Christianity and Public Life: What makes us think that God wants Democracy?

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Democracy is usually thought of as an achievement of the secular enlightenment. But the best defence of democracy is one based on a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society, well described in words of Reinhold Niebuht, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

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What makes us think God wants democracy?


The Rt Revd Lord Harries


A few years ago The Observer newspaper ran a special feature on democracy in which one of the sections was entitled 'Is God Democratic?'[i] The usual suspects gave their answers: predominantly with but a fairly negative tone. That scepticism would probably be fairly widely reflected in society today. First because a quick read of the Bible suggests that by modern standards God is rather autocratic and authoritarian. Secondly, because we know how easy it is for our religious views simply to reflect the values of the age in which we live. When people believed in autocratic government, especially the divine right of kings, it was natural to think of God in these terms. Now most of us advocate some form of democracy, and it is proper to be suspicious of any claim to see God in more democratic terms and backing democracy.[ii] Nevertheless, despite that suspicion, I make that claim here. I will be pursing it especially through the most famous defence of democracy from a Christian in modern times by Reinhold Niebuhr, and then look at some more recent approaches.[iii]

The nature of democracy, its strengths, weaknesses and Christian justification, was a life-long interest for Niebuhr.   It was, however, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, published in 1945 that his thought on this subject received its most systematic formulation. It also contained his famous aphorism:

'Man 's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man 's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.'[iv]


 In 1944 he was gloomy about the prospects of democracy in a post war world and wrote The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness to provide a stronger basis for it than it had hitherto had, and one which in the American context would help the revival of Americans for Democratic Action (the ADA), the leftish political movement in which he was a key member. 'It was a reassuring vision for a time of liberal rebuilding.'[v]

Niebuhr was sufficiently influenced by Marxist analysis to recognise that from one point of view the rise of liberal democracy was an expression of bourgeois interests breaking the stranglehold of a feudal order dominated by the aristocracy and the church. As he put it:

'The most pathetic aspect of the bourgeois faith is that it regards its characteristic perspectives and convictions as universally valid and applicable, at the precise moment in history when they are being unmasked as the peculiar convictions of a special class which flourished in a special situation in western society.'[vi]


 Yet he also believed that democracy expressed values of abiding validity. The freedom of subjects to choose their own governments and the equality associated with this, so that in the political order one counts for one, neither more nor less, was, he argued, fundamental to both a Christian and a secular view of existence. Moreover this freedom, expressed in economic terms through the market, and in other ways, allowed creative possibilities for the future to emerge. Much that was wrong might come about as well, but taking this risk was better than blocking developments that might enhance human life and well-being.

The justification of democracy in the first part of Niebuhr 's aphorism, 'Man 's capacity for justice makes democracy possible', the enlightenment one, was, in Niebuhr 's view inadequate by itself, for it was based on an over-optimistic view of humanity which assumed that conflicts could always be resolved and progress achieved. Hence the sub-title of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness is A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defenders. For Niebuhr the best vindication of Democracy was based on an awareness of our tendency to oppress one another and the consequent need to control political power. Hobbes and Luther both had a realistic sense of the way human beings do violence to one another, and from this followed their call for strong government to stop people tearing themselves apart. What they failed to point out is that potentially the biggest oppressor of all is government itself, hence the paramount need to have some way of checking, balancing and controlling it. From this springs the classical separation of powers into the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, together with fixed elections and other mechanisms.

In Niebuhr 's classic defence of liberal democracy the children of light are Western thinkers of the enlightenment and their followers in subsequent ages, who believed there was a capacity for altruism in human beings, who argued that real progress could be made in the human lot and who thought that through education and reason most problems could be solved and most disputes settled. For Niebuhr this was all foolishness. The Children of darkness are wiser, because they know the power of human egoism and the ineluctable tendency of human beings to expand their interests at the expense of others; but they are children of darkness because in their moral cynicism they act as though this is the only force at work. The only sound basis for democracy is one that takes our tendency to human aggrandizement at the expense of others realistically into account but which sets this in a moral framework provided by the children of light. So, as he put it:

'The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free of their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.'[vii]


Niebuhr argued that historically democracy was the joint achievement of Christian and secular thought, forms of Calvinism and Christian sects on the one hand and rationalists on the other. He also believed that Christianity contributes three insights of permanent validity. First, a basis for authority outside government itself, as expressed in the biblical notion that we are called to obey God rather than Caesar. Secondly, a non-instrumental view of human beings. All individuals are of value in themselves for themselves, and must never be treated simply as a cipher in a larger scheme of things. And thirdly, an awareness of our human sin, whereby the ordinary struggle to survive is turned into a drive for prestige and power. This is the insight that liberal idealists totally failed to see.

He also believed that Marxists were guilty of the same naivety about human nature, for though they believed in the class struggle until a truly communist society came into being, they thought that in such a society all conflict would be resolved, because its basis in an unjust economic order would have been corrected. But they ignored the fact that economic power, however important, is not the only form of power, and the human will to power remains even in a society where economic inequalities have been done away with.

So Western liberals, both secular and Christian, and Marxists, share an over-optimistic view of human nature. As Niebuhr put it:

'The facts about human nature which make a monopoly of power dangerous and a balance of power desirable are understood in neither theory but are understood from the standpoint of Christian faith.'[viii]


Niebuhr 's justification of democracy from that point of view is as pertinent today as it was then. But his classic aphorism has two parts to it, not only the statement that 'man 's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary', but that 'man 's capacity for justice makes democracy possible'. The question I wish to consider is whether there is not a stronger Christian basis for the first part 'Man 's capacity for justice makes democracy possible', than Niebuhr himself put forward.

This capacity for justice has three aspects to it: liberty, equality and the social nature of human life.

Few would disagree that the first and most fundamental value of liberal democracy is individual freedom. This basic liberty includes a range of freedoms:  freedom of speech, of worship and of assembly, for example. But it certainly includes freedom to choose those by whom we will be governed.

We now take this so much for granted that we forget how new this is, and how until comparatively recently the Roman Catholic hierarchy in some countries opposed democracy. It is important to see why they might have done this. For if God is a Divine Ruler who has revealed his law to us, it is natural to think that this pattern should be reflected in human rulers, and obedience to their law. Hierarchy and obedience are as it were written into the very constitution of the universe. And this, in itself, can provide a very beautiful vision for the ordering of both the cosmos and society. So it is easy to see how democracy, in the sense of rule of the people, by the people, for the people, might be regarded as inimical to it.

C. S. Lewis, like Niebuhr, argued that we need democracy in our fallen, sinful state, because we can never trust human rulers. But, he argued, this is a concession. In a perfect unfallen world we would have hierarchy and obedience. He argued that our real hunger is for inequality. 'The man who has never wanted to kneel or bow is a prosaic barbarian' he wrote.[ix]  This desire for inequality, he argued, is reflected in the adulation we give to heroes and superstars, and why right wing dictatorships can gain adherents. We do indeed need democracy in this world, nevertheless, 'there is no spiritual substance in flat equality'. We should recognise that 'under the necessary outer covering of legal equality, the whole hierarchical dance and harmony of our deep and joyously accepted spiritual inequalities should be alive.'

However, we can hugely admire someone, in their spiritual qualities, without this leading to either prostration or obedience. Rather, admiration leads to a desire to learn from and be influenced by the person. Furthermore, it will almost certainly be a characteristic of the person we admire that they precisely do not want us to kneel and obey them. They will want us to gain our own insights and find our own way. Nicholas Ferrar, who founded the religious community at Little Gidding in the 17thcentury, based on his family, wrote to his niece 'I purpose and hope by God 's grace to be to you not as a master but as a partner and fellow student.' Such an attitude is rooted in a faith that believes God has come amongst us in Jesus as brother and partner in God.

Although Locke, one of the seminal thinkers for the development of democracy was a Christian believer and his view of both government and human rights is based on the reality of God, subsequent theorists have detached the theological foundations of this and argued for the legitimacy of Locke 's views in themselves, irrespective of whether they are undergirded by a creator in whose image we are made. Related to this is the fact that despite the serious Christian faith of Locke and a good number of other enlightenment thinkers, many people persist in seeing the enlightenment as a secular achievement. We need to understand why this is so.

Kingship is the prime model for rule in the scriptures. If the enlightenment is seen in terms of the rejection of Kingship, at least in its absolute form, then it is easy to see how the emergence of democracy might be seen as primarily a secular achievement. So it is necessary to probe the kingship model to see what it does and does not imply.

The dominance of the kingship metaphor, at its best, allows for the C. S. Lewis view that in heaven there is rule by a divine king who is totally given over to our good but that we need democracy now because no human ruler can be trusted. This was a view also expressed on BBC Radio Four in a 'Thought for the Day' on 6th September 2008 by Joel Edwards, who speaks for a good number of evangelicals, when he said that whilst here on earth 'God does democracy'. But 'In Biblical terms God 's ideal would be a theocracy in which all aspects of human relationships come immediately under his rule and sovereignty.' However, this is just the kind of contrast that we need to question. For if democracy is just a temporary expedient, a concession to our human weakness, due to be done away with when the rule of the perfect Divine King is established, I wonder whether it provides a firm enough foundation for a truly Christian polity?

A parallel can be made with another human institution, marriage. Jesus is reported to have said that in heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but we are like the angels. Now it is true that there will be no need for procreation in heaven, one of the purposes of marriage. But this does not mean the end of deep and intimate relationships. There is no marrying or giving in marriage because in a sense everyone will be married to everyone else; there will be a deep and intimate communion within the body of Christ not only with Christ himself, but in him with all other members of the body. So whilst there is one aspect of marriage for which there is no continuing purpose in heaven there is another which finds its fulfilment there. Can we say the same about democracy?

In so far as democracy exists to check and stop the emergence of despotic rule, there is indeed no need for it in heaven, for there all is perfected. But there is another aspect of democracy, and that is the natural coming together of human beings to order their common life. This is the emphasis in democracy going back to the ancient Greeks and preserved in the Catholic if not always in the reformed tradition. If this is a fundamental feature of what it means to be a human being, and not just a concession to either finitude or sin, then perhaps like marriage it finds its proper fulfilment in heaven, in ways of course which we cannot now imagine.

Lewis and many others suggest that because God is the perfect king, who desires only the well being of his subjects, there is no need for any form of government other than that. But this is to misunderstand the relationship between divine and human activity, and to suggest that they are mutually exclusive accounts of human behaviour.

God has bestowed on us the awesome gift of freedom. He has taken the risk of putting things in our hands. If this gift of freedom is fundamental to God 's intention for us, what indeed helps to define us as human beings, then it would seem odd that this is a gift only for this life, as though we have it now, and then it is taken away from us. A better approach is to say, not that it is taken away from us, but that in heaven, made perfect in a milieu of intimate communion with the Divine Presence, that freedom is exercised rightly.

Furthermore, heaven is a society, a communion of saints; but still a society. And, as Austin Farrer used to emphasise, the Divine Presence that fully enfolds us is met in and through that society; in and through the body of Christ, the communion of fellow believers.

It can also be pointed out that the image of Kingship is not the only one suggested by the New Testament. Jesus said to his followers that in the Kingdom they will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. There was a period in the history of Israel when it was judges, rather than kings, that arbitrated and ordered the common life. So it may be that God without ceasing to be king delegates the ordering of the common life in heaven as he does on earth. His kingship in other words does not just consist of each individual before the throne, but human beings in communion with one another, sharing responsibility for their common life before the throne. God rules, in the sense that the whole body of Christ moves in perfect harmony with his purpose. But that body has a properly delegated function, shared responsibility for the common life.

All this is very speculative but what it suggests is that there are elements in liberal democracy which are not just here for the interim, a concession to finitude and sin, but which, however impossible to picture, have their proper grounding and fulfilment in heaven.  The reason for making such a suggestion is to counter the suspicion that democracy is really a secular achievement rooted in secular political philosophy. Furthermore, it may be that whilst the emphasis Niebuhr gave to 'mans inclination to injustice' was a necessary corrective and a permanent insight, he did not give a strong enough theological grounding to the enlightenment stress on 'Mans capacity for justice'. This is in part because his own emphasis is rooted in a Protestant understanding of the state as a concession to human sin, rather than the Catholic understanding that it is natural and right for human beings to come together to order their common life.

I now consider what Oliver O'Donovan has written on democracy. I do so because he offers a learned and deeply challenging critique of the whole tradition of Western thinking about the basis of democracy, including both aspects of Niebuhr 's aphorism. His alternative approach is very wide ranging and it is possible here to consider only what he writes under the heading of 'legitimation'.   There is for O'Donovan a fundamental distinction between good government, which he is prepared to call liberal government, and liberal democracy. He describes, without arguing for, good government in the following terms:

'This account has a number of elements, all to do with responsiveness to the real and felt needs of society: an elected parliament as a formal court of pleas; local representative organs with local autonomy; the admission of open and candid speech on all matters relating to the common good; the obligation of government to natural and divine law; the recognition of basic individual rights at law as a limiting constraint upon inequalities of social order; the independence of courts from executive interference; due forms of consultation and deliberation in preparing legislation and due process for promulgating it, and so on.'[x]


For him the key question is how far this kind of good government is dependent on its legitimation through democratic elections. He suggests that election is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. There have been good governments without elections, and elections that that have resulted in unjust governments. He then considers three ways in which democratic elections might be considered integral. The first claims that democratic elections are implicit in the very idea of good liberal government, as it were the second stage of a developing idea. He rejects this on the grounds that in fact what we are left with is 'the humdrum practice of voting in elections'[xi] which seems very far from the kind of grand claims made for liberal democracy about regenerating society. There is a very great deal wrong with Western style democracies at the moment, but when we are feeling disillusioned one of the pictures we need to bear in mind is that of black South Africans queuing for hours in order to cast their votes in a system that for the first time allowed their votes to count.

One aspect of the democratic idea that O'Donovan does not seem to consider is the gradual widening out of the franchise until it became universal. Previously excluded groups such as Roman Catholics, Jews, men without property, women as a whole, and then women below the age at which men were allowed to vote, over the course of 100 years or so were enabled to share in the process of electing their government. The key moral idea here is that one counts for one, neither more, nor less. O'Donovan rightly bases his idea of equality on the equal dignity and worth of all human beings in the eyes of God, and rightly believes this has important political implications, like equality before the law. Whilst again, rightly, he is anxious to avoid any flat notion of equality which fails to take into account the different gifts and vocations which society needs for its flourishing, he seems strangely blind to the outworking of the Christian idea of equality in the idea of one person one vote. If people are to be consulted about the government they want, then there can be no basis for denying that the perspective on life and views of every individual ought to be taken into account on an equal basis.

Secondly, there is the claim that liberal democracy ensures just government, and here he quotes Niebuhr. But, he argues, this:

'Can only be that envisaged by the contractarian myth, which sees political authority as derived from a founding act of popular will. Otherwise we would not look todemocracy to achieve justice but to intra-governmental 'checks and balances.'  The power of an electorate to dismiss and choose its rulers can only be a guarantee of good government, if good government is understood as that which rulers exercise under the authority of the popular will.'[xii]


We have to note his deep hostility to the contractarian myth and to ask if this is really necessary. If the concern is to safeguard the fact that Government is ultimately given by and accountable to God, the contractarian myth does not necessarily rule that out.  Furthermore, Christians regard themselves as accountable both to God and to one another within the body of Christ. When they come to the Sunday Eucharist they come accountable for the week just past not just before God but before one another. This sense of accountability before other human beings can be and ought to be even stronger in office holders in the church. So there is no incompatibility is saying that governments are accountable both to God and to the people who elect them. If the people who elect them find them wanting, then they have the right to look for a different government. That new government is also accountable to God, and from a theological point of view is given by God.

The fact is that while popular election by itself is not a guarantee of just government, it is one key element along with others, such as the separation of powers and human rights guaranteed by law, which helps prevent tyranny. The fact is that there is no way of guaranteeing good government. Democracies can and are manipulated in all kinds of ways, as we see at the moment in Russia and many other countries. The alliance of political power with big money, leading to control or heavy manipulation of the media, with weak processes of law for safeguarding human rights, is a sad reality. But it would be even sadder without the possibility of the electorate bringing in an alternative government in extremis.

The third claim which O'Donovan considers, the most modest one, is that elections guarantee that those who are elected are genuinely representative of the electorate. He argues, to the contrary, that election is no such guarantee, as we see in the case of the European institutions, for representation is primarily a matter of the imagination. In the European Union, there are elections, but people feel very distant from the bodies to which they have elected people.

For O'Donovan representation is primarily a matter of the imagination. However, being able to envisage someone representing us assumes our willingness, that is, our free choice, to so imagine: in other words, free elections. It can also be pointed out that the European institutions are comparatively recent, and it could be that in the future people will feel more identified with them than they are now. They would be even less likely to do this if there were no elections.

So in the end O'Donovan comes to make a very limited claim indeed for liberal democracy.

The case for democracy is that it is specifically appropriate to Western societies at this juncture. It is a moment in the Western tradition; it has its own ecological niche. This allows us no universal claims of the 'best regime' kind, nor does it permit the imperial view that the history of democracy is the history of progress. Yet, within its own terms it allows us to be positive about democracy 's strengths. The best regime is precisely that regime that plays to the virtues and skills of those who are governed by it; and this one serves us well in demanding and developing certain virtues of bureaucratic and public discourse that the Western tradition has installed. It is our tradition; we are bred in it; we can, if we are sensible about it, make it work.[xiii]

The rejection of imperialist claims is welcome indeed; nevertheless, I believe this very limited claim is too modest. First, there is the question of the universal franchise, which I have argued is one inescapable implication of believing in the equal worth and dignity of every single individual human being. It is noticeable that a number of countries with traditional political regimes are now inching their way towards this, and some Muslim scholars argue that it is an essential development of two Islamic ideas. The first is the tradition of ijtihad, which allows for creative reinterpretations of traditional legal texts in response to modern needs. The second is the institution of the consultative assembly, Majlis al-Shura.  It is well established that rulers should consult with their leading men and institutions. So it has been argued by Muslim scholars that a true consultative assembly would allow for full democracy.

Secondly, whilst the election of governments is no guarantee that the government so elected will act justly, for populations can be manipulated, it is one element, along with others, that seeks to act as a brake on tyrannous tendencies.

That said, there is one development that is no less crucial and in some respects more so than elections, and that is the guarantee of human rights by law. This is necessary in liberal democracies in order to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority and to protect individuals from being harmed as a result of 'reasons of state' however rationally justified. In non-democratic societies, where women in particular may be severely disadvantaged, the entrenchment of human rights in law is an even more pressing priority than governments by election, though it is highly likely that the latter will lead to the establishment of the former, not least because women will have the vote.

 I suggest that there are elements in liberal democracies that have a wider moral relevance than O'Donovan allows, and this is taken up below.

Democracy as a vision of what society should become.       

Until the resurgence of Islam the major critique of liberal democracy was provided by Marxism. As Marx put it, democracy meant no more than 'the opportunity of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people.' For Marxism the rise of democracy was simply the rise of rule by bourgeois interests, and these would rightly and inevitably be replaced by rule by working class interests. However, you do not need to be a thorough going Marxist to recognise the element of economic interest at work in political life. Niebuhr was certainly highly aware of that: but what is important to recognise is that with globalisation economic power is even more powerful now than it was in his time. Behind the press, behind party funding, behind advertising, behind the organization that wins elections, sadly, even behind some legal judgements in court, lies money: the interests of finance and business. And in the modern world, with so much finance being on a global scale, the power of government to control the movement of money is much weaker.

Figures worldwide suggest that whatever improvements are being made in the lives of the poorest, this imbalance is in fact growing. This highlights two factors. First, the crucial importance of governments acting for the common good. In a world where economic power on a global scale reigns supreme, this will mean that political power needs to be used not just to facilitate business, but to enable the most marginalized to share in the full life of their society.

Secondly it highlights a distinction made by John de Gruchy between 'democracy as a vision of what society should become, and democracy as a system of government that seeks to enable the realization of that vision within particular contexts.'[xiv]

De Gruchy finds the foundation for a Christian understanding of democracy in the 8th BC prophets, with their vision of social equality, freedom and justice and its development in five trajectories. First, in the Messianic hope of true liberation for all people from all that oppresses; secondly, in the medieval championing of the common good and the development of trade guilds and other expressions of civil society; thirdly in the Reformation concept of covenantal obligation, whereby human beings are called to accountable responsibility both to God and to one another; fourthly, the other more radical Reformation emphasis on individual freedom and the separation of church and state. Fifthly in modern liberation theology, which seeks to overcome economic injustice and oppression.

This distinction between democracy as a vision and democracy as a system is an important one and it reminds us that democracy must always be seen as an on- going project towards the realization of that vision. We note, from recent years, the civil rights movement and the different aspects of the struggle for equality for women, which has been part of that quest for full and equal participation by all members of society. The fact that modern Western politics is now so characterized by one issue campaigns is no bad thing, for it is an indication of other groups, e.g. the disabled or children, struggling for their proper place.

Amartya Sen 's wider vision

One of the most distinguished public thinkers of our time, the Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen has recently put forward a major alternative to the dominant theories of democracy in the West. The dominant theories take a contractarian form, that is, they envisage an ideal scenario in which there is a contract between rulers and people. The most influential modern form of this is that associated with the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls assumes a situation in which none of us know what situation in life we would be born into. We have to choose the ideal society as it were blind. On this scenario the only principles on which there could be universal agreement, and therefore a universal sense of fairness, would be first of all, fundamental freedoms for all, and every position open to everyone, irrespective of the status into which they had been born. Furthermore, it would be a society in which any inequalities that arose would be justified only on the basis that they helped the weakest and most vulnerable members of that society.

Sen 's starting point is Rawls, and the concept of justice as fairness.[xv]But apart from the emphasis on fairness, he is highly critical of his political philosophy, not least because it assumes a political community for its implementation, whereas today the need is for justice on a global scale, even though there is no global political community. Instead of taking the enlightenment contractarian approach, he prefers the other enlightenment one associated with Adam Smith and others. This posits the need for the impartial spectator to scrutinise out parochial understandings of justice. So fundamental to Sen 's approach is the need to listen to, and to take into account all voices, wherever they come from. This is because they represent interests that need to be taken into account, and because they critique and enlarge our own limited perspective.

Also fundamental to Sen is his strong conviction that theories of justice must have a direct bearing on the critical issues facing us today. From that point of view the 'transcendental institutional' approach of Rawls and other contractarians is useless. Our need is to compare and assess relative states of justice and these pictures of an ideal state shed no light on this exercise.

Again, fundamental to his approach is the emphasis on public reasoning. Reasoning, even more than elections is what democracy is about, and from this point of view democracy can be found elsewhere, e.g. in India, even before the Western enlightenment.

This approach of Sen is a highly valuable corrective to dominant notions and there is much in it with which Christians will resonate. It is noteworthy that Sen points to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to underline his point that in a global world anyone in need is our neighbour, and democracy is fundamentally about listening to and taking the voice of that neighbour into account.

Nevertheless, whilst accepting his valuable corrective and his proper emphasis on democracy as a form of public reasoning which takes every voice into consideration, and  his point that democracy is not simply an achievement of the Western enlightenment, we can still press the question about whether in practice there is a fairer way of doing this than through elections. On Sen 's view democracy is not limited by the ballot box. In a global world governments should listen to all voices, not just their own electorate, but nevertheless with their electorate the final and least unfair test must be an election.

Given the distinction between democracy as a vision and democracy as a system, is there anything in the system as it has so far been developed,contra Oliver O'Donovan, which is absolutely fundamental, and crucial to stand up for? Even given its present manifest flaws does the system safeguard some essential insights into what it is for us human beings to live in society? Or are we to say that this is the system that has developed in our society and a good number of others, but other systems may be just as good for rather different kinds of society?

The word democracy has been claimed by a good number of societies we would judge undemocratic. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

'When a term has become so universally sanctified as 'democracy' now is, I begin to wonder whether it means anything, in meaning too many things'If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.'[xvi]


I think meaning can be given to liberal democracy, and it is worth standing up for. One essential element in a liberal democracy, the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, all that we mean by habeas corpus does not belong to democracy alone. It is essential to democracy, and where it fails, as in Iraq so far, democracy fails. But it is not unique to democracy. Islamic societies too insist on the rule of law. Of course questions arise about how far the judiciary is independent from the executive. It is a mark of a democratic system that they are but even in an Islamic society there is a measure of independence. But what about other features of liberal democracy in relation to Islam?

It has suggested that what we should look for in the Muslim world are political systems that allow for government by consent. It is certainly important that we should not simply think of the imposition of secular Western liberal ideals on Islamic societies. Nevertheless, given this caution, I think we have to go further and argue that liberal democracies stand not only for government by consent, but they look to obtain that consent in a particular way, by universal franchise, and as mentioned above, there are some Muslim scholars who now argue for this. Another mark is the genuine separation of powers, with a truly independent judiciary safeguarding the rule of law against arbitrary decrees of government and the separation of the executive from the legislature.

These are not of course the only essential features. There is freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly and to form political parties, freedom of worship. There is also, I would maintain, the acceptance of certain fundamental rights as well as these freedoms. Human rights are not simply an add-on to democracy but fundamental to it. This is because of what Alexis de Toqueville called the despotism or tyranny of the majority. It is possible in a democracy for the majority view to be elected to government, and then for that government to oppress various minority interests. Those fundamental human interests need to be protected

When it comes to social and economic rights, as opposed to political rights, their realization depends significantly on the state of development of that society. But the rights of individual people, of women, of gay and lesbian people and the disabled, and in particular their right to be protected from cruel and demeaning treatment, are fundamental and we cannot take the view that one society 's attitude to them is just as good as another 's.

There is a danger that if we start making value judgements that some things are better than others, we can slip over not only into arrogance, but into a crusade mentality.  Some of President Bush 's rhetoric before the Iraq war had something of this about it. What is necessary is the ability to make value judgements, to say, yes, liberal democracy does safeguard certain essentials about what it is for human beings to live in society and to stand up for these in peaceful ways, but always aware that democracy as we know it is very flawed, and even at its best it is only a proximate good, a project towards the realization of a vision. One of the great strengths of the whole of Niebuhr 's writings, not least his prayers, was his ability to make clear judgements whilst at the same time avoiding any suggestion of moral superiority. 

Democracy came out of the enlightenment from the work of Christian as well as secular thinkers, and it expresses a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society, a social being, who is at once made in the image of God and a violator of that image. Christianity has of course lived under a range of different kinds of government and democracy as we know is open to the criticism today, as Eliot put it in the 1930 's, that 'what we have is not democracy, but financial oligarchy'[xvii]But all qualifications notwithstanding it does stand for something. It does contain features that safeguard certain fundamental insights into a proper understanding of what it is to be a human being in society.

However, Niebuhr was conscious that democracy is the product of a long and painful history in America and Britain, in which various essential factors for the emergence of democracy were present. These were not yet there in a number of countries.

Democratic self-government is indeed an ultimate ideal of political community. But it is of the greatest importance that we realise that the resources for its effective functioning are not available to many nations.[xviii]

Again, although he saw democracy as the least bad political system we have so far evolved, he warned strongly against making it into an idol. He thought that American had developed an uncritical almost religious attitude towards it which was dangerous.

If one may judge by the various official pronouncements and commencement speeches, Americans have only one religion: devotion to democracy'.democracy is worth preserving. It is a worthy object of qualified loyalty. But is it a proper object of unqualified loyalty'  Does not the very extravagance of our devotion prove that we live in a religiously vapid age, in which even Christians fail to penetrate to the more ultimate issues of life.[xix]

Democracy is worthy of a qualified loyalty, but we have to realise what it is, 'a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems' [xx]What is fatal is to think what it offers are final solutions.

Our knowledge that there is no complete solution for the problem would save us from resting in some proximate solution under the illusion that it is an ultimate one.[xxi]

This means that the balances struck in a democratic society, for example between government control and individual initiatives, or between individual property and state intervention, will always be temporary and have to be restruck in the light of new problems. So democracy is not a final solution to human problems, nevertheless, as a proximate one I would suggest that it does contain features that are vital to the political life of every human society. 

© The Rt Revd Lord Harries, 10th December 2009




[i]      The Observer, 30.09.07, p.9

[ii]    David Nicholls was especially alert to this danger.  For he showed, particularly in Deity and Domination, (Routledge, 1989) but also elsewhere, how easy it is for people to have a picture of God that reflects all too closely the political system of the time. As he put it in relation to the dominant image of God in our own time:

Modern western Christians have indeed invented a God without enemies, a God who does not take sides, but spends his time conciliating and manipulating, like a celestial personnel manager. He is the God of the comfortable and contented'.The modern emphasis on welfare images of God must be judged as unbalanced-uncritically reflecting, as they do, the ideology of a welfare state. (p.242/3)

[iii] Some of this discussion also appears in Reinhold Niebuhr and Contemporary Politics: God and Power ed. Richard Harries and Stephen Platten, OUP, 2010

[iv] The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Nisbet, London, 1945  p. vi

[v]  Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, A Biography, Pantheon, 1985, p.220

[vi] The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, p. 91

[vii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, , p. 34

[viii] Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism and Political Problems, Faber, London, 1954, p.99

[ix] C. S. Lewis, 'Equality', reprinted in the Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal,Summer 1990. It originally appeared in The Spectator in 1943. See also his A Preface to Paradise Lost, OUP, 1942, chap XI, where he is highly critical of the failure modern critics to understand the proper role of hierarchy in Milton and other Western thinkers.

[x] Oliver O'Donovan, The Ways of Judgement, Eerdmans, 2005, P.168

[xi] P.170

[xii] P.173

[xiii] P.178

[xiv]  John de Gruchy, 'Democracy' in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, OUP, 2000, p.157. See also John de Gruchy, Christianity and Democracy, 1995

[xv]  Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane, 2009

[xvi]  T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society and other writings, Faber, 1982, p.48

[xvii] ibid. p.48

[xviii] A point made in a number of articles, quoted by Charles C. Brown,Niebuhr and his Age: ReinholdNiebuhr 's Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century, Trinity Press, 1992, p.217

[xix] 'Christianity and Crisis', 8/4/1947 reprinted in Reinhold Niebuhr, Theologian of Public Life, SelectedWritingsed. Larry Rasmussen, Collins, 1989, p.256

[xx] The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, p. 83

[xxi] ibid. p.100


This event was on Thu, 10 Dec 2009

Lord Harries

The Rt Revd Lord Harries

Professor of Divinity

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology.

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