democracy I am not so sure Mr. Gennet is correct in suggesting our nation is not Christian. A nation is very different to a democracy. One can be Christian even if the other is not. In fact, one should definitely be Christian while the other should definitely not be and that is what our fore fathers understood.

Mr. Gennet also got the term “Christian” confused with the term “religion.” He freely quoted our fore fathers, who denounced religion, obviously implying they were also anti-Christian. The men who wrote our constitution, however, understood that being Christian and being religious are two very different things. It is possible to be one without being the other and some of those who framed our constitution were exactly that, Christian but not religious.

And, in fact, "religion" can mean anything. There are many different kinds of religion and many different versions of certain kinds (particularly Christian - for a read on that go here, Which Religion Is Right). History records a lot of conflict occurring between different religions and even different versions of the same religion.

Religious political abuses were committed regularly for centuries before the birth of our nation. We study these events in a sterile non-threatening setting but our fore fathers were eye witnesses. States driven by religious sentiment had maligned their names and threatened their lives. These same States, the larger number of which were Christian monarchies (a curious combination), regularly abused their citizens and fomented war against each other all in the name of religion. Our fore fathers were victims of these abuses. They learned firsthand that individual freedom was directly proportional to the distance maintained between church (religion) and state. But, much to the chagrin of those who don’t understand the difference, they did introduce Christian ideals into our system of government not the least of which is democracy.

Democracy is, by nature, flexible and at the same time Christian. It is God’s grace applied to the political process. Democracy doesn’t encourage pluralism but it allows for it and provides a peaceful process by which compromises can be reached and peace can be maintained. This is quite necessary in a multi-religious culture. But be warned! Democracy is only Christian as long as it is not used as a vehicle for establishing a State religion.

On a philosophical level, democracy encourages fairness and makes allowances for the inalienable rights of every individual.

On a practical level, democracy maintains a system of laws designed to protect individual freedom, even when personal choices involve destructive behavior. If you wish to smoke, eat too much, engage in promiscuous behavior or worship the devil that is your right.

Only when one person’s personal liberties impinge on the rights of others are courts required to decide where the line must be drawn. The courts uphold the free choices of others even when those choices are wrong (by Christian standards) as long as the liberties of others are not violated thereby, which by the way, is not the same as having your personal religious views offended.

The laws of a democratic state are designed to protect individual liberties not reflect morality in the absolute sense. Mr. Gennet implied this without saying it exactly and in that regard he and I agree.

Even the Old Testament, which seems a bit harsh for some, revealed some very democratic flexibility. Polygamy, because of its prevalence, was regulated in the law of Moses rather than “run out of town.” The same could be said for divorce. God’s absolute moral code did not agree with the cultural reality but He did flex enough to manage it graciously. This observation is very confusing to those who take a heavy handed approach to governance.

The system of government God levied on Israel was very strict in many ways but it was not absolute and, as already mentioned, it was flexible on some very questionable issues. It was much more idealistic than democracies today and much more firm in exacting penalties but it never worked and, therefore, should make us wonder. Maybe God implemented a government of strict religious and moral laws to show it can’t be done not to teach it should be tried.

Society will always be comprised of fallen humans none of whom is naturally agreeable to moral standards, all of whom are inclined toward trespasses, Christians included. Being Christian in a democratic society means graciously responding to the abuses, excesses and transgressions of others as long as they are democratically processed. Once we have argued the point and possibly lost the vote we must be able to focus on people rather than politics.

And for those who worry about being contaminated, democracy allows each person to be different as long as they are not disagreeable. That is to say, even though democracy allows lifestyles contrary to Christian standards it never imposes them on anyone. Democracy allows me to be fully Christian when everyone around me is not and vice versa.

Democracy is the political equivalent to grace. Moral truth is very fixed and exacting and society is never fully in line. Democracy is how we manage the difference even when the differences become unbearable to some.

To be a member of a religion you must agree to all the rules even when you fail to live up to them on occasion. Being an acceptable member of a democracy isn’t so demanding and the two are not the same. The only time a Christian’s religious views will parallel their political reality is when the State is controlled by a religion and then we have to wonder which religion will win out.

Mr. Gennet and I disagree on several things but when it comes to the nature of a democracy we have a lot in common. Because these concepts require serious consideration I would encourage you to ThinkAboutit.

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