Luke Bretherton

It is a statement of the obvious to say that Christianity is not necessary for democracy to exist. It is no less true, but perhaps less obvious, to say that democratic politics is intrinsic to the practice of Christianity, and democracy, broadly understood, is a way of enacting fundamental Christian commitments. Both these claims guide this article. Because it is not always clear what is meant by the term ‘democracy’, the article begins with an extended definition. Because it is even less clear how the Bible and democracy relate, the article then examines the scriptural precedents for a commitment to democracy. The article closes by outlining the key modern theological arguments that exhort active Christian involvement in democratic struggles for justice and liberation as well as responsibility for developing and sustaining democratic political systems. The essay as a whole outlines a theological grammar of democracy, providing a means to evaluate theologically whether or not a particular polity or form of politics is democratic. The one-line summary of this entry is that democracy is the political form of neighbour love, particularly in how it incorporates love of enemies.

1 Democracy defined

Democratic politics is a particular way of doing politics and thereby building a common life with others over time in a specific place. Democracy in all its forms is premised on several shared assumptions: the need to respect the equality and dignity of each individual; the importance of dialogue and debate as a means of resolving conflicts and solving shared problems (rather than killing, coercing, or persecuting those we disagree with); and that people should be free to have a say in decisions that affect them and the agency to shape the material and social conditions within which they live and work. As a tacitly nonviolent form of interaction, democratic politics thereby also entails a commitment to environments in which shared worlds of meaning and action can be created and sustained. By contrast, the proactive use of physical violence – beatings, kidnapping, torture, bombing, and the like – by state and nonstate actors represents the destruction of the institutions and customs through which communication and reciprocal relationship between friends, strangers, and enemies alike are made possible.

1.1 Democracy as the power of a people to pursue the good of all the people in this place, at this time

Definitional to democracy as a way of organizing and undertaking politics is demos-kratia: the ruling power (kratia) of the people (demos). In classical typologies, democracy is understood as rule by the many, which is contrasted with rule by either the one (monarchy) or the few (oligarchy; Aristotle 2013). As well as extending the range and character of who rules, democracy also entails a geographic dimension. In contrast to other possible terms for ‘the people’ – laos in Greek and populus in Latin – the demos carries with it a connotation of place or terroir, as it is connected with a deme or district. Building on the distinction between demos and laos, democratic politics should be understood to be both locational and vocational; it is rule by the people for the people, in this place and at this time. When the formation of a people becomes unmoored from forming a common life in a specific place and as part of an ongoing history, it quickly degenerates into either a mob or a mass of atomized individuals. However, neither of these is a demos, rather, they represent what the commentator on early stages of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), calls a form of ‘democratic despotism’.

In a democracy, wisdom is seen to rest with the many rather than the one or the few. To sustain good political order, the contention of democracy is that the widest possible net must be cast to catch the insights and experience needed for good government. However, rule by the people is inherently unstable since the identity of the people is itself ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the holistic sense of the term ‘people’ as denoting the whole or common. On the other, there is a factionalist use of it as a term for one section of the whole, the ‘have-nots’ or poor. To be democratic, politics must enable access for those who have no part, even as it constitutes a people from many parts.

A further ambiguity arises with the conflation of people and nation. In scripture, the terms are often used interchangeably: people of God/holy nation. However, there is a specific valence present in the modern period when what it means to be a people is conflated with being a homogenous ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural group. When peoplehood and a specific form of group identity are elided, then a people becomes the sacred, elect, or holy nation. Exemplified in forms of ethno-religious nationalism, this shift masks the historically-constructed and contingent nature of peoplehood as an ongoing political project, the boundaries and form of which are inherently subject to change and ongoing negotiation (Crick 2005). For example, the borders and prevailing culture of the political community now known as the United Kingdom are periodically subject to reformulation, yet nationalistic stories envision the British people in static and essentialized ways that project continuity.

Critiques of democracy, both classical and modern, focus on the second, factionalist meaning of the people. They envisage democracy as rule by the poor, ignorant majority, contending that such rule inevitably degenerates into chaotic rule by either a lawless mob or a demagogue (Lippincott 1938). Plato, a prominent and influential ancient critic of democracy, rejects it in the name of rule by the best or most excellent (aristos-cracy). However, in the contemporary context aristocracy is rule by those with either the most money, property, and family connections (plutocracy), education (meritocracy), or credentialed qualifications (technocracy). Historically, rule by those who self-identify themselves as ‘the best’ also excluded those without the right identity markers of class, race, gender, or sexuality. However, as noted already, neither mob rule nor simple majoritarianism should be confused for rule by the people in the holistic sense of the term.

In the holistic sense of ‘the people’, democratic forms of rule aspire to serve everyone (no matter their station or identity) through the pursuit of the commonwealth or public/shared goods. The contrast here is with ways of ruling that serve only the interests of the one, the few, or even the many (i.e. majoritarianism). In practice, rule that serves the commonwealth necessitates combining the holistic and factional sense of the demos. The whole people cannot be said to rule, nor the interests of all served, if the majority are excluded from the decision-making process. This is the wager of democracy: the common people, meaning the propertyless, poor, and those of limited or no formal education, are political equals to the rich and educated. They are just as capable of being citizens in the fullest sense, and need to be included in the political system if the good of the whole is to be upheld. Classical, renaissance, and modern republican defences of democracy take this line of argument, contending that good rule requires an active, broad-based citizenry in order that the res publica or public things might be sustained and made to serve the commonwealth, rather than be directed to personal gain by elites (Pettit 2012; Honohan 2002). The latter produces private splendour enjoyed by the few amid public squalor endured by the many.

1.2 The meaning and practice of rule by and for the people

In a democracy, sovereignty is derived from the people, who decide and issue the laws to themselves. Government is thereby said to be of the people, by the people, and for the people as a whole, but this raises the question of the nature and form of this self-rule. Liberal accounts of democracy, as developed by, for example, John Rawls (1921–2002) and Robert Nozick (1938–2002), conceive of self-rule as an extension of individual autonomy. Thus, popular sovereignty is derived from the sovereignty of the individual, and legitimacy is premised on each individual having an equal say in the decisions that affect everyone. However, as political philosophers such as Michael Walzer (b. 1935), Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929), and Michael Sandel (b. 1953) point out, conceiving of collective self-rule as an extension of individual autonomy obscures the intrinsic relationship between collective self-rule and the associational life of the people. The people are constituted through different forms of association (e.g. parties, unions, families, neighbourhood associations, schools, churches, corporations, etc.). It is not as individuals but as members of different associations that a common life is formed, through people coming together and negotiating their different interests and visions of the good. To use a classical analogy, the democratic body politic is made up of many parts, with these parts being associations not individuals. In an associational understanding of democracy, as developed by, among others, Paul Hirst (1946–2003) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), it is not individuals that are the focus. Rather, it is individuals gathered together in various associations and how these associations connect and collaborate that constitutes the people.

1.3 Democracy as more than a mechanism

Democracy is often confused with its mechanisms, and mostly associated (and conflated) with its instantiation in liberal democratic nation-states. In this prevalent understanding, democracy entails some combination of elections, party systems, the rule of law, parliaments, checks and balances of power, a regularized means of administration (e.g. an independent civil service), and an independent media. However, democratic politics (as against a democratic political system) can exist without any of these features being present. Indeed, democratic social movements of one kind or another exist prior to the formation of democratic systems and are the precursor to their establishment.

The mechanisms for pursuing democracy are not the substance of its meaning and purpose. Reducing democracy to its mechanisms is like saying the procedures for baking the cake are the cake. Elections, independent media, and other mechanisms are means for expanding the circle of people involved in the deliberative and decision-making process, sustaining conditions within which ordinary people can have agency in forming their common life, and limiting concentrations of power as well as enabling those with power to be held accountable. The wider the circle of those included in having a say and agency in shaping their living and working conditions, the greater the extent and scope of democratization. A maximal version of democracy is political voice and agency being distributed as widely as possible.

Alongside the contemporary conflation of democracy with its mechanisms, democracy is also often identified with liberalism as a political philosophy, and is assumed to be inherently ‘progressive’. It is not. Democratic politics can be deeply conservative and democratic systems can be present in authoritarian states, even as democratic ways of doing politics are used to contest authoritarianism. As a form of political order, the Roman republic had strong democratic elements, but would not be described as progressive or liberal. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church (exemplified in the conclave for electing the pope) has numerous democratic elements in its forms of self-government, yet is rarely described as progressive or liberal. Conversely, progressive ideologies and policies can be anti-democratic, as – rather than seeking the good of all – they pursue the interests and schemes of either a revolutionary vanguard or educated elites (both of whom believe that what seems good to them is good for everyone).

1.4 Democracy as both a form of statecraft and set of social practices

To be sustained over time and at scale, politics requires two things. One is institutional forms that enable the creation of a common life amid disagreement and diversity. As a name for the institutions of a polity, politics is a synonym for statecraft: that is, the exercise of sovereignty and government by state apparatus. Democracy is a name for ways of doing statecraft. As already noted, democratic modes of statecraft are part of, and compatible with, multiple constitutional settlements that include oligarchic and monarchical ways of doing statecraft, as for example in the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom. From Aristotle onwards, many have argued that democracy as a mode of statecraft works best when part of a mixed constitution. At a practical level, direct democracy is not scalable to the size of most modern nation-states. When used to identify a contemporary political system, democracy signifies a representative democracy within a mixed constitution.

While necessary for sustaining a common life over time, political institutions and systems by themselves are insufficient. Also needed are relational practices and modes of communication that generate and renew shared worlds of meaning and action. These are fundamental to cultivating a common life amid disagreement and diversity. Politics as an informal, relational craft takes place in multiple settings. It is not coextensive with control of the state, nor even dependent on there being a state: nomadic people groups outside of any formal state structures still generate a rich form of political life through customary practices of hospitality, greeting, etc., through which they sustain a common life based on shared goods (e.g. access to water); elders and pastors negotiating changing service times in a church are practising the craft of politics; boardroom negotiations without recourse to litigation are doing politics in this informal dimension.

There are different ways to parse the distinction between democracy as a formal system of government and democracy as a way of generating and sustaining the common life of a body politic. One is given by Maritain, who distinguishes between a democratic system and a democratic culture. The former prioritizes democracy as a means of statecraft, and the latter emphasizes democratic social practices. Democracy as a system of government is an expression of, and depends on, the prior health and well-being of the democratic body politic or culture. Widespread civil unrest or a polarized and factionalized culture can lead to the collapse of democracy as a system of government. Democratic social practices generate and sustain shared worlds of meaning and action as well as trust between different groups. Democratic systems of government without a vibrant democratic culture are brittle and easily broken.

As a set of social practices, small ‘d’ participatory democratic politics enables each person to have some agency in determining their living and working conditions, as well as determining, participating in, and benefiting from shared goods that are produced by a people’s common life. Institutionalized in the form of the liberal democratic nation-state, democracy as a form of statecraft through which a polity is governed is a relatively modern development. However, as historians of democracy note, democratic cultures and social practices emerge in many contexts and historical periods, including ancient India, ancient Mesopotamia, and precolonial Africa and America (Kaplan 2015; Stasavage 2020). Christianity develops both democratic forms of institutions and a rich array of democratic social practices, and antecedents to both are found in scripture.

2 Scriptural antecedents

The Old and New Testaments are repeatedly turned to, in numerous contexts, as a resource and warrant for democracy, and for good reason. There are myriad stories and frames of reference in the Bible that fund a democratic social imaginary. In the European and North American contexts, arguments over how to interpret different passages have been key to debates about the meaning, purpose, and form of democracy as a political system. There is not space here for a full accounting of all the biblical themes and stories that provide precedents for democracy. Instead, outlined here are a few of the most important ones. The analysis of these scriptural points of reference are situated in a reception history of their use in political thought, through citing examples of theologians who draw on them to either justify or critique democracy. This is done to illustrate ways in which biblical texts can be taken up in discussions of democracy.

2.1 Created in the image of God whose likeness is renewed and fulfilled in Christ

A point of reference drawn on repeatedly as a warrant for democracy is that every human is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). In Christian terms, this is not a stand-alone claim, but one aligned with how Jesus Christ is the revelation and incarnation of the true human. Christ reveals the true likeness of God in human form and what it means to live a truly human life. Over and against the ravages of sin and idolatry, humans can recover their own humanity through contemplating and participating in Christ. To do that entails encountering Christ through active solidarity with the least, the lost, and the last. This at least is the takeaway from a history of interpretations of Matt 25: 31–40, where Jesus describes self-professed followers of his asking, ‘[w]hen did I help you, Christ?’, with Jesus replying, ‘it was when you welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited prisoners’.

In a christological way of understanding what it means to be made in the image of God, it is the incarcerated, dying, starving, impoverished, enslaved, sick, and disabled who are fully human and more deserving of reverential care and respect than the free, propertied, and powerful. In them, believers encounter Christ, and through solidarity with them recover their own humanity. At a minimum level, to treat all people as made in the image of God implies that, whatever a person’s own station or situation, they are fully human, and their humanity is revealed and secured in Christ, who died for them and in whom their life is liberated and redeemed.

A direct implication of all humans being made in the image of God is that everyone matters. There is no fundamental divide in humanity between a ruling elite and everyone else, but quite the opposite. It is the humble and lowly who deserve special attention. What this means for politics is that the poorest person with no education has full dignity and should, at the very least, be given as full an ability to participate in determining their living and working conditions as the prestigiously-educated banker living in an expensive penthouse.

2.2 Covenant

In scripture, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Israel are paradigmatic. Through them, God reveals the covenant as the basis and structure of human community and divine-human-nonhuman relations. Central to this revelation is that all forms of relationship between God and humans, as well as between humans themselves, require the active agreement and participation in the decision-making process of those entering the relationship, whether individually or by their representatives.

Crucially, covenant precedes command. The obligation to obey God’s law is founded on the prior agreement of the people generated through a covenant. Covenants thereby bring into being a moral and political community of mutual obligation, but one that is contingent upon keeping the covenant. Thus, built into a notion of covenant is the sense that it can be broken and must be maintained or renewed if it is to stand. The existing quality and character of the relations between those who covenanted together sits under the judgment of what was originally promised. For example, in Hosea, sin – in the form of promiscuous idolatry – is a betrayal of the covenant, while redemption is covenant renewal.

The biblical portrayal of covenant as the foundational basis of political community was hugely influential on the development of democratic thinking in the West (Elazar 1995; Walzer et al. 2003; Nelson 2010). Communal identity and purpose are not founded in ethnicity (blood), nor sharing the same territory (soil), nor even a shared history or set of ancestors. All these things may contribute to the formation of ‘the people’, but they are not the foundational basis of the people as a moral and political community. This is constituted through and derived from an act of covenant. Biblical Israel constantly forgets this and tries to secure its identity and existence through non-covenantal means. Its renewal, therefore, entails a return to covenantal faithfulness, and the same is true for the church.

Scriptural ideas of covenant are a vital well-spring from which modern European understandings of democracy flow. However, modern liberal thought, with its roots in the likes of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), reconfigures covenant into contract and makes contract the basis of political order. However, key contrasts can be drawn between covenant and contract. Both emphasize the place of consent in authorizing and founding ongoing forms of life together. However, in scripture, covenants are portrayed as historical events that take place in relation to a specific place and time. They are also mostly collective acts, situated in a wider story that makes sense of the meaning and purpose of the covenant (see Exod 24; Deut 29; Josh 24; Ezek 20; and Neh 9–10). They are also embedded in a ritual process that is commemorated through ongoing practices of memory-keeping and covenant renewal (e.g. Passover). Christian and Jewish thinking about democracy retains covenant, and a shared memory tied to a specific place or land, as the foundation of a democratic political order. By contrast, modern conceptions of contract take place between individuals and are situated in an ahistorical and idealized ‘state of nature’ (see Locke 2003). In effect, humans are envisaged as placeless, free-floating monads, without a shared story or memory, who come together individually through contracts to form a polity. A further point of divergence is that, in contractarian frameworks, consent is the primary ground of legitimacy, emphasized to the exclusion of all else (something is wrong only if it is not consented to). By contrast, covenantal frameworks emphasize making and keeping promises as the foundational act (something is wrong not only when promises are not kept but also when the quality and character of the relationships is threatened or undermined). The influential political theories of Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and Sheldon Wolin (1922–2015), both of whom were Jewish, exemplify this latter covenantal emphasis.

Contrary to arguments made by liberal theorists, starting with covenant rather than individuals contracting together as the basis for democracy is not in opposition to individual liberty. Rather, it recognizes that individual liberty depends on and is mediated by multiple forms of association and differing kinds of relationship. As Arendt notes: ‘A body politic which is the result of covenant and “combination” becomes the very source of power for each individual person who outside the constituted political realm remains impotent’ (Arendt 2006: 162).

Covenant is the scriptural term for the quality and character of relationship that should be the basis of any form of common life through which people realize their humanity. Covenant names how persons are constituted as human beings through mutually responsible, cooperative fellowship with others and how, if this fellowship is to enable human flourishing, it must be ordered in relationship to God. Failure to live in covenantal relations with others is a failure to be fully human. Conversely, love of God and love of neighbour, realized through covenantal relations, are the ground and fulfilment of what it means to be human (see Love in Christian Ethics).

Covenant is taken up by numerous Christian political thinkers to frame the nature and basis of a democracy as a way of structuring and inhabiting political community. This was most forcefully done from the Reformation on by Calvinist theologians (Witte 2007). For example, the seventeenth-century Dutch Protestant thinker Johannes Althusius (1563–1638) develops a complex account of sovereignty that is based on covenant. For Althusius, sovereignty is an assemblage that emerges through and is grounded upon a process of mutual communication between covenantal associations and their reciprocal pursuit of common goods. A twentieth-century example is the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968), who justifies the rule of law and a liberal democratic polity through a covenantal framework (Barth 1968). For Barth, democracy, both as a mode of statecraft and set of social practices, is a way to embody relations of mutual care and cooperation over time.

2.3 Rule of law

A basic premise of modern democracy as a form of statecraft is the rule of law. This holds that nobody is above the law and that government is bound or limited by law and due process. All members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly-disclosed legal codes and processes. The rule of law gives rise to a whole apparatus that makes possible the attempt to ensure equality under and before the law and that the law is administered impartially and independently. The divisions of powers between executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government in the United States is one direct manifestation of such an arrangement. Crucially, while it is enacted through laws and juridical apparatus, the rule of law is itself grounded on social convention and a moral commitment.

The rule of law has a deep scriptural warrant. The people of God are a polity ruled by God, mediated through law. A tenet of scripture is the claim that human political orders should be determined neither by the personal fiat of a single ruler nor by an oligarchy. Rather, they should be determined in the first instance by covenant and law. This tenet has formed the basis of whole moral and political frameworks. One is natural law, which frames the rule of God as being mediated throughout creation, through eternal law, natural law, the law of nations (ius gentium), and the law of particular polities. As Brian Tierney and John Witte argue, natural law frameworks were the seedbed out of which modern human rights frameworks grew (Tierney 1997; Witte 2006).

2.4 Assembly

Assembly is central to democracy. It is through assembly that the people are constituted as a people. This is also true of the people of God, who are founded as a people through a civic-cultic assembly when God gives the law (Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16 – qahal in Hebrew and ekklesia in Greek). This assembly is gathered again before entering the promised land (Deut 31:30), and again on entering the promised land (Josh 8:30–35). After the first assembly, all the people (including women, children, and resident aliens) were supposed to assemble every seven years (Deut 31:10–13; Park 2015). At crucial points in the story of Israel, it is a congregation or assembly that enables the reconstitution of the people of God as a holy people. For example, in Ezra 10, after a prior process of debate, the decision about how to restore the covenant is ultimately taken by an assembly of the people, and although Ezra is given authority from above he cannot act without the active consent of the people.

In scripture, the fullest expression and paradigmatic form of God’s rule is the assemblies where God and the people speak and hear each other, albeit often mediated by Spirit-anointed representatives such as Moses, David, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, or Peter (see The Spirit in the Christian Bible). These public assemblies include various kinds of Spirit-anointed speech, such as reasoned deliberation, prophetic indictment, legal proclamation, exhortation, cries of repentance, and shouts of acclamation, all of which help constitute the people of God. Ultimately, the fulfilment of the people of God and the fulfilment of creation are marked by an assembly of all nations before God at the eschaton (e.g. Matt 25:31–46). In summary, a civic-cultic assembly is the means through which to constitute the people as those who stand in covenantal relation to God, each other, and the rest of creation.

Assembly is central to the formation of a people, but when the people assemble very bad things can happen: it was a popular assembly that helped sentence Jesus to death. Those who gather before Pilate are not, as is commonly assumed, a mob. Rather, they constituted an assembly of the people whose cry of acclamation carried authorizing force in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Alongside Pilate (rule by one), the Sanhedrin (rule by the few) is rule by the people (the many, in its form as a crowd or multitude). Augustine and Jerome envisage rule by the people as a key part of the proceedings by which Jesus is condemned (Adams 1971: 105–108). The treatment of Jesus echoes Num 14:1–10 when ‘the whole congregation’ assembles and raises a loud cry, complains to Moses and Aaron, appoints captains, and elects to return to Egypt. Portrayed in Numbers 14 is a process of deliberation about where the real good of the people lies and who is most fit to lead them. Things go very badly until Yahweh intervenes to prevent the stoning of Moses. But Moses is no Pilate; rather than wash his hands of the situation, he takes up a deliberation with God on behalf of the people.

As the tribulations of Moses and Jesus illustrate to negative affect, assembly is a time and place of contestation where the power of the people is expressed. More constructive modern examples of how assembly is central to democratic politics, especially in the absence of democratic forms of statecraft, are those who gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989 or Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. Assembly is also constitutive of democratic statecraft itself, institutionalized as it is in parliaments, congresses, and council chambers.

2.5 A preferential option for the people

Latin American liberation theologians argue persuasively that there is a preferential option for the poor and oppressed throughout scripture. However, the popular judgment against Jesus and Moses is a reminder that scripture does not beatify the oppressed as morally infallible or without sin (Gutiérrez 1993: 235–250). The common people can be stiff-necked and act in either oppressive or self-destructive ways, even as they cry out for justice. Yet, in stark contrast to other human histories and myths, in the story of Israel the marginal, enslaved, and colonized stand alongside God as central characters. However, while the experience and perspective of the oppressed should be given priority, their perspective is not necessarily decisive. In scripture it is not enough to prefer the poor; there must also be a movement toward becoming a people.

A preferential option for the people is intensified in the New Testament with the demotic and universalizing work of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost represents the moment when the nature of mediation, whether of Temple, priest, king, law, or territory is ruptured, if not entirely undone. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh and can be manifested in any place and any form of human life – Parthians, Elamites, Phrygians, etc. – without distinction, and anyone can receive the anointing needed to speak for and with God (Acts 2). The popular, the ordinary, and the vulgar (in the older sense, meaning ‘common’) can mediate God’s presence, and God’s presence can be articulated in one’s own idiom, however uncouth. At Pentecost it is the marginal who speak forth God’s Word, not those from the centre. Moreover, all now have gifts to share and all may now be active participants in building up the people of God. The Reformation emphasis on the ‘priesthood of all believers’ reflects this, as does Roman Catholic teaching on synodality. In summary, the divine empowering and formation of a people to act and speak for themselves before God has had enormous influence in the history of Christian thinking about democracy.

2.6 A distributed structure of political authority

As a group, the people of God are a theocracy. But this should not be understood in the modern usage of the term as denoting a polity ruled by a priestly caste. The scriptural portrayal of theocracy is meant to prevent the rule by a single person or class, priestly or otherwise. Rather, the people are ruled directly by God, which means no human ruler or class can claim sovereignty. Theocracy in this scriptural sense means something like ‘no master but God’ – a sensibility turned to revolutionary ends by Protestants in the sixteenth century. God’s sovereignty is distributed throughout the people rather than being concentrated in a single figure or group. Even with the ambiguous installation of a monarchy, the legitimacy and authority of the kings are institutionally negotiated and contested by prophets and priests. This is a point emphasized by the Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). He states that, in the Hebrew scriptures:

The king is neither the son nor an incarnation nor a representative of God. He is the ruler appointed by God who must reign according to the will and mishpat of God. The heart of the social order was neither king nor priest, but the covenant between God and the people. (Heschel 2001: 610)

In scripture, political authority is grounded not in the person of the monarch but in the covenant between God and the people, with its powers and representation distributed across various offices.

The scriptural view of the limits and boundedness of earthly political sovereigns contrasts sharply with an integralist vision of political order. Integralist visions, in which the individual, the household, and political structures cohere into a uniform and seamless hierarchy, are often tied to anti-democratic conceptions of political order. Integralist visions draw an analogy between soul, polity, and universe in ways that emphasize uniformity over plurality, as well as timelessness over historical contingency. Exemplified in Plato’s Republic, the analogy is also common within the Christian tradition. It is an analogy mostly derived from a doctrine of God that emphasizes the oneness, omnipotence, and transcendent lordship of God over the universe. By extension, there is said to be only one king governing the polity, one father governing the family, and each human governing his or her actions. God is the archetypal sovereign and human sovereignty – in all its forms – takes on the various attributes ascribed to God’s nature. Eusebius (c.260–338/339), in his ‘Oration in Praise of the Emperor Constantine’, articulates this theo-political logic.

Many critiques of democracy operate out of an integralist understanding of political order. They reject rule by the many in the name of either rule by one or rule by those who they see as best fitted to being in charge. These critics abhor the inherent pluralism and messy agonism of democratic politics. Instead, they prefer a supposedly God-given, harmonious, and uniform hierarchy. Robert Filmer’s (1588–1653) patriarchal theory of political order is an early modern example of this political theology. The reactionary and authoritarian ‘throne and altar’ political theologies of Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), Louis de Bonald (1754–1840), and the nationalist and anti-democratic organization Action Française (founded in 1899) exemplify its modern forms. However, what such political theologies name as peace and order are what the twelfth-century prelate Rufinus of Sorrento called ‘the sleep of Behemoth’ – a disordered and unjust tranquillity (Rufinus of Sorrento 1997). Those who argue for democracy and the distribution of power contend that the formation of even a modestly just earthly peace requires prophetically disturbing a subjugated quiescence that dresses up compliance as harmony. Echoing the prophets, they challenge those who cry ‘peace’ when there is no peace (Jer 6:14).

2.7 Prophecy

Prophecy is of enormous significance for democratic thought and practice. The figure of the prophet, prophetic speech, and prophetic action offer biblical authorization for dissent and social criticism as divinely ordained. However, it is not only the legitimacy of dissent from the dominant consciousness and critique of existing authorities and systems for which biblical prophecy provides inspiration and warrant. The themes of the biblical prophets are taken up repeatedly to frame democratic discourse, which is couched in narratives of idolatry and judgment, corruption and renewal, sin and redemption, false peace against true peace, exile and homecoming, and the need for repentance and the possibilities of forgiveness (Shulman 2008). This is also true of prophetic genres: notably, lamentation (giving voice to suffering and the anguished yearning for a better world), theodicy (assigning suffering meaning and purpose), jeremiad (identifying the causes of suffering and who or what is to blame), and messianic envisioning (invoking the world as it should be beyond suffering and energizing hope and desire for such a world). By way of illustration, Frederick Douglas’ 1852 speech ‘The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro’, and Martin Luther King Jr’.s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered at the 1963 March on Washington, deploy all these frames and genres.

Prophecy contrasts with other types of political communication in both its idioms and forms. It is not prudent advice based on accumulated wisdom, philosophical speculation, a legal code, technical analysis, or logical argument. It is historically rooted, poetic proclamation (Brueggeman 1978), but its poetry is vernacular, even ‘vulgar’ speech and action. It is from the people and for the people, even as it judges the people and their authorities in order to call forth righteousness and a return to covenantal faithfulness (Walzer 1988). Through passionate, existentially urgent, charismatic testimony, prophecy awakens and incites new ways of seeing and acting.

Prophetic speech and action disturb the dominant order because its sits outside the existing structures of legitimation. In other words, it is not credentialed speech. Prophets like Amos or Huldah do not inherit their role (they do not speak from the authority of ancestry or bloodline). Nor are they appointed by due process or licensed by the king. Instead, they receive their authority directly from God without mediation, and so as people outside the control of existing authority structures or social conventions they are free to ‘speak truth to power’. After Pentecost, when the Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh, anyone and everyone may speak and act prophetically. It was precisely this demotic license to speak freely and challenge authority, based on nothing other than personal revelation, that so worried the early modern political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677). In their critiques of prophecy, they point to how it threatens political stability. Yet its dangers are also the source of its democratic promise: critique of the status quo and prefiguring alternative possibilities are vital if there is to be movement from the world as it is towards a more generous and just one.

Rather than focusing on economic efficiency or political stability, prophecy centres questions of moral integrity, justice, and communal identity: Who are we, how do we relate to each other, and what do we stand for? These are properly democratic questions, as they pertain to what is the true good for the people as a whole. However, at the heart of prophecy is a doubleness that also marks democracy: the need for speech and action that is at once critically distant from the people yet deeply loyal and committed to their good. Prophecy thereby enacts a tensional form of relationship, one steeped in pathos and infused with hope that is vital to sustaining democracy: that of critical solidarity. As will be seen, love of enemies as a specification of neighbour love embodies this ‘burdened virtue’ (Tessman 2005).

2.8 Neighbour love

The constructive way in which Christians frame relations with others in a fallen world is in terms of loving one’s neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the paradigmatic scriptural passage for understanding neighbour love. In the story, the neighbour has three identities: he is a stranger, an enemy, and someone who, in his suffering, is without either friends to help him or the capacity to care for himself. In the light of the parable, neighbour love is a vocation to love strangers and enemies as well as the suffering, excluded, and impoverished who lack the resources to meet their needs. The focus here is on how love of enemies is folded into neighbour love (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28).

In the call to love enemies as neighbours, the New Testament addresses a central moral problem of politics. In the Graeco-Roman world, those judged to be outsiders/noncitizens – whether resident within the boundaries of the polity or living elsewhere – were potential, if not actual, enemies. Their way of life threatened the very existence of the polis. Since the physical, moral, and spiritual flourishing of the individual citizen was coterminous with the flourishing of the city, this meant that outsiders not identified with or contributing to the life of the polity were necessarily either potentially seditious (if they were resident aliens) or a threat (if they were foreigners). It was necessary to guard against alien forms of life, and if they disturbed the peace they were either repressed (if inside the walls) or repelled (if outside). Violent reactions against Paul’s preaching and miracles in cities like Philippi and Ephesus exemplify these responses (Acts 16:12–40; 19). Internal and external ‘others’ were also a means by which the common life of ‘our’ polity came to be defined and understood. ‘We, the people’ were not like ‘them’, and all that the other was imagined to be (effeminate, uncivilized, treacherous, cruel, etc.) was all that ‘we’ were not (virile, loyal, brave, honest, rational, etc.). See, for example, numerous ancient Greek depictions of the Persians.

Notoriously, Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), the Nazi jurist, critic of democracy, and political theologian, made a virtue of friend-enemy relations, seeing them as the basis of political life (Schmitt 2007). Schmitt’s insight that these relations are a central feature of political life cannot be ignored, even if his conclusions are refused. Different civilizations have imagined themselves over against different internal and external others, and friend-enemy relations deeply shape fallen political life. This is no less true of Christian societies than of city-states like Athens, or the Roman, Ottoman, or Ming empires, or atheistic states like the Soviet Union. Many European societies professed to be Christian, and in doing so imagined themselves over against the internal other of Jews and the external other of Muslims. This self-understanding thereby justified the repression of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and formed the thought-world that subsequently justified the subjugation of various ‘pagan’ and non-white peoples (Wynters 2003: 257–337).

Theologically, friend-enemy relations need converting so they are ordered according to neighbour love. The universal scope of God’s love and presence calls into question any attempt to make the ‘friend-enemy’ binary definitive. The Midianite Jethro, the heretic Samaritan, and the Syrophoenician woman, no less than the faithful Jewish man, can teach Christians something about God, about how to live well, and that God can be present in ‘their’ form of life, despite it being very different from ‘ours’. Friend-enemy relations are fallen rather than created, and thus they can be converted. Indeed, love of neighbour embodies the redemptive possibilities of politics. It disrupts how Christians imagine and construct friend-enemy relations, by extending their sense of who to include in our common life.

Democratic politics is a mode of neighbour love that includes love of enemies. However, such love can be highly agitational in form, particularly between the haves and the have-nots. A loving act in relation to those in power who refuse to acknowledge their oppressive action is to force those who claim to be friends to everyone (and are thereby friends to no one) to recognize that their actions perpetuate domination and need renouncing. As James Baldwin articulated with such force, in the context of getting white Americans to realize their complicity in racism, central to this fight is agitation that punctures the entitled innocence of those who ‘have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it’ (Baldwin 1998: 292). The fight also includes holding accountable those who humiliate and demean others, who intend evil to secure themselves, and who train ‘their tongues to speak falsely’ (Jer 9:3–4). Such a fight is a critical part of neighbour love. To use Martin Luther King, Jr’.s formulation, such agitation and protest is ‘love correcting that which revolts against love’ (King 2001: 11). Democratic struggles for a more just and loving common life were seen by King as a defining feature of neighbour love. Love of enemies, realized through nonviolent civil resistance, was a key insight that shaped his theological ethics and vision of beloved community.

Democracy as a mode of statecraft is not necessary for Christians to be Christians. But as the scriptures bear witness, the institution of the church and the formation of the people of God necessitate and are constituted through various forms of democratic practice.

3 Christianity and democracy in history

One common way to tell the story of democracy begins with ancient Athens, jumps to the re-emergence of democracy in Western Europe during the Enlightenment, and culminates with its flowering in the twentieth century in the wake of the second world war and the end of European empires (see Crick 2003; Cartledge 2018; Dunn 2018). This secularizing way of telling the story can be countered by pointing to the importance of the Reformation, and in particular the role of Puritanism, in the history of western democracy (see Gooch 1927; Walzer 1985; Cuttica and Peltonen 2019). The Protestant emphasis on things such as the priesthood of all believers, the promotion of literacy, and the hallowing of individual conscience are key to the subsequent development of liberal democracy. Yet even if the importance of the Reformation is included in the narrative, the story told still represents a Eurocentric, progressive, and narrow history. Moreover, this way of telling the story focuses on the emergence of democracy as a form of modern statecraft and centres questions of sovereignty and statehood, thereby obscuring the ways democracy is first and foremost a set of social practices.

Attention to the latter makes clear that the history of the relationship between Christianity and democracy, and the story of democracy as such, is neither linear nor developmental. It is fractal, contingent, and, according to Sheldon Wolin, fugitive (2016: 100–113). Rather than being a story of unfolding progress, it is one of continuities and discontinuities (Markoff 1999: 660–690). And rather than being a story that moves geographically from the ‘west to the rest’, there is a global history in which western ideas about democracy are challenged and reshaped by interaction with and input from an array of non-western forms of life that are themselves shaped and reshaped by interaction with Christianity as a global faith. To take but one example: Gandhi draws on Jesus and the New Testament to inform his radically democratic vision of nonviolent resistance. Those who pioneered the civil rights movement in the US in turn drew on Gandhi to shape their Christian understanding of radical democratic politics. Both the movement Gandhi led and the civil rights movement are hugely significant for how democratic social movements around the world operate today. This historical relationship is neither straightforward nor unidirectional. It involves a meshwork of relations between different geographies, religious traditions, and conceptions of democracy (Azaransky 2017).

Once the emergence of western liberal democratic nation-states is decentred, it becomes clear that many cultures and historical periods developed core elements of democracy as a form of collective self-government. These elements include: customary practices and institutional means for distributing political and economic agency; giving people a say in their living and working conditions; generating collective action to challenge injustice; using dialogue as a way of solving shared problems; tolerating dissent; and respecting the dignity of the individual. Indeed, democracy, understood as a set of social practices for collective self-government at either a small or large scale, finds justification in numerous religious and philosophical frameworks. Examples include West African practices of palavar, Islamic practices of shūrā, Indonesian modes of shared deliberation and consensus-based decision making known as Musyawarah Mufakat, the Carib wiku, and the Viking thing or folkmoot. A full survey of the history of the relationship between Christianity and democracy, let alone democracy itself, is beyond the scope of this article.

4 Modern political theologies of democracy

There is a family of arguments that inform the advocacy of democracy as enshrining Christian beliefs and practices. Modern theologians tend to emphasize one of these arguments more than the others, but together they constitute a holistic account of why and how faithful Christian mission and ministry should entail a strong commitment to democratic forms of statecraft along with seeing democratic social practices as constitutive of faithful witness. Broadly speaking, these arguments address democracy as a way to rightly participate in creation, as a response to the fall, and as a witness to the new creation.

4.1 Christological humanism

This line of argument in all its variations can be summarized as follows: humans are created and redeemed to fulfil their personhood within and through a just and generous common life, the realization of which is best enabled by democracy. Writing amid the struggle against fascism, Ernest Barker envisions democracy as ‘a system of government which squares with, and is based upon, the free and full development of human personality – not in some, or even in many, but in all’. He then goes on to name democracy as that form of government that is founded on ‘the development of personality and individuality in every self’ (Barker 1967: 36). The Reformed South African theologian John de Gruchy, writing in the wake of the ending of apartheid, links the above view of democracy to the nature and form of the church. For de Gruchy, ‘genuine’ democracy is about enabling the ‘fulfilment and flourishing’ of each individual through making possible their participation in and contribution to the well-being of society as a whole (1995).

The theological basis for this line of argument proposes that democracy as both a mode of statecraft and set of social practices enables humans to realize their true natures as those created in the image of the triune God and redeemed by Christ. As noted previously, the implication of this theological confession is that each person has an intrinsic worth that must be honoured and that everyone matters equally, no matter their station or situation. A further implication is that to image Christ and participate in divine-human relations, and thereby fulfil what it means to be human, requires participation in a just and generous common life here and now, not just in the age to come. Democracy is then taken to be the form of politics that best honours the dignity of each person whilst also ensuring that everyone can participate in forming a common life and so fulfil their personhood. Rather than be acted on and have their world determined and controlled by the one or the few, all can have agency in cultivating and contributing to shared worlds of meaning and action. Democracy thereby provides the conditions and means through which human personhood is actualized, in and through free and mutually responsible relationships with and for others. It makes provision for each person to have a hand in shaping and benefitting from the material and social conditions under which they live and work. Other political systems inherently inhibit such participation and thereby prohibit the full realization of human personhood. Even at their best or most benign, other political forms produce unfree and demoralized people.

Within this framework, democracy accords with an understanding of the human as revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection represents the true likeness of the human. This Christological humanism (what Karl Barth calls ‘God humanism’) rejects both individualism and collectivism, advocating instead for humans as persons constituted in and through relationship with others. As Barth puts it:

The Christian message is interested in the particular individual as well as in the fellowship of individuals, but it puts the emphasis always on the individual being together with other individuals. As far as fellowship is concerned, it is always meant to be constituted by the mutually free responsibility of different individuals. (Barth 1951: 162, original emphasis)

The quality and character of the relationships between distinct persons determines the quality and character of human personhood, as well as the nature and form of our common life within which we come to be as persons. Maritain’s arguments for Christian Democracy, Karl Barth and Archbishop William Temple’s arguments for forms of Christian socialism, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu as the basis for a democratic political order in the context of apartheid South Africa, and Amos Yong’s Pentecostal political theology represent different versions of this kind of argument.

A Christological and personalist justification for democracy is also central to its framing within Catholic Social Teaching (CST), with CST distinguishing ‘authentic’ from ‘inauthentic’ forms of democracy on this basis. The magisterium contends that what passes for democracy too often undermines the realization of personhood. In response, John Paul II outlined the conditions to be met by democracy if it is to be ‘authentic’:

Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility. (Centesimus Annus 46; John Paul II 1991)

A participatory democratic society, as exemplified in relational and place-based forms of political and economic association such as community organizing, unions, and cooperatives, is a vital means through which the ‘structures of participation and shared responsibility’ can be both upheld and fulfilled.

A final variation on Christological humanist arguments for the synergism between Christianity and democracy is that it is in and through democracy that virtues central to human flourishing are learned. First and foremost among these is that democracy is a way of learning faith, hope, and love (see Mathewes 2007; Lamb 2022).

4.2 Political animals called to be covenanting creatures

A related line of argument to Christological humanist justifications for democracy focuses on how humans are political animals whose nature is best expressed and fulfilled through forming covenants. Democracy enables both the formation and sustention of covenantal association, whether in the church (e.g. congregationalism, synodality) or the wider body politic. It is through a multitude of covenantal associations forming relationships together by democratic means and housed within a democratic form of statecraft that a peaceable, just, and generous common life can be forged and sustained over time. This approach is exemplified in confederalist accounts of democracy, represented in the work of Johannes Althusius, the Dutch Neo-Calvinist Herman Dooyeweerd, the Anglican political historian John Neville Figgis (1866–1919), and more recently in John Inazu’s arguments for ‘confident pluralism’ and Luke Bretherton’s arguments for consociational democracy. The emphasis here is less on the full development of persons (although that is vital) than on the way humans only realize their personhood in forms of proximate covenantal association, and how these forms of association need democratic social practices and forms of statecraft to connect them. Without democracy, these covenantal associations either turn against each other or become sectarian enclaves.

Key here is the role of civil society in ‘authentic’ democracy. Broadly stated, within this line of argument civil society serves three inter-related roles: it is protective (securing space for the development of different forms of covenantal association), integrative (enabling the integration and communication between different associations), and transformative (generating critique, resistance and new ideas and inclusions to those that determine the status quo).

4.3 Legitimizing authority and generating wise judgments

This third line of argument focuses primarily on democracy as a mode of statecraft. It builds on the convention of consent as well as a ‘dual appointment’ theory of authority, according to which both divine and human appointment are required for the proper constitution of political authority. On this kind of account, divine authorization of the office of government is compatible with, and indeed requires, the expression of popular consent to the holders of that office (vox populi, vox dei, ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’). Conversely, the withdrawal of consent by the people is a sign of divine disfavour. This is not a modern argument but was part of European medieval political theologies, embodied in the need for the sovereign to receive acclamation by the people as part of the coronation process. However, in its modern form, democratic means of legitimizing authority through elections systematize it.

The representatives of the people also require reflexive processes of widespread debate and deliberation in order to generate wise political judgments. Conversely, when democracy is reduced to an electoral procedure for collating individual preferences and interests, the consultative, deliberative, and discriminative aspects of making political judgments are erased. As Oliver O’Donovan contends: ‘For representative action to have moral depth, the representative needs a comprehensive sense of what the people at its best, i.e. at its most reflective and considerate, is concerned about’ (O’Donovan 2005: 179). Open, widespread, and accessible public debate, protected by freedom of speech as well as ongoing forms of participatory democracy underpinned by freedom of assembly, are vital to producing this reflective deliberation and consultation. Without it, democracy collapses into a form of elected dictatorship.

4.4 Restraining evil and remediating the effects of sin

A further line of argument builds on Augustine’s dual (somewhat paradoxical) emphasis on the tendency of all earthly political authorities towards domination and their postlapsarian role in restraining evil. Inhibiting evil is not, however, only a negative act. It includes positively enabling life to be so ordered that evil does not flourish and the good is pursued. In the modern context, this is achieved through such measures as upholding the rule of law and providing common goods like public healthcare and education. On this line of argument, democracy both enables the good to be pursued and is a necessary check on the unavoidable tendency of sinful holders of political authority towards abuse and domination. It is thereby a vital restraint on the corruption of power. Reinhold Niebuhr gave a strong articulation of this approach in his book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and it can be summarized in his famous statement that ‘[m]an’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary’ (Niebuhr 1945: xiii; 1953: 99–100). Niebuhr rejected both idealism and cynicism about democracy, envisaging it instead as being attuned to the historical reality of the human condition. For him, democracy had pragmatic value, providing ‘a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems’. However, for democracy to function in this way it requires the virtue of humility. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, provide the transcendent horizon of reference that enable a realism about politics and prevent investing democracy with salvific power (Niebuhr 1945: 151). In short, for Niebuhr democracy should not be conflated with the kingdom of God and must be shorn of any redemptive aspirations, but it is a vital means for pursuing a more just common life here and now.

4.5 Forming the people of God (or democracy as an ecclesial practice)

This fifth line of argument contends that democracy is not simply synergistic with Christian commitments but is constitutive of the church and faithful forms of Christian witness. Such a view is expressed in Bradford Hinze’s contention that the Roman Catholic Church only fulfils what it means to be the people of God when it is constituted through democratic means. For Hinze, this means intra-ecclesial dialogue through synodical and conciliar processes that include the laity in the deliberative and decision-making processes. This intramural process is matched extramurally through participation in forms of democratic politics that enable the church to hear the laments of its neighbours and so respond faithfully. These intramural and extramural processes of listening and shared deliberation go alongside listening to tradition and scripture (Bretherton 2010: 213–215). This process of double listening enables mutual ‘accountability and transparency’ between officeholders, laity, and those outside the church. This process is a constitutive element of what Hinze calls ‘prophetic obedience’. As he summarizes it: ‘The prophetic character of the people of God is realized in and through synodality in the church, and in and through democracy in civil society’ (Hinze 2016: 38). The recent emphasis on synodality as constitutive of the people of God by Pope Francis echoes this line of argument (Pope Francis 2021).

In a different register, Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) also presents an argument for democratic social practices as constitutive of authentic Christian witness. While he is a vocal critic of contemporary forms of liberal democracy as a mode of statecraft, he calls on the church to embody the peaceable kingdom of God through the radically democratic social practices of nonviolence and patient, non-controlling, place-based ways of building relationship together (Hauerwas 1985: 122–131). Such ways of building relationship form a people with the character to inhabit the love and justice of God in a violent world. What it means to be the people of God in this way is exemplified for Hauerwas by the L’Arche communities which he calls a ‘peace movement’ (Hauerwas and Coles 2008: 309–321). L’Arche displays what it means to inhabit a truly peaceable – and radically democratic – way of life that can bear the name ‘church’.

4.6 Witnessing to and participating in salvation

Maximalist accounts of the mutually-constitutive relationship between Christianity and democracy are created by rejecting ‘pie in the sky when you die’, highly spiritualized understandings of salvation. Several political theologies situate democracy within a broader incarnate soteriology that incorporates pursuit of freedom and justice here and now as part of anticipating and bearing witness to the coming kingdom of God. Exemplary of this line of argument is the work of Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez (b. 1928). For Gutiérrez, liberation is a synonym for the biblical vision of salvation. He understands liberation to have three dimensions: (1) forms of political, economic, and social liberation that eliminate the immediate causes of material poverty and injustice; (2) liberation from all forms of alienation that limit the capacity of humans to develop themselves freely and in dignity; and finally (3) the liberation from selfishness and sin that leads to re-establishing communion with God, other people, and the rest of creation (Gutiérrez 1988: 20–21). A holistic view of salvation encompasses all these elements. For Gutiérrez, the task of the church is to denounce every de-humanising situation that is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberation. At the same time, it announces the gospel message that the love of the Father calls all persons in Christ through the action of the Spirit to union among themselves and communion with God (Gutiérrez 1988: 150–156). Since democratic politics is the primary means through which to pursue liberation in its first dimension, and is central to its realization in its second dimension, there is no salvation outside of democratic means. Variations on this kind of argument can be heard in the North American feminist theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether, the German political theology of Jürgen Moltmann, the South African liberation theology of Allan Boesak, the Dalit liberation theology of Arvind Nirmal, the Palestinian liberation theology of Naim Ateek, and the Korean minjungshinhak or peoples’ theology of Nam-dong Suh and David Kwangsun Suh.

Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Deotis Roberts (1927–2022) represent a somewhat different way of enfolding democratic social practices into participating in salvation (Roberts 2005; King 1986). Rather than liberation, King and Roberts focus on reconciliation and beloved community as the primary motifs of salvation. Nonviolent democratic politics, exemplified in the actions of the civil rights movement, bear witness to and enact beloved community. Challenging injustice and seeking to convert enemies into friends through nonviolent democratic means is a way of witnessing to the reconciliation of all things in Christ, a deeper reality than the violence which opposes it.

Variations of this family of six arguments, each of which overlaps to varying degrees, represent the primary modern arguments for democracy as embodying central Christian confessions.

5 Conclusion

As should be clear, the relationship between Christianity and democracy is complex. Christianity can be aligned with anti-democratic movements and systems (e.g. chattel slavery) just as easily as with democratic ones (e.g. the abolition and civil rights movements). There is no clear or straightforward line of historical development, let alone progress. However, there is a closely intertwined history where pursuit of faithful belief and practice often generates radically democratic social practices. In addition, Christianity plays a formative role in the emergence of modern liberal-democratic nation-states. As set out here, democracy embodies in practice – and enshrines as a means of statecraft – core elements of Christian belief and practice. Moreover, democracy, both as a set of social practices and a system of government, finds powerful warrant in the Bible, which has been turned to consistently in order to foster a democratic social imaginary, both by Christians and non-Christians.

As stated at the outset, democracy does not require Christianity to exist. However, it is plausible that there is a reciprocal, synergistic relationship between them such that faithful Christianity is best practiced through and generates democratic social practices, while democracy as a form of modern statecraft needs something like Christianity to be healthy and well-functioning. Democratic politics becomes pitiless if it fails to cultivate virtue, modes of care, and moral vision, and denies the human need for rest, play, and contemplation. Conversely, the pursuit of virtue, moral vision, care for those we love, as well as rest, play, and contemplation without any broader conception and engagement in democratic politics is pitiful. Other than a turn towards violence (which destroys the things it seeks to defend), it has no means to protect and pursue the very relationships and activities it loves and values most in the face of either their instrumentalization, commodification, or repression. Democratic politics thus conceived is a work of neighbour love. Absent love, it does not work.


Copyright Luke Bretherton ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Addams, Jane. 2001. Democracy & Social Ethics: An Introduction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
    • Barth, Karl. 2004. Community, State, and Church: Three Essays. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Bretherton, Luke. 2019. Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
    • Dorrien, Gary. 2018. Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. And the Black Social Gospel. New Haven: Yale University Press.
    • de Gruchy, John. 1995. Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Gregory, Eric. 2008. Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Hauerwas, Stanley, and Romand Coles. 2008. Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Hirst, Paul. 1994. Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance. Cambridge: Polity.
    • Kaplan, Temma. 2015. Democracy: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Kingdon, Robert. 1991. ‘Calvinism and Resistance Theory, 1550–1580’, in The Cambridge History of Political Thought: 1450–1700. Edited by J. H. Burns and M. Goldie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 194–218.
    • Maritain, Jacques. 1980. Christianity & Democracy. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries.
    • Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1945. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defenders. London: Nisbet & Co.
    • Pui-Lan, Kwok. 2021. Postcolonial Politics and Theology: Unraveling Empire for a Global World. Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox Press.
    • Rogers, Melvin. 2023. The Darkened Light: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
    • Simon, Yves. 1951. Philosophy of Democratic Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Wolin, Sheldon. 2006. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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