Voting: A Brief History of Theology and Democracy

            Democracy is a concept that many of us take for granted, especially those of us who live in the West. Each year the Economist releases their democracy index that provides a full report on the state of democracy around the world. According to their 2023 report, 45.4% of the world live in a democracy, and 39.4% live under some form of authoritarian rule. They conclude that only 7.8% of people live in a full democracy after the US was downgraded to a flawed democracy in 2016. There are questions that can be raised about the Economist’s definition of democracy, for example, the UK is considered a full democracy despite the unelected House of Lords and the use of the first past the post voting system. However, there is still some very useful information in the report and with more than half of the world’s population expected to vote in 2024, the index indicates that only 43 out of the 70 elections expected to occur this year will be free and fair. 

            With the re-emergence of the far right and fascist politics fuelled partly by economic insecurity and “alienation from politics as usual” (TUC Report on The Rise of the Far Right, 2020), democracy in many places is under threat. With all this in mind it is worth considering the history of democracy and its connection to theology when we discuss Christian political action. The term democracy comes from the Greek dēmokratia or ‘rule by the people’, that emerged in the middle of the 5th century BCE to refer to the political system present in city states such as Athens. However, there are several questions which come up when considering this definition of democracy: who are the people? What is the system of ruling? How do ‘the people’ participate in political systems? Should we and how do we delineate between different groups of ‘the people’? To answer these questions requires consideration of personhood, nationalism, politics, theology, anthropology, and more. We will be covering many of these topics throughout our series on Christian political action.

            What we would generally consider to be democracy today entails a form of “representative democracy” where elected representatives act on behalf of people in particular areas or constituencies to bring in laws and direct government policy. Yet for most of its history, representative democracy has not included particular groups of people, including those who do not own land, women, and racial and ethnic minorities to name a few. When we talk about democracy today and our ideals around representation, we are referring to a relatively modern political reality. 

So where do we get our conviction that democracy is indeed the best system of government, and that as Christians, we should push for such an idea? If we go back to the thought of one of the towering figures of Christian history, St Augustine, we will find it difficult to find support for democracy in his theology. Augustine describes two cities, the city of God and the earthly city, the city of God being the heavenly city whose citizens are those saved by Christ distinct from the institutional Church. The earthly city is the devil’s city, whose citizens are the damned, corrupted by sin. “Augustine was pessimistic about the possibility that any kind of organised political society could govern justly through its institutions and laws.” (Robert Dodaro in A Companion to Augustine)

            When we reach the reformation in Europe in the 1500s Martin Luther also speaks of this idea of two Kingdoms whose domains should remain separate, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world. During the German Peasant’s war of 1524-25 we see that Luther concludes that the reformation should not seek to change the political and social order. The upper Swabian peasant’s Twelve Articles (thought to be one of the earliest examples of a statement on human rights and civil liberties in Europe) sought an end to serfdom, labour protections, the right to use common land, and some democratic mechanism in choosing the minister in their local church. Luther recognised that some of their demands were just and right but told them that they should not use the name Christian or appeal to the gospel in their desire for social reform. 

            It seems apparent that there is a tendency within Christianity to be cautious about aligning itself with one political system, but at the same time Christianity has been used as an instrument of oppression and state violence in empires, monarchies, and authoritarian regimes of the past. So where do we begin to see the emergence of democracy as the accepted view? South African theologian John De Gruchy notes that democracy as we know it today did not emerge until after the European Enlightenment and French Revolution, and that Christianity, not universally, but mostly came to accept democracy as “essential to its vision of a just world order” in the twentieth century after witnessing the horrors of totalitarian regimes such as fascism in Europe, Nazism, and Stalinism. This shift can be seen in ecumenical work, Catholic Social Teaching, and the democratic impulses present in much of scripture (John W. De Gruchy, “Democracy”, in the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology).

            De Gruchy goes on to identify five different democratic trajectories within the Christian tradition. First, the egalitarian communal experience of the early church, which is also seen in the early monastic movement post Constantine; second, the development of ideas such as subsidiarity and the common good through Catholic engagement with Aristotelian philosophy during the medieval period; third, the reformed and Calvinist focus on responsibility before God towards others, echoing in many ways secular theories of the social contract; fourth, liberal Christianity which affirms the dignity of the individual through human rights, religious toleration, division of Church and state, and freedom of conscience; fifth, Christian socialism which focuses on human solidarity, democratic participation, and a just economic order. For De Gruchy, democracy is fragile and requires a functioning civil society which includes faith communities; democracy is not simply a system of government that can be implemented or perfected overnight but a culture which must be fostered, and the Church has a role in creating this culture. 

            Theologically De Gruchy argues that “a truly democratic order, from a trinitarian perspective, requires constant effort to discern ways of transcending this split between individualism and collectivism, which has bedevilled the debate between liberalism and socialism, and to develop an understanding of human sociality in which both individual rights and the common good are complementary rather than conflictual.” This is reflected in the distinctiveness of the three persons of the trinity and their unity. 

            We find that although democracy’s roots go back to ancient Greece, its current expression is a modern political innovation. It remains fragile, and as Christians if we exist “to serve God’s purposes of justice and peace in the world, and if democracy is the best polity for approximating that goal, then there is a clear connection between the church’s life and witness, and the struggle for a just democracy.” In practice this struggle is not simply about voting every few years but rather participating in efforts to find unity in diversity, valuing each person while acting upon our collective responsibility for one another, and engaging in the Church and civil society to promote a culture of democracy. 

Additional Resources

Church of England Pray your Part GE 2024

Catholic Church Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales GE

Church of Scotland Resources for Churches

Green Christian Election Pack for Churches

Churches Together Britain and Ireland General Election Website

Methodist Church on General Election

Quaker Election Guide and Template