Thursday, July 30, 2009
Is Democracy Compatible with Christianity?
I've been reading Mark Noll's The Old Religion in a New World recently, and he cites the following quotation by a 19th century American Catholic, Orestes Brownson, which I found interesting:
"Catholicity is theoretically compatible with democracy..., but practically, there is, in my judgment, no compatibility between them. According to Catholicity all power comes from above and descends from high to low; according to democracy all power is infernal, is from below, and ascends from low to high."
I can certainly see how this issue would be a problem for Catholic Christians, most of whom would agree with Brownson's assertion that power descends from high to low, even if they don't necessarily make the connection that this thereby validates a hierarchical political order (from God to Pope to King to the People) as much as a hierarchical spiritual one. However, I think there are probably many other Christians besides just Catholics that would likewise agree with the basic premise that power and authority descends from high to low, from God to human authorities, and thus might recognize a conflict between their faith and the basic premise of democracy. On the surface it seems a persuasive argument. After all, most Christians, I think, would affirm that all power ultimately comes from God.

However, it occurs to me that affirming God as the source of power and authority does not necessarily imply anything about its direction, whether ascending or descending. Indeed, if what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 about God choosing the lowly, the foolish, and the weak things of this world, and what he says in Philippians 2 about Christ giving up his power and condescending to the weakness of humanity is true, then one could argue that God-given power does not filter down from high to low among human beings, but rather that it begins with the lowest, the least, and the common. In that sense, God's power is very compatible with the essence of democracy: the idea that legitimate power derives from the will of the governed - those on the bottom of the social pyramid - not from the will-to-power of those on top. God empowers the weak, not the strong - those on the bottom, not on top. Power, in God's kingdom, descends all the way down, so that only then can it begin to filter back up.

Not being Catholic, I can't say whether this conception of power is compatible with "Catholicity", though I would think that it would have much in common with the kenotic theology of Saint Francis for instance. However, I do think it is a legitimate and profoundly Christian conception.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 6:39 PM | Permalink |


At 8/04/2009 04:13:00 PM, Blogger Travis Greene

Also, Christianity recognizes all human beings are fallen, so surely there's nobody good enough to be king or queen. Power corrupts us, so best to spread it out as far as we can.


At 8/06/2009 11:35:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yes, that is another common Christian rationale, typically found among Calvinists (as well as C.S. Lewis). While I agree, I wanted to focus on more positive reasons for democracy. I find an exclusive focus the total depravity argument leads to a purely negative view of government as merely a restraint on human evil, rather than seeing government as one natural expression of the human capacity towards community, cooperation, and love for one's neighbor.

(Which, to reference my previous post, seems to be another one of the chief differences between a conservative, liberal, and progressive view of government. Conservatives see only the former, liberals, only the latter, and progressives, both.)


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