What does Christianity say about democracy?

Know ye, that in the presence of God, and for the salvation of our own soul, … to the exaltation of the Holy Church, and the amendment of our kingdom, we spontaneously of our own free will, do give and grant to … all of our kingdom, these under-written liberties to be held in our realm of England forever.

You may recognise this as part of the introduction to Magna Carta – the Great Charter of liberties first agreed by King John with his disgruntled barons in 1215, and subsequently made part of statute law in England in 1297 by his grandson Edward I. Less well known is that the original version included a security clause, under which a committee of twenty-five barons were to hold the king to account by force in honouring the charter. Predictably enough this led quickly to war and was dropped from later versions. However, Magna Carta was still being cited 400 years later by Parliamentarians who asserted the rights of Parliament against the prerogatives of the Crown. They made deft use of Parliament’s power of taxation to insist that James I and his son Charles I abandon their presumption of ‘divine right’ and submit the administration of government to a much greater measure of Parliamentary scrutiny and control.

This wasn’t democracy of course. Depending how you define it – and we’ll get onto that – Great Britain didn’t extend the Parliamentary franchise to the whole adult population until the early 20th century – to men aged over 21 in 1918 and to women on an equal basis in 1928. But it was at least accountability of the government to, well, people other than the government, which was a start.

This idea that government ought to be accountable in some way for its conduct has a long history in Western thinking, one in which Christianity has had a big part to play. From the earliest times, beginning with St Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 13, civil authority has been regarded by Christians as ‘God’s servant’ (Romans 13:1-7), appointed by God and accountable to God – an accountability which churchmen in the Middle Ages had little hesitation in presuming to mediate. It was commonplace for bishops and abbots of that time to remind kings that they held their high office not by their own merits but by the goodness of God, and that he expected them to do what is right and uphold his law. This included pursuing peace and justice, caring for the weak, and observing personal morality and piety – including, naturally enough, generous patronage of the Church. Kings themselves would dutifully adopt the forms of this putative divinely ordained order, styling their titles and dignities as held ‘by the grace of God’, a phrase still used by the British monarchy to this day.

It was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who drafted Magna Carta and brokered the peace between king and barons for which it served as the treaty. And four centuries later it was zealous Puritans and other Protestant Calvinists who were foremost among the Parliamentarians calling for the reigns of James I and Charles I to be subject to greater Parliamentary oversight and control. John Calvin himself was an early and influential proponent of Presbyterian forms of church governance, under which committees of leaders appointed by and accountable to their local churches replaced the monarchical office of bishop. These and other more radical Reformation trends in church governance, such as Congregationalism, informed and inspired many advocates of reform in civil governance over the years as states moved away from absolute monarchy towards more republican, constitutional and parliamentary forms.

Still none of this was democracy, though, and indeed when the British Parliament did begin its slow move towards democratic forms of election, in 1832 with the first Reform Act, Church of England bishops largely opposed it. While Reformation ideals of universal biblical literacy and the priesthood of all believers were certainly key drivers in the social changes which led eventually to the widening of the franchise throughout the Christian West, many prominent Reformers, such as Tyndale and Luther, expressly favoured authoritarian forms of government. Even the United States’ Founding Fathers, though emphatically committed to accountable government, opposed universal male suffrage and did not abolish property qualifications for electors in the US Constitution – despite the fact that at the time only around six per cent of the US population could vote. It was mainstream elite opinion until well into the 19th century that democracy was disorderly and subversive, and basically incompatible with basic rights and liberties, such as property rights.

Accountability, then, isn’t necessarily democratic, and those who have favoured accountable government historically have often resolutely opposed its more democratic forms, preferring to limit the franchise to a propertied and educated elite, and to rely on courts and a balance of powers to hold the sovereign power to account. Similarly, democracy isn’t necessarily all about accountability – direct rule by citizens in the form of plebiscites, referenda and citizen assemblies is also a valid form of democracy, and indeed, is the original form.

Before going any further, then, let us stop and consider what exactly this thing is that we call democracy. For democratic forms of government come in many different guises in modern states, reflecting a host of divergent responses to key questions about what democracy actually is and what it means in practice. Questions such as, how much is democracy about letting the majority always get its way and how much about seeking consensus? How should the voices of minorities be represented? What kinds of matters should be put to direct public vote and how often? Which public offices should be elected? How much discretion should representatives have in governing on the people’s behalf, and in what ways should they be held to account? What does it mean to represent people anyway – are we representing opinions, interests, communities, demographics, or something else? What role for political parties? What is the best and most democratic electoral system? What principles should be placed above democratic decision – what are our fundamental rights – and in what ways should that be done? What role for judges and the courts?

These are all important questions and in practice they all need answers. What I want to focus in on today though is what the essence of democracy is. What is its fundamental principle, its driving force? The answer is equality. You may already know that the word democracy comes directly from the Greek for people power or ‘rule of the people’, and the Greeks who coined the term were clear what it meant: a democracy was a polity in which all citizens had an equal say in the governing of the state. For them this meant that the assembly of all citizens was the highest power in the city – the term originated in city states like Athens – and if it was necessary for tasks to be entrusted into the hands of a few then those few must be selected by lot, on a rotation basis, so that every citizen was equally eligible for them – as we still select juries today. What it didn’t mean, and this is where our own systems most differ from original democracy, was selecting government officials by election. Why? Because elections necessarily involve assessing the relative merits of the different candidates in order to select the best person for the job. Doubtless this seems fair enough to us, but to the Greeks this meant that the office was no longer to be filled on the basis of equality and equal eligibility, and so was no longer democratic.

This is not to say of course that elections cannot be in any sense democratic. Plainly, if voting is open to all citizens and all citizens are eligible to stand then that is as democratic as an election can be. But even so, the actual idea of electing a person to an office because they are deemed best qualified for it is itself not a democratic one, because it is based on what makes that person better than everyone else for that office, not what makes them equal. It is based on superiority, not equality – albeit a superiority made subject to democratic accountability.

For the Greeks, the principal contrast to democracy was meritocracy – actually they used the term aristocracy, meaning the rule of the best, but to us aristocracy sounds like a hereditary nobility, and our word meritocracy captures better what they meant by it. So, where democracy is based on the principle of equality, giving everyone equal power and equal say in the operation of the state, meritocracy is based on recognising the relevant differences between people in certain respects, and honouring those differences in the way the state is run. These differences might be greater wisdom, knowledge and expertise, a more refined character and sense of taste, or simply having more resources to one’s name. The more these differences of quality are recognised as relevant to the good running of the state, or at least permitted to make their impact on its life, and the less equality is insisted upon as the basis and aim of government, the more meritocratic the state is and the less democratic.

Now, I imagine many will hear this and respond by trying to explain how meritocracy is democratic really and the contrast being drawn here is a false one. But that is to make the modern mistake of equating democratic government with legitimate government, as though we must somehow defend everything that we perceive to be democratic and eschew everything that we deem undemocratic, and so must constantly revise our definition of democracy so that it includes all the things we agree with and none that we don’t. But that is to turn democracy into an ideology, rather than a useful category for clear thinking about the different forms of government. In reality, democracy is a particular form of government with particular features that derive from its underlying principle of equality, and those features might be good or bad – democracy is not itself the yardstick of all that is good and right. The chief contrast to democracy is meritocracy, which emphasises quality rather than equality, and which sees government respect the presence and influence of various relevant differences between people, such as wisdom and expertise.

Applying then this conceptual framework to our own system of government, we see how it is by no means a pure democracy, but a blend of democratic and meritocratic modes of operation. We call it democracy – representative democracy, indeed – and that is not inaccurate, as long as we remember that it is not merely democracy, but is a mixture of democracy and other principles, especially meritocracy. Thus our elections are democratic in terms of electorate, but we still expect our lawmakers and government ministers to be well-qualified for their weighty tasks – an expectation that invariably results in rule by a political and cultural elite, a constant source of tension in democratic countries. We also respect property rights and allow wealth to play a large role in our society and elections, as well as respecting various forms of qualification for public positions such as education, training, expertise and character.

Good arguments can be made, and often have been, that Christianity stands four-square behind this blended mixture of political principles. Such a system has the virtue of recognising the equality of all people, created in the image of God, with dignity, freedom and responsibility, while at the same time respecting the place of universal standards of truth and justice in government as well as recognising the formal requirements of an effective state.

There are some standard arguments for and against democracy which it will be helpful to mention here, to flesh out our understanding of why government should be democratic and for what reasons the democratic principle might need to be limited. Democracy is valued essentially because it is deemed to respect important public goods, not least the full political significance of human equality, the benefits to society of spurring the whole population to public engagement, the moral necessity of enabling people to defend and advance their own interests, and the added check that popular accountability places on the corruption and authoritarian tendencies of rulers and elites. Recognised drawbacks or weaknesses of democracy include an over-emphasis on equality at the expense of socially and morally relevant qualities that distinguish people, a risk of majoritarian populism that disregards unwelcome truths, the rights of minorities and other claims of justice, a propensity to blinkered short-termism, and a proliferation of expensive and socially divisive political campaigns.

Given these opposing considerations, then, a form of government which blends democracy and meritocracy can, if realised well, retain the best and avoid the worst of democratic and meritocratic forms, and satisfy as far as is possible the human yearning for an optimal political regime.

But precisely how much democracy and how much meritocracy should go into this optimal balanced mixture? Does our country right now have too much equality or not enough, and of what kinds? It’s very difficult to answer this question in the abstract. How just and wise it would be to pursue further equality in any given area depends on many factors, and Christians will have much to contribute to any discussion on this – though we may not all agree on what that is. Consider the recent EU referendum: where you stand on that, and on related issues currently exercising Western electorates such as immigration, will have a strong effect on whether you think more or less democracy is the right thing right now.

In general a good rule of thumb is always to aim for the maximum measure of equality consistent with the other claims of justice, truth and wisdom one acknowledges. In some ways this idea has always been central to Christian social philosophy – consider how Magna Carta made provision for liberties for ‘all our kingdom’ and explicitly added that all the enumerated liberties were to be honoured not only by the king but also by ‘all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, … in their relations with their own men.’ But clearly what was deemed to be the full measure of equality consistent with justice and wisdom in 1215 has changed considerably today. Yet it would be a mistake to think that therefore progress is always and everywhere about the increase of equality and the erasure of differences in quality. Justice requires the balancing and blending of the various valid moral claims, of quality and equality, and that is no less true in the 21st century than it was in the 13th.

I hope then that I haven’t disappointed anyone by not offering the definitive Christian answer to any of the questions I have raised here in this piece. But I do hope I‘ve succeeded in giving you some helpful insights for thinking through issues around democracy and government as a Christian and, more broadly, as a publicly engaged citizen.

(A version of this post was delivered as a Lent talk in March.)

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)


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